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Devin D. Thorpe
Devin Thorpe

Entrepreneur Mends Communities To Reduce Violence

This post was originally produced for Forbes.

Colleen Copple, a social entrepreneur from what was once a gang-threatened neighborhood in Salt Lake City, is threading the needle between people that fear the police and the cops who protect them. She has created a business mending communities to reduce violence of all kinds.

Copple is the C0-Founder of Strategic Applications International or SAI as well as of Servant Forge, a nonprofit that provides similar services in Africa. SAI tackles “society’s greatest challenges through comprehensive systems change that mobilizes communities” to address problems like crime, violence, substance abuse, human trafficking, poverty, racism, gender-based violence, and other related issues.

In about 1990, Copple was living in the Glendale neighborhood of Salt Lake City when a sudden rash of gang violence erupted, related to closure of one of the city’s four high schools. Drive-by shootings increased from 1 to 200 from one year to the next.

Copple, still in her twenties, was serving on the local school board and felt responsible to do something about the crime in her neighborhood. She organized the community, worked with the police and helped to restore peace to her neighborhood.

With her husband, James Copple, she launched SAI in 2004, after serving with the National Crime Prevention Council to replicate her Salt Lake success across the country.

Today, SAI generates $1 million annually and generates a gross profit of $250,000, she says. The firm generates its revenue with two models, first, providing services to clients who pay to develop greater capacity to deal with crime, violence and other social issues. Separately, the firm tackles other problems independently using grant funding from the Department of Justice or Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration.

Copple sees herself as a social entrepreneur. “We definitely see ourselves as a social enterprise, but this is where we tend to cross over with our non-profit arm as well. Servant Forge (501 (c) (3) is the umbrella for a lot of our pro-bono and humanitarian work, especially in Africa.”

“We are mission driven,” she continues. “We tend to price ourselves below market because many of our clients are starting from a position of need, they are trying to solve a social issue and we are seeking to build their funding base and capacity to reach their full potential. We teach communities and clients how to organize, mobilize, map, and tackle tough problems. How to be servant leaders with vision, skills and capacity to make a measurable difference in the world. We measure our success by how much we or our clients impact an issue, a community, or a problem.”

Recently, SAI served as the logistical and technical assistance provider for President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which issued its report in May of 2015. Its findings and recommendations are more relevant than ever given the recent events including mass shootings of both civilians and law enforcement officers.

Laurie Robinson, Co-Chair of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, praised SAI’s work. She noted that, “The Task Force–in the aftermath of the events in Ferguson, Missouri–was operating on a very short timeline to develop recommendations for the White House.” There was a lot of work to do with a task force of 11 people who didn’t know one another. “But SAI easily rose to that challenge, handling the logistics with skill, grace, efficiency and good humor.”

Colleen Copple, courtesy of Strategic Applications International

Colleen Copple, courtesy of Strategic Applications International

Copple sees the problems of gun violence both from the perspective of the community and from the vantage point of law enforcement. She highlights mental illness as one of the big factors driving the sort of mass shootings and violence against police officers seen recently; she attributed both of the recent police mass shootings to mental health issues.

She noted that virtually everyone agrees that more should be done to help the mentally ill, but Congress has funded any new programs. Even then, she notes, it is extremely difficult to screen for mental health issues that should prevent someone from owning a gun.

She said that blacks are about three times more likely to be killed by the police than whites, but attributed this to “implicit bias, not overt bias.”

Copple is proud that the President’s Report she helped guide, was issued with “100 percent consensus” among a broad group of participants. The participants included law enforcement, community leaders and academics and they solicited input from a wide range of sources, she says.

The key theme of the report is the idea of community policing. She says, it is important to create “a guardian mentality versus a warrior mentality” among law enforcement. She wants police officers to “see themselves in a higher role.”

In Salt Lake City, Detective Dennis McGowan of the Public Relations Unit, agrees. “We can’t do our jobs without the community. We are part of the community.” He went on to explain that the Police Department has formed committees that give direct access to the Police Chief to community members, including activists who don’t agree with police tactics.

The challenge there is that there are 750,000 law enforcement officers in the country in 18,000 agencies. A lot of training and retraining will be required.

SAI is working to address global issues. Copple recognizes that SAI’s small scale limits their ability to drive change, but by working with the Justice Department, the US Conference of Mayors and with Black Lives Matter, they are able to extend their natural reach dramatically.

Copple says that community policing tactics can reduce crime by up to 80 percent. “Dialog, communication and relationships, especially with he most vulnerable, least likely to feel they have good relationships with law enforcement,” are key to her vision for the future.

Copple has come a long way from her days in working to resolve crime in her own neighborhood 25 years ago to have impact on crime and policing not only across the country but internationally as well.

On Thursday, July 21, 2016 at 1:00 Eastern, Copple will join me here for a live discussion from where she is working in Nairobi, Kenya to talk about her journey as a social entrepreneur and her work to reduce violence.

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