- Janet Pelz
It seems like everyone knows Detective Denise “Cookie” Bouldin, even at the times she hadn’t known herself. In the Chicago projects where she grew up, opportunities to make the wrong choice were a plentiful commodity. But thanks to strict parents and a number of adults who took the time to care, Denise Bouldin learned to know herself. And she’s determined to return the favor those people paid her, in a hundred different ways, every single day.
In a loud and lively lunch spot in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, I wait my turn to say hello to Detective Bouldin. Dressed in police blacks with a purposeful bearing, makeup and nails mastered from her days modeling for Ebony and Jet Magazines, her entrance commands the attention of wait staff and diners alike. She knows someone at every table, shaking hands and patting shoulders, some stopping her proudly to show off their children and grandchildren. She finally takes a seat at my table, but not before her eyes meet most every other pair in the room.
Everybody here knows Detective Cookie.
(photo credit: KING 5 News)
I came to know her after listening to a story about her by Jamala Henderson on our local public radio station KUOW.
I stayed in the car until the piece was over and scribbled a note to myself. It took a while to track her down and find a time to squeeze into her schedule for a quick lunch between two elementary school classroom visits where, as a community relations worker for the Seattle Police Department, she delivers lessons in anti-violence. And chess.
It started like this. A while back she was given the task to organize an activity for kids in the neighborhood – something healthy for them to do while interacting with the police in a positive way. So Officer Cookie organized a basketball game between the neighborhood kids and a police team. It was a rousing success. The kids outlasted their grown-up opponents and relished the chance to rub it in.
So, when time came around the following year for another activity, she assumed she’d be organizing a repeat match.
“But the kids said, Officer Cookie, ‘We don’t want to do a basketball game again. Not all of us play basketball.’ And when I thought about it I realized, there were a lot of kids who didn’t play basketball but just sat and watched. So I asked them, what did they want to do? And a few of them said, ‘Let’s have a chess tournament.’ A chess tournament? That’s the last thing I expected to hear. But I’m saying to myself I gotta make this happen, so I said, OK!”
But then what? Officer Cookie didn’t know much about the game and what she did know, she didn’t particularly like.
“As a kid, I was pretty much brainwashed that I wasn’t smart enough for chess. I never saw a black person playing chess. Never. And then someone showed me all the pieces on the board and said, ok this is what this one do and this one do, and I got frustrated ‘cause I kept forgetting. And I said, you know what? I hate this game, I hate it, hate it, hate it. Don’t ever want to play it again,” she declared, hand sweeping the table as if she were clearing the board. “My brain just wasn’t made for chess. And when anyone would try to teach me I would say, I can’t do it, I’ve tried.”
But this was for the kids, not for her. So she went to the Parks Department and got some chess boards and organized a picnic in a local park.
“So, we got ready for the chess tournament and I set up the boards, and to my surprise there were only a couple of kids who knew how to play chess and the rest of them were just standing around watching. (photo from Detective Bouldin)
“I asked the kids, be honest, how come you don’t play chess? And they would answer, ‘I’m not smart enough to play chess. I don’t play because chess is for smart people. Chess is for white people, for nerds.’ I realized that the answers these kids were giving were the same answers I gave for not playing chess. The same reasons!
“Now, I was a real good, set-the-chess-board-up-person. And making sure kids came. But whenever the kids wanted me to play chess I would just mimic their moves. Wherever they moved their piece, I would move my same piece. I had no clue to why or whatever reason it got there and for what purpose.”
She was getting ready for another such match when she heard a little kid whisper to her opponent. “He was about 4 or 5 years old and he said, ‘don’t worry, you’re going to beat Officer Cookie’, and I’m like, oh no he didn’t! No, he did NOT say that! All I could do was laugh, but he was so right!”
So Officer Cookie connected with the American Foundation for Chess, who promised her she would be playing chess in 30 minutes or less if she came to one of their trainings.
“So I went. And they taught me chess piece by piece. We started with just pawns. And after about 20 minutes, I was playing chess and I was LOVING it, I could not get enough of it. And I wanted to play chess day and night.”
And the more she played chess with kids in the neighborhood, the more she realized that it was much more than a game.
“I use the chess boards to teach anti-violence and to teach about making good choices. Cause if you don’t make good choices, there will be consequences. If you’re so quick to take somebody’s pawn and you don’t notice that there’s this knight over there hoping you make that move so he can take your queen, it’s going to kill you! Same thing on the streets! You’ve got to make this choice -- do you want to be in a gang? Do you want to pick up a gun and shoot somebody? What are the consequences? I’ve had kids tell me, Detective Cookie, you know, chess is like real life! And when a kid tells me that I know I’m getting through.”
(photo from KING 5 News)
Denise Bouldin knows well what real life is like for these kids.
“In my neighborhood people tried to get me to do drugs, to sell drugs, to do prostitution. I refused to do that, basically because my parents were strict. Back in the day, you knew you would get a whipping -- you wouldn’t get a time-out or spanking, you got a whipping. After you get one, you don’t want to get another. That’s not to say I didn’t try. Some times I would meet my friends dressed in hoochie-mama clothes,” she confesses, arching her eyebrows to make sure I knew just what she was saying.
