Five years later, we hear from Zayd Atkinson, the Naropa student who sparked creation of Boulder Police Oversight Panel

Image from bodycam footage of Zayd Atkinson being surrounded by Boulder Police officers after being accused of trespassing.

This month marks the fifth anniversary of an infamous incident involving the Boulder Police. On March 1, 2019, 26-year-old Black Naropa University student Zayd Atkinson was picking up trash outside his home in Boulder when he was approached by a Boulder police officer, John Smyly, who suspected him of trespassing.

After telling the officer that he lived in the building and giving the officer his school ID,  Smyly pursued Atkinson. As Atkinson continued to pick up trash, Smyly began to threaten Atkinson. He told Atkinson to sit down and that he could be arrested. Smyly pointed his stun gun and then his firearm at Atkinson.

As Zayd insisted that he lived at the building and was not trespassing, Smyly called a Code 2 for police backup, indicating a risk of serious injury to a person or damage to property. He reported that Atkinson was holding a “blunt object”, referring to the tool that Atkinson was using to pick up trash.

Within less than 10 minutes, nine white officers surrounded Atkinson as he stood at the doorway to his apartment building.

Subject Officer Body Camera Video March 1, 2019, from City of Boulder on Vimeo.

After bodycam footage of the incident went viral, people nationwide criticized Boulder Police for racial profiling and excessive police response. The confrontation became a part of the larger conversation about police conduct and racial injustice in America, especially in the context of the George Floyd protests and the broader Black Lives Matter movement.

Boulder police concluded that Smyly had violated two department policies but found no evidence to support a claim of racial profiling. Smyly resigned before the disciplinary process ended, and as part of a settlement with the city, he remained under city employment until February while exhausting accrued holiday, sick, and administrative leave.

In Boulder, the incident led to calls for a new model of police oversight,  resulting in the creation of a new position and an 11-member civilian panel to oversee complaints against officers. The city of Boulder and Atkinson settled any civil claims involving the incident, with both parties expressing a desire to focus on healing for both the community and Atkinson.

Five years later, controversy over how to police the Police Oversight Panel continues to slow its progress. The city is facing a lawsuit from a former member who was pushed to resign after claims that she was too “anti-police.”

Meanwhile, Zayd Atkinson joined KGNU’s Sam Fuqua to reflect on his life in the 5 years since Smyly approached him.


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    ZadeAtkinson_interview Alexis Kenyon

To start, can you talk about the impact this incident five years ago had on your life then and how it still impacts you today?

Zayd Atkinson: Absolutely. It was tragic and earth-shattering, a wake-up call to me. I took a bit of a downward spiral and lost a lot due to my lack of self-control and the trauma I was facing at the time. I wasn’t really able to process what was happening in the world, in our communities, and with me.

I felt like I put myself aside for many years to serve the community, our environment, and people and living entities. I was, and still am, quite obsessive about service and the idea of serving the people and the planet. Although I was taking decent care of myself, I wasn’t giving myself enough time, and in reality, I didn’t have the time.

I had a savior mentality, save the world, and I still have similar mentalities, but now I’m attempting to apply myself now that I’m in a better place. Not that there wasn’t any application then. But like I said, I didn’t really have a lot of time for myself, and now I’m just hoping to find a suitable job in both of my careers in yoga and environmental studies.

This year is really all about me and my growth and my creativity and just giving it all to serve the planet and its inhabitants in whatever ways that I have skills to do so.

So, in 2019, that really sounds like it pushed you intensely into activism and sometimes that can maybe lead to burnout.

Zayd Atkinson: Yeah, absolutely. And it wasn’t like I wasn’t already engaged in work. But to have that amount of pressure, which I felt I had, to take responsibility for what I had been involved with, I think it just shifted my direction and my energy in a way that I wasn’t really paying attention to myself and yeah, you reach points where you hit walls where you just don’t have the energy to go over.

So, just remembering my practice and going back to what I learned as a yogi and just making sure that I take care of myself has been really the most important thing, especially since graduation in ’22.

 Well, I’m glad you’re back on track, and yoga can help. Well, I want to ask you, after the incident in 2019 and again after the 2020 Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd, the Boulder City Council, the police chief said they were committed to reform. From your perspective, did they follow through on that commitment?

Zayd Atkinson: Right. So, I mean, everybody has a different idea of what reform means to them and what they want to see with the idea of reform. I’ve seen some changes in their department regarding officer selection. I’ve also seen some changes in the ways that police are responding to the community in some respects.

Yet I’ve also seen and experienced similar, unchanging elements regarding behaviors with the nature of police culture, you know, to lack discernment when engaging with the public most notably with, you know, when their humanities are put aside for the pure purpose of policing, criminalizing human bodies. But again, this is all really what our ideas are regarding reform and also what was proposed by the city of Boulder regarding police reform.

I read a bit of Boulder’s reimagined police plan and, you know, which I believe is Police Chief Harold’s and, you know, the city’s attempt to reduce, quote, “crime before it happens,” which, you know, some find to be a scary quote in general especially when regarding privacy and what it means to be living in a society where neighbors and residents are monitoring each other through policing programs.

So, you know, and I believe this method is called problem-solving policing and some of what I’ve read is really good stuff. You know, I mean, they talk about building trust with community members who’ve been affected by bad policing, developing de-escalation techniques, creating phone apps, collecting data diversity talk.

You know, it’s also quite expensive to implement. So, did the City Council follow through? I mean, I would hope that they would make an attempt and I believe that this plan looks like something like that.

But, you know, we will see if the City Council delivers what is needed for our community and country regarding police reform and if the plan that they do deliver is a plan that we need in this community, then I’m sure that we’ll figure that out sooner than hopefully sooner.


Alexis Kenyon

Alexis Kenyon

Alexis Kenyon is an experienced radio reporter with more than 15 years of experience creating compelling, sound-rich radio stories for news outlets across the country. Kenyon has master's degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism in radio broadcast and photojournalism. She has worked in KGNU's news department since 2021 as a reporter, editor, and daily news producer. In all her work, she strives to produce thought-provoking, trustworthy journalism that makes other people's stories feel personal. In addition to audio production, Kenyon runs KGNU's news internship program and oversees the department's digital engagement.

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