Founding member of Boulder’s police oversight panel resigns in protest

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Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022

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A founding member of Boulder’s police oversight panelist has resigned over frustration with the group’s limitations in holding officers accountable following misconduct. Multiple panelists say there is a pattern of the panel’s recommendations being ignored, and believe the two-year old ordinance that created the civilian oversight group needs updating to give it more authority.

Martha Wilson, appointed as one of the original nine panelists in January 2021, resigned earlier this month. In an emailed statement, titled “I must respectfully resign in protest” and shared with Boulder Beat, Wilson wrote that the “key-sized sliver of information” the panel is allowed to share with the public “was reduced further to the size of a pin.” 

“I could not effectively shine a light based on the existing and growing parameters.”

In a followup interview, Wilson said the inciting incident was a case that interim mediator Florence Finkle called “serious misconduct” during a November 10 meeting. During an update to internal systems, Boulder Police Department “discovered one particular detective (Officer Five) had a large number of open cases that had not been investigated,” according to meeting materials.

The department opened an investigation internally, and the oversight panel conducted its own review of the case. The detective, two immediate supervisors and two managers of the “detective section” were found to have violated department rules related to case assignment and investigative responsibility.

The Oversight Panel recommended termination for all five officers along with “numerous policy recommendations to improve the performance of the Detective Section.” Though the department found that all the allegations were sustained, Police Chief Maris Herold’s eventual discipline ranged from one- to five-day suspensions, with one supervising officer resigning.

Officer 1: Rule 1 (Compliance with rules, values and general orders)
Officer 2: Rule 1
Officer 3: Rule 1/G.O. 203 (Investigative responsibility and case assignment)
Officer 4: Rule 1/G.O. 203
Officer 5: Rule 1/G.O. 203

Department sustained all the allegations and recommended:
– Limit active caseloads to 20
– Review open cases every 30 days
Officer 1: 3-day suspension, involuntary transfer and personal improvement plan
Officer 2: One-year letter of reprimand / training and education
Officer 3: Termination to be held in abeyance (officer resigned)
Officer 4: 1-day suspension
Officer 5: 5-day suspension

Further details of the case — such as the number and nature of complaints against Officer Five — are unknown. An open records request was denied until an appeal is complete.

To Wilson, that punishment “was not in alignment” with the severity of the violations. “The decision to slap them on the wrist was a slap to each and every victim’s face.”

“Disciplinary action is intended to be corrective rather than punitive,” city spokesperson Shannon Aulabaugh wrote in an emailed statement, quoting verbatim from the Boulder Police Officer Association (BPOA) union contract. BPD did not agree to an interview.

According to the disciplinary matrix, which must also guide the Police Chief’s decision, violations of Rule 1 with “significant impact” can result in termination. But “disciplinary action … is intended normally to progress from less to more severe,” according to the union contract and Aulabaugh.

Suspension of any length is considered “serious disciplinary action,” the contract states.

‘Egregious and widespread’

Wilson’s frustration is compounded by the fact that panelists are unable to share the number of victims represented by the un-investigated complaints.

“Without knowing the number, the public doesn’t know how egregious or how widespread the issue was,” she said. “That’s not just numbers — that’s affected people. That led to my resignation.”

“‘A large number’ does not inform the public that dozens of members of the public were forgotten,” Wilson wrote in a followup email. “‘A large number’ does not inform the public that some of the cases were completely untouched. ‘A large number’ does not inform the public that a few sat so long that the statue of limitations expired on them and for those folks justice is never ever going to come.

“When a community member does not cooperate with the question-answering-end of an investigation, they call that obstruction and criminalize it, but apparently when it is the professional question-asking-end of an investigation, it not that big of a deal.”

Panelists are privy to confidential information when reviewing cases, and as such are bound by strict non-disclosure requirements. Members are reminded frequently of the consequences of divulging private information.

“That’s been the biggest, I don’t want to say threat,” Wilson said, “but that’s been the biggest point of control. ‘Let’s remind you that anything you say can and will be used against you. Let’s remind you that anything you say can open you up to lawsuits form the union, the state.’ They can sue us as the panel.”

Case 004 is but the latest in what Wilson sees as a pattern of undermining the panel’s mission of accountability. She cites the chief’s exoneration of an officer the panel ruled used excessive force in restraining a 14-year-old, detailed in the panel’s annual report, as well as a complaint against deceased officer Eric Talley that Wilson claims was passed to the panel without names and identifying details redacted — effectively preventing the group from weighing in. 

Both those cases, as well as 004, came during the tenure of Joseph Lipari, the city’s first Independent Police Monitor. Lipari left Boulder in September for a job with the Los Angeles Office of the Inspector General. A spokesperson for that department declined to provide comment or make Lipari available for an interview.

In an email, Aulabaugh wrote that, “The POP has reviewed cases for close to two years, and by and large there has been concurrence regarding case dispositions.”

‘Laws change’

Wilson is not alone in her opinions. In the November 10 meeting, panelist Taishya Adams also called out the same “disturbing” and “acute” pattern of the panel’s concerns being disregarded “when we do not agree” with the police chief. She expressed the desire for solutions “to allow us as a panel to do our job.”

In response to Adams’ comments, Finkle reminded the panel of the myriad constraints Chief Herold must consider when meting out punishment: not only union contracts and department policies, but state law as well.

“It was once a law that I was 3/5th a person,” Adams responded. “I also had this issue with Joey, Flo, so this is nothing to do with you. Laws are made by people. Laws change and evolve, although we may not have the authority to do so.”

That’s exactly what Wilson intends to do. She plans on hosting a series of writing workshops with the intent of updating Ordinance 8430, which established the Oversight Panel and guides its activities.

The ordinance was amended earlier this year to expand the number of panelists from nine to 11. Panelist and spokesperson Daniel Leonard said the group is receptive to and interested in further changes, which would ultimately have to be approved by city council.

Wilson, who helped write the panel’s bylaws, said her recent experience on the selection committee for new members motivated her to begin the work immediately after her resignation.

“All day I’m hearing these oncoming panelists describe how it’s important to me to get this open door and access,” she said. “That door is fake. That door is not open. It is a keyhole, and that keyhole is covered with red tape and cautionary measures.

“That’s what made me crack a little bit. This is not OK. I don’t want to be complicit in that.”

— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle,

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