Boulder city council OKs new police oversight panelists

Friday, Jan. 27, 2023

A 6-3 city council vote on Thursday installed new members on Boulder’s Police Oversight Panel, over the objections of the police chief, police union and their backers in the community; and amid complaints over the fraught process. Elected officials again vowed to fix an ordinance governing the POP, which is meant to act as an outside voice in matters of officer discipline and department policy.

The group worked inconspicuously for more than a year, but recent disagreements with the police chief over officer discipline, resignations and, most of all, controversy and confusion over the selection of panelists have exposed certain “fractures in the foundation,” as councilman Matt Benjamin said Thursday.

Council will discuss its 2023 workplan Feb. 23-24. More than one council member expressed hope that changes to the POP ordinance would be given priority

“We need to take time this year to reset expectations,” councilman Bob Yates said, “and clarify the roles, responsibilities and authority of the police oversight panel.”

‘Intimidation factor’

Work on the ordinance was