Police oversight in Boulder: Where we are and where we might be going

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Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019

City council on Tuesday will vote on plans to overhaul the way residents oversee Boulder’s police department, particularly in cases of alleged misconduct. The vote will cap a months-long process sparked by an incident that drew national attention and concern about how the city’s residents of color are treated by cops.

The meeting will include a chance for members of the public to weigh in. Here’s a review of how we got here and what’s being considered Tuesday:

How we got here: On March 1, police confronted Zayd Atkinson, a black Naropa student, while he was picking up trash outside his Boulder apartment. Multiple officers responded to the scene, and at least one weapon was drawn. Many community members felt the incident was racially motivated, or the belief that Atkinson was unhoused.

The responding officer eventually resigned. Two investigations — one internal to the police department and one conducted by an independent consultant — found no evidence of racial profiling.

More than 600 people attended a March rally to call for increased oversight of Boulder’s police department to supplement departmental misconduct investigations as well as a wider look into policing policies to make them more equitable. Boulder, like elsewhere, has racial disparities in police stops and arrests: People of color are more likely to be stopped and jailed than white residents, multiple data analyses have found.

The city council also held well-attended a listening session on racism. In response to community demands, elected officials directed City Manager Jane Brautigam to form a citizen task force to research various methods of civilian police oversight. The group has been working for the past five months and presented findings at an Oct. 10 study session.

What kind of oversight council is voting on: The task force presented two models of increased oversight:

Auditor/monitor: The city would hire a staff member separate from the police department. This individual would report to the city managers office or, with a change in Boulder’s charter, the council itself; both options were discussed. Responsibilities could include reviewing internal investigations into alleged misconduct as well as taking a broad look at policies and trends with an eye toward equitable, systemic change.

Independent investigation: In cases of alleged misconduct, particularly around Class 1 violations, an outside firm or individual would be hired to conduct an investigation, secondary to the interdepartmental investigation.

Class 1 misconduct includes allegations of acceptance of bribe or gratuity, commission of a crime, controlled substance violations, intoxicated on duty, excessive force, and misuse of police powers. From 2014-2018, 19 total Class 1 investigations were conducted within Boulder PD: 58% were from complaints within the department; the rest were public complaints. Two complaints involved alleged bias.

Both of these models would be combined with an oversight panel made up of community members, particularly those impacted by police bias. A police liaison would sit on this group as well.

A majority of the task force recommended the auditor/monitor model, though members said both options would bring increased transparency and accountability to the community. Most council members were split or ambivalent about the models. Bob Yates, Lisa Morzel and Cindy Carlisle expressed a preference for the independent investigation model.

Members of the Boulder Police Department, including the interim chief and the president of the cops’ union, testified that they would prefer the auditor/monitor model. A majority of council then backed it as the preferred option. Mayor Suzanne Jones suggested that the city could possibly hire an independent investigator in cases of major misconduct or widespread community concern, further hybridizing the models.

Pros and cons of the two options: With an auditor/monitor, Boulder would have someone whose job it is to look at policies and data with an eye toward equity, identifying trends and recommending broad changes. A consultant brought in just to review misconduct would not  have the same focus.

There was some concern among a minority of the task force that this person would lack the true independence of a hired consultant; though not part of the police department, this staff member would work with cops closely, creating the possibility of “bond and bias,” said task force member Michele Denae.

Council was also concerned that much of the responsibility for change would lie on this auditor/monitor. As staff and not an elected official, there wouldn’t be as much accountability to the community, members argued.

The auditor/monitor could be put under the authority of city council, creating a more direct link to the public. That would require a change of the city charter, necessitating a vote of the people. Some council members argued that while it would make elected officials responsible for the success or failure of the position, it could also politicize it.

What happens next: After Tuesday’s vote, implementation details still need to be worked out, such as who will sit on the committee to pick members of the civilian oversight panel. The task force recommended that area nonprofits who deal with impacted populations (LGBTQ, people of color, unhoused residents, disabled individuals, etc.) select representatives for that committee. City council could recommend what those nonprofits would be; council members also requested that the city’s Human Relations Commission be involved in some way.

However Boulder moves forward, taking elements of any of the ideas presented by the task force will offer a better way forward than what currently exists, said member Shawna Rae Passalacqua. Passalacqua uses them/they pronouns.

“Both models offer independence … and the capacity to build community healing,” they said. “That element is very, very important that both models can offer.”

City council meeting: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 29 1777 Broadway.

Sign-ups to speak at this public hearing open at 5 p.m. and remain open throughout the hearing.

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle

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