A young Denise showed up once at the local Boys and Girls Club wearing some super-tight pants when an older woman pulled her aside to offer some advice. “She said, you know what? You’re not that type of person. Because of your clothes, it’s going to make people think different of you. She gave me a long talk about it. Back then, everybody could say something to a kid; everybody was your parent. I tell people today, talk to kids, cause sometimes just saying something can make a difference like it did with me.
“I trusted what this lady said and I never dressed like that again. I started thinking about how other people would see me. It made me realize, I had friends who were gang members, but I wasn’t in the gang. I didn’t want to be seen like that so I had to give up some of my friends. Someone could come by in a drive-by shooting, they’re not going to tell me to move aside because I’m not in the gang. They just shoot.”
When Detective Cookie addresses third graders at a south end elementary school, she shares this life history with kids who sit up straight, hands folded on their desks, listening intently.
“There’s going to be times when someone is going to ask you to do drugs -- by the time you get to high school, maybe even middle school. You will have to be ready with your answer. If you have a weak ‘no’ they’ll hear that as a ‘maybe’. Don’t be afraid to say no; you have the right to say no; you have a right to mean no. Make your no mean no.”
And then Detective Cookie gets out the chess boards. Quietly, the group divides into pairs and sets up. The kids have all learned the lesson of the first move – reaching across the board to shake hands. And then they get started. Most of the students seem to have a good command of the game. Solid moves and captured pieces activate the classroom. The few who are still learning the game work together in one corner where Detective Cookie circles back frequently to answer questions.
In the school hallways the kids smile at her and wave. “Hi Detective Cookie!” is offered down the line. She knows these kids and she knows their families. If one of them misbehaves in school she’s got the family’s number on speed dial in her cell phone, and she’s not afraid to use it.
This kind of police work has earned the recognition of many notables. In 2011 U. S. Senator Patty Murray awarded Detective Bouldin a “Golden Tennis Shoes” award. In accepting the honor, Detective Cookie used the podium to inform the crowd the chess club would be coming to an end due to lack of funding. Read this clip from The Stranger about her moving address.
In 2011 she received a Community Builder Award from the Seattle Neighborhood Group. In 2010 she was chosen as the Best Police Officer by the Rainier Valley Post.
Becoming a police officer would surprise the people she grew up with. Back then cops were rarely your friend. “I hated the police, just like everybody else. I thought all police harassed young black people.”
(photo credit: Red Fish Blue Fish Photography)
But when she got to high school, “I met a police officer who was at our school everyday, it was his assignment -- and this police officer was the nicest person. You could go up and talk with him. That’s when I started thinking I might want to be a police officer like him, interacting with people.”
Success in the Seattle Police Department didn’t come easily. “When I came to the Academy they thought I was sort of joke, because I didn’t look like a police officer. When I went to my personnel interview I dressed like my other job -- a professional model. I was in my modeling clothes; make-up perfectly done.”
There was one white woman in her Academy class along with about 25 men. And one African American woman in the entire Seattle Police Department.
After she graduated she learned that her classmates had placed bets that she would fail. “The ones betting against me didn’t make it through the Academy themselves! What they didn’t know, I’m from Chicago, I got five brothers, I’m street smart, very street smart, I’m athletic, I’m a tomboy.”
After the Academy she had to make it through training. Although she met some encouraging officers along the way, “some were trying to get me to quit. We would sit down for coffee and they would tell jokes about the white man, the china man and the black man, and always the black man would get the butt of the joke. I didn’t say anything, all I wanted to do was to get through. One guy wrote me up for taking too long to do my report. He didn’t mention that before we got to the precinct he had us running all over town picking up his laundry and all his other jobs.
“I had a supervisor tell me the same thing, I took too long on my call. But you have to realize what I’m doing! This old lady got in a car accident, it totaled her car. I’m waiting until the tow truck comes to get it and I’m not going to leave this little old lady ‘til the cab comes to get her. We once did a raid on a house and I stayed a little longer because I saw that there were kids in the house with no food, so I went out to get some. And then I volunteered to take the kids to child protective service so they could get in a foster home. It takes me a little longer because I’m not going to leave until the job is done.”
(KOMO TV: see the full clip here)
Detective Cookie finally made it through training, and this day over her lunch order delivered to the nodding waiter as ‘my regular’, she realized she had just passed her 32 year anniversary on the force.
“I tell kids, you gotta start planning your roads now. What you want to be way down that road to success -- start that road right now. Even if you’ve done some wrong things in the past, you can make a change right now. I stopped hanging with people doing the wrong things, and it allowed me to become a police officer. “
As a police officer Detective Cookie has experienced some of her proudest moments. She was a body guard to Rosa Parks when the civil rights leader spoke at Garfield High School. “And I was one of the Seattle Police Officers on security detail for the inauguration of President and First Lady Obama. I had tears running down my eyes. I got a beautiful gold badge. This is something I will cherish for my whole life.”
Look for an upcoming column on Detective Cookie along with directions for how to support her Urban Chess Program.