When 21-year-old Cal State football star Ron Settles died in the custody of the Signal Hill Police Department in 1981, it lit a fire for his aunt Madelyn Strong Woodley.
Police said Settles hanged himself. But a coroner’s jury later found he died “at the hands of another.” Officers would admit to beating Settles during his booking, but pleaded the Fifth Amendment and declined to cooperate with investigators, according to media reports. Prosecutors never filed charges.
The death of her nephew catalyzed Woodley’s social justice work, which has focused on Boulder County since she moved to Longmont from Memphis in 2007. In the years since, the retired executive at FedEx said she has focused on making her Colorado home a more equitable and affirming place. Woodley served on a board advising the City of Longmont on housing issues and is a member of the NAACP Boulder County. She founded ECAACE, the Executive Committee, African American Cultural Events. Last year, the committee organized Boulder County’s first official Juneteenth celebrations.
She retired in 2006 as a senior security executive at FedEx, where she worked with internal security and police officers. “Part of my background is former law enforcement,” she said. “So I certainly am sensitive to the feelings of those that go out and risk their lives daily to protect us. At the same time, it’s important that we have that extra eye, for lack of a better term.”
In 2019, the Boulder City Council appointed Woodley to serve on a task force set up to help create what later became the Police Oversight Panel, a volunteer board that reviews investigations into complaints of officer misconduct. The creation of the panel was prompted by an incident earlier that year, when a Boulder police officer drew his gun on Zayd Atkinson, an unarmed Black Naropa student, who was picking up trash outside his apartment.
After helping create the panel, Woodley will now serve on it. She is among the six new members appointed by the Boulder City Council to the watchdog group in January, following a fraught selection process that has reignited a debate over community policing. The first meeting of the new panel is on March 8.
“I’m told by people who really know me that I’m working harder now than I ever worked when I was being paid,” Woodley said. “My daughter Donna teases me all the time. She says, ‘Ma, I just have to remind you, you’re retired.’
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What drives you to be an advocate for social justice?
The people who are in need, and there are many. I’d like to contribute to stopping the madness.
We can talk about my nephew. He was killed by the Signal Hill Police Department in 1981. He was a 21-year-old blooming superstar football player at Cal State University Long Beach. He got stopped supposedly for speeding … There should be no reason they stopped him on that day. He was on his way to his job at Polytechnic High School. He worked during the lunch period to make sure the kids didn’t fight. And so he was on his way there. He went through Signal Hill, and the next thing we know, they claim he committed suicide.
First of all, he’s never been to jail. He was a sought-after professional. The Dallas Cowboys were among the many that were looking in recruiting him… And so they stopped him saying he was speeding, something like 47 in a 40. Okay. Then they claim that when they stopped him, he got out and he launched at them with a butcher knife. When everybody heard that, everybody had the same reply. And they were like…‘what?’
Ronnie was the nicest, most laid-back, calm, quiet individuals ever. You think he hasn’t been taught better than that by his parents? By his aunts, by his uncles? Do you think for one minute? No.
Before Ronnie there was Geronimo Pratt. Just the number of people who have been murdered senselessly by the police from before to the murder of George Floyd. It hurts me personally. It has not gotten any better. And it’s very painful. It’s hurtful. And what will it take for it to stop? It must stop.
Editor’s note: Parts of this interview were conducted in 2021. According to Mapping Police Violence, a nonprofit that tracks police shootings, in 2022, police killed 1,194 people. Black people accounted for 26% of those who were killed despite making up 13% of the population. Meanwhile, on May 14, 2022, a gunman killed 10 Black people at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York for explicitly racist reasons.
Geronimo Pratt was a Black Panther Party member who spent 27 years in prison before his murder conviction was vacated.
What are some of your early instances of racial justice work in Boulder County?
I’ll go back to 1995 — that’s when I remember my sister, Glenda Robinson, starting celebrations. There were no kinds of celebrations highlighting or celebrating the African American element of Longmont at all. And she started it at her home. She did everything from having an annual celebration where she honored the seniors within Boulder County, particularly Longmont, and those people who were first to work in their respective fields.
One example would be Mrs. Betty Everett, who is still alive and with us today. She was the first African American nurse at Longmont United Hospital.
Also, Mrs. Johnnie Davis, who just passed away in 2020, was the first African American school teacher in Longmont.
Tell me more about the Executive Committee, African American Cultural Events (ECAACE) that you started.
ECAACE was formed as a result of a call-to-action from the community to have events that highlighted and honored African American culture. One of the things I’ve said repeatedly is in Longmont, I am not invisible. I’m here, I’ve been here, I’m not going anywhere. I don’t like feeling invisible or being treated like I don’t exist. And with the many contributions that I make personally – and not just me, but other people along with me that look like me – it’s not ever recognized or acknowledged. And that’s not a good feeling.
