Boulder looks to ‘re-imagine’ policing — and they want your help

Photo by Fred Moon on Unsplash

Monday, Feb. 8, 2021 (Updated Wednesday, Feb. 10)

2020 shone a bright spotlight on policing policies across the nation. Activists in Boulder and beyond called for transformation. In some cases, they got it: A new police chief with a history of reform and an overhauled oversight mechanism for officer misconduct.

But those raised hopes also went unrealized when it came to significant structural and systemic change. Boulder’s 2021 budget did not contain notable reductions or reorganizations within the police department: In fact, for the first time, police became the single biggest source of spending for the city.

Bigger reforms may yet be in the works. Police leaders want to “re-imagine” policing in Boulder as part of a routine update of the department’s master plan — except staff doesn’t want there to be anything routine about it.

“Given the importance of issues raised internally and externally,” they wrote, “the department is approaching this plan as an opportunity to work with the community not just to update the master plan, but to re-imagine the Police Department, setting a course for the future of policing in Boulder.”

Details will be fleshed out over the course of the two-year update, but notes offer a glimpse into what all is up for grabs:

  • Role of police in community issues like homelessness and behavioral health;
  • Racial equity;
  • Community relationships and trust;
  • Actual and/or perceived changes in crime rates in the city;
  • Determining the right level of police presence in the community;
  • Recruiting and retaining the right staff; and
  • Ensuring police officers have the right tools and equipment to do their jobs.

Five public engagement “windows” are planned, including seven check-ins with city council over the next two years. The first window will focus on the community’s “Values, Hopes and Concerns” for public safety. Outreach will begin in late March/early April and conclude in June. 

According to staff notes, the public will be invited to “share their thoughts about safety as a core value of the Police Department, and define what safety means to them. … Participants will also be asked to rank current areas of work for the department, as well as the emphasis they wish to place on emerging issues, and describe what they see as the ideal police department.”

The plan is scheduled for adoption in February 2023. The last update was in 2013.

Police Chief Maris Herold, who started her tenure in April 2020, led Cincinnati’s university and municipal police departments through reform after instances of police brutality. She has already implemented new policies for use of force and firearms in Boulder and has stated publicly that her ideal department will be one where the sanctity of human life is at the center of all decision-making.

Some residents’ early enthusiasm has been dampened by her statements and stance on encampments of persons experiencing homelessness. Herold has presided over renewed removals, and in August appeared to ask community members to pressure city council to direct the department to resume sweeps.

The 2021 budgeting process dashed reformers’ hopes further. BPD’s budget was reduced by 4.8% — among the smallest departmental cuts. The number of officers stayed the same. The 2021 budget is $36.8 million, 14% of all city spending, with 184 sworn officers and 95.75 civilian staff.

National reform efforts have advocated for a reduction in police budgets and allocation of more resources into the social safety net and community organizations. Despite many significant cuts — Seattle reduced the police budget by 20% after first pledging to halve it; Austin, Texas, sliced one-third of its police budget, nearly $150 million; and NYC shifted $1 billion away from policing — most large cities are spending more than ever on cops.

Herold has publicly stated her support for having mental health and other professionals respond to calls that police would normally handle. But she also has said police officers are still necessary in situations such as domestic violence or child abuse, and has not committed to the idea of a smaller force.

Boulder may revisit the idea of non-police response to mental health and other non-emergent crises later this year; council declined to make it a priority at the annual planning retreat last month. The idea was brought forward by councilman Aaron Brockett and modeled after a similar program in Denver. The city already does some level of co-response with mental health providers via the EDGE program.

On Tuesday, elected officials agreed with the new approach for the police master plan, though they did express some reservations about the lengthy timeline. Bob Yates, who serves on the master plan process subcommittee, said all the members of that group were initially taken aback by the two-year process.

“I think we all thought the same thing,” Yates said. “Whoa, that’s a really, really long time.” But after staff’s explanation of the need for in-depth conversations and extended outreach, “it made a lot of sense.”

Read a play-by-play of Tuesday’s discussion here and here.

The city has already begun the work on engagement window zero: bringing in community members to help determine how to “frame” the conversations to come and how best to reach residents. Particular groups are being given special attention, based on the history of policing nationally and in Boulder.

Latinx and youth partners have been identified, according to engagement manager Sarah Huntley, and the city is working to make inroads with the Black community.

“We don’t have as big of a network” among Black Boulderites, Huntley said, “but I think it’s really important” to establish those connections. Given the historical and ongoing racial disparities in policing, “it’s critically important to lift those voices in this process.”

Last week, city council OK’d members of the overhauled police oversight panel, which has its first meeting on Thursday. (Find the link to attend here.) At the same time, Chief Herold will also hold another town hall event. Register and submit questions here.

Author’s note: This article has been updated with comments from Tuesday’s meeting.

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

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