Wellesley Alum Works to Reshape Policing

Julia Yoo ’92
Author  Katie Noah Gibson
Published on 

As a lawyer, Julia Yoo ’92 has focused much of her career on protecting the rights of people who have been mistreated by police, including people experiencing incarceration, homelessness, and mental health crises. In her new role as president of the National Police Accountability Project (NPAP), Yoo will take that work to the national level.

With more than 500 members, NPAP promotes accountability for law enforcement officers and strategies for ending police brutality. It is, Yoo acknowledges, a daunting and complicated task.

“Inequities in this country are a complex problem that requires a comprehensive solution,” she said. “NPAP trains our members and gives them tools to succeed. We also educate the public and work with our coalition partners so that members of our communities can have their voices heard.”

To advance NPAP’s mission, Yoo says, the organization needs a variety of voices. “The solution to criminal justice problems needs the input and participation of the public,” she said. “Promoting common-sense solutions to policing problems and working on legislation will ultimately ensure fundamental fairness and justice for everyone.”

Yoo, who is based in San Diego, joined NPAP at the beginning of her career. “Like most civil rights lawyers, I learned very quickly that you can’t manage police misconduct cases without the support and the expertise of these trailblazers who are leaders in the civil rights movement,” she said of the organization.

After graduating from the University of Colorado’s law school, Yoo founded the Law Center for Women Prisoners, a nonprofit that assists and advocates for incarcerated women. Her cases often focus on victims of law enforcement misconduct, including teenagers, immigrants, and people with disabilities. During her career, she has co-authored three briefs filed with the U.S. Supreme Court and nearly a dozen amicus briefs in appellate courts around the U.S.

As discussions about systemic racism and police brutality in the U.S. intensify, Yoo believes NPAP can play a critical role in police reform. “My top priority externally is to shepherd meaningful reform across the country, whether it is legislatively or through community organizing,” she said. “We provide our subject matter expertise to federal and state legislators who want to implement reforms in the criminal and civil justice systems that address racial inequities. We work with coalitions like the one led by Ben and Jerry, the ice cream legends, to end qualified immunity, which is tremendously harmful to victims of police violence.”

Yoo is proud of NPAP’s work, but she says the organization can do more—both externally and within its own ranks. “I want to reach out to those who have not traditionally been seen as allies in the civil rights movement, from faith communities of all denominations to people in law enforcement. We have to think more globally and more creatively if we want to not just step forward, but leap forward,” she said.

Yoo also believes the leadership of NPAP should reflect the organization’s broader goals: to provide a more equitable experience of the justice system for Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity. “I would like to encourage and support those members who have not considered leadership roles,” she said. As the only woman of color to have served on NPAP’s board of directors and to lead the organization, she understands that being a trailblazer can be intimidating. But, she said, “leaders are not always born; they are encouraged.”

Yoo’s years at Wellesley taught her that lesson. “Being at Wellesley normalizes women as leaders and women as being powerful,” she said. In an area of law dominated by men, she said, “it never crosses my mind that I should in some way be intimidated.”