Council wants final say on Boulder’s police oversight panel — and a rebrand

Shay Castle / Boulder Beat

Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020

Boulder city council will mostly likely get final say on which community members will be tasked with reviewing the actions and policies of the police department, via a civilian oversight panel established after years of discriminatory policing culminated in the armed confrontation of a black Naropa student last year.

Council members on Tuesday received an update from the group working to hammer out the details of how such a body will operate, with assistance from the city’s newly hired independent monitor. A public hearing is planned for Nov. 10.

Read a recap of Tuesday night’s discussion

How did we get here?

Zayd Atkinson was approached by officers in March 2019 while he picked up trash outside his Boulder residence, sparking protests and calls for change. Boulder’s documented policing bias pre-dates the incident; a 2014 report from USA Today found that Black residents were five times as likely to be stopped by cops while driving. Subsequent data from 2016 and 2019 found similar disparities

Council in May 2019 set up a group to research methods of increasing civilian oversight of police. The task force made its recommendations in October. Council selected a model that employs a full-time Independent Monitor and preserves the ability for independent investigations in the case of serious misconduct by officers.

Joseph Lipari (who goes by Joey in meetings) was hired as the monitor this July.

What will the board look like?

It will have 11 members — maybe. Some council members felt that was too many to be manageable, but Lipari and members of the team working on implementation said 11 was the right amount to include as many diverse points of view as possible.

Two spots will be reserved for college students, who will serve shorter terms (one year versus three). Members cannot serve more than two terms on the panel.

“We thought it was important to ensure we incorporate college students into this process,” Lipari said, “partly because this process as kicked off because of an interaction with a college student.”

Who will pick the members?

For the inaugural panel, members of the implementation team (who previously served on the task force that researched oversight methods) plus two nonprofits that the team selects. They didn’t say which organizations those might be, only that they should have a “history of serving the community,” said team member Michelle Denae, particularly under-represented groups.

Thereafter, the panel itself will pick new members, again assisted by community nonprofits. 

Council will have a final vote to confirm members, most likely. Members were split over whether or not their say was necessary and proper, or if it should be left to the implementation team.

“There are so many important positions we don’t exercise oversight, so I don’t understand why we’d do it here,” said councilwoman Rachel Friend. “Applicants are going to be pre-screened by the selection committee; we’d only be leaving it open for politicization. … If we really think we’re the best people to make this decision,” then we should do the candidate interviews ourselves and not give a “rubber stamp” to the recommended members.

Others — a majority — argued that council, as elected officials, represented the public’s interest in the process and therefore should be involved. 

“Sometimes council members can see something coming just because of what they’ve heard in the community,” said Mayor Sam Weaver. “We need to hear the feedback” from the community in a public hearing. “Politicization is one thing, but public input is another thing.”

What will the oversight panel be called?

Maybe not the oversight panel. That has been the working title throughout the process — Civilian or Community Oversight Panel — but councilwoman Mary Young suggested removal of the term “oversight” because of its historical connotations. 

“I’ve been reading some history of policing, and it has its roots in slave controls … the police (were) basically lording over slaves,” Young said. “A lot of that kind of history has carried forth into our current situation. … To me, oversight conjures up images of people lording over other people, and I find that a little bit troublesome.

“The role of this panel is more than just oversight. It is a role that will bring about continuous improvement of the police department and our criminal justice system.”

Young suggested that the group instead be called the Community Panel for Justice in Policing. Bob Yates recommended a shortened version: Community Panel for Just Policing.

What will the panel do?

It will be made aware of complaints made against Boulder police officers. Members will review individual cases as well as looking for patterns within complaints or issues with specific policies and procedures. They will make recommendations to the police chief for discipline of officers, as well as to the monitor for policy and procedural changes they’d like to see. 

The panel will also evaluate the monitor’s performance.

Lastly, they’ll keep the public informed in cases of police misconduct.

How will the public be kept in the loop? 

In cases of misconduct, the panel will inform the public once internal investigations have been completed. Information will be presented in aggregate or summary form only, to protect the identity of city employees.

The panel will meet in closed session — that is, not open to the public — when discussing details of specific cases, again to protect confidential information. Members will have to sign non-disclosure agreements and will be subject to removal if they break them.

What will the independent monitor do?

The monitor will serve as the go-between for the community and the police department, receiving notification of any and all resident complaints against Boulder police officers. He will have the power to review case records, sit in on interviews and recommend additional investigation. He will not participate in the internal investigation itself, due to the need for impartiality, but he will make a recommendation to the professional standards unit of the police department. 

If the recommendation is rejected, he can make disciplinary recommendations to the chief, with input from the panel. If the chief rejects that recommendation, the monitor will appeal to the city manager — the ultimate authority over the police department — whose final decision will be made public.

It’s unlikely the panel/monitor’s recommendations will conflict with the chief’s, Lipari said Tuesday. The department is developing a “disciplinary matrix” as part of its own internal reforms under new chief Maris Herold — a menu of options, so to speak, for what punishments can be leveled for various types of misconduct. 

Lipari and the panel will use that to guide their recommendations. 

What’s TBD?

Council members said they wanted to see more details on a number of things, including:

  • How the nonprofits on the selection committee get chosen
  • What panel review of the monitor will look like 
  • What public participation looks like in the appointment of panel members
  • If council does get a say on panelists, what information will council receive to make that decision, and what happens if they reject a suggested member
  • What will the panel’s rules and procedures be? Who will write those? Who will approve those?

“There’s a lot of details that will get created as this program moves forward,” said councilman Aaron Brockett.

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

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