Our 2021 Juneteenth Celebration was one of the most significant productions of all because it had not been voted in as a national holiday until that year. If I had one thing to describe for you, one project that I’ve felt was special, but also was challenging, I’d say Juneteenth. That whole project because it was unknown here. Nobody knew about Juneteenth. It was our work that changed that.
What does it mean to you to reimagine policing?
The Reimagining Policing Pledge [a police reform effort spearheaded by the Obama Foundation] is a call for mayors and local officials to review and reform use-of-force policies, redefine public safety and combat systemic racism within law enforcement.
I think everything about our current law enforcement system and its governing methods should be reexamined. Processes, systems and/or procedures that govern practically anything, need to be reviewed on a regularly scheduled basis.
Traffic stops initiated due to expired tags could be handled by another classification of officers. At one time in Memphis, we had a whole different classification and category of police known as PSTs, police technicians. Essentially, they handled non-moving violations, expired tags etc. It was an entry-level position that was mostly used to begin a career in law enforcement. I see no reason for a seasoned police officer to handle such violations – i.e. a one headlight situation, expired tags, etc. Seasoned veteran police officers’ time, knowledge, experience and skills should be better utilized.
The duties and responsibilities definitely need to be redefined. There is no reason why my nephew is no longer with us. They saw a young black man driving a new car, a new TR7 sports car. You know, the hardtop convertible. And the interior was brown, white and black plaid. It was snazzy, it was a beautiful car. He had done well in school and all around. It was coming up on his senior year and he had also done well on the football field. Buying him that car was his parents’ way of rewarding him for doing well and living his life focused and with purpose. It was just a gift they could afford and they proudly rewarded him. That’s why they stopped him on June 2, 1981, essentially he was driving while Black in a new car.
Training is also critical. It’s the thing that should be very, very necessary. Otherwise you’re putting other people at risk.
What do you think of the current draft of the City of Boulder’s police master plan?
I’d like to see it revised. I would like to see an independent group, much like the Boulder Police Oversight Panel, look at it from varied viewpoints. And then those contributors who offered those various viewpoints come together and actually brainstorm and be creative without any preconceived anything, and see what we come up with.
I think it would make everybody feel, including the police officers, more invested in the final product. I think it would also be something that could be enforced. I think some of what’s there is not even enforceable. If you can’t measure it, then how can you enforce it?
Editor’s note: Boulder Police Chief Maris Herold said during a February 2023 meeting with the Boulder City Council that the department is requesting feedback on the master plan from national civil rights groups, including the NAACP. The Boulder City Council is expected to weigh in later this year.
What do you think about the implementation of the Police Oversight Panel?
It’s been a rocky road. There have been some things that were just unfortunate in terms of interpretation of the ordinance. I think that it’s critical that everyone operates with integrity. All of the players must understand their various roles. And then there must be respect for the individuality that has to be inherent in those roles.
What changes would you like to see in the months ahead?
I’m not sure because I’m not there yet.
After you and other panel members were nominated by the oversight panel’s selection committee — which includes the NAACP — some residents and councilmembers questioned their integrity. What do you think about the questioning of the NAACP?
Not very highly, because some said that they thought it was a power play. How could that be when it is the result of the work of the NAACP that the oversight panel even exists? So how is that a power struggle? A power struggle when there is no power?
Why do you want to serve on this panel, given the controversy and the limits of its power?
I don’t think it’s a matter of my wanting — I felt, and I feel, obligated. I think it’s a personal obligation of mine. One, because I was a member from the beginning, from the first meeting up until the last, and now in between.
I think power by definition is grossly misdefined. It’s certainly mistaken. And I think it is misrepresented. I say that because nobody gives you power. You are able to accomplish what you accomplish based on your own decisions to move forward, often against all odds. So in those kinds of circumstances power is what you take. You don’t wait on anybody to give you power.
I have to think about the children. I got to think about our tomorrows. How optimistic are they able to be if they see us acting the way we act? If they’re having to endure the things that they’re having to endure? If Tyre Nichols didn’t make it to 30, I don’t think I have a choice.
I’m obligated to work, and work hard at it, and be as objective, honest and respectful as I possibly can be.
How do you stay optimistic?
I am a Christian born into the AME faith, that’s African Methodist Episcopal. I’ve been taught Christianity my entire life. The denomination is kind of not the most relevant thing because I am a member of the Baptist congregation. Faith, hope and at the base of it all is love. Scripture says, you should love thy neighbor as thyself. We have faith, we have hope, and the greatest of these is love. That’s somewhere in Corinthians.
Our suicide rate among youngsters about this time last year was at an all-time high. I haven’t checked lately. But I feel that happens when there is no hope. You got to know at all times that there’s somebody, something bigger than you and me. You got to believe it because on any given day without hope, anything can happen. It’s very dangerous. Not only do you hurt yourself, people end up turning around and hurting others. That hopelessness is fatal.
Excellent interview with Madelyn Strong Woodley, a very important and active member of the Longmont community. The fact that no member of the police was ever held accountable for her nephew’s murder is enraging. Truly, every community must have some citizen review of its police force.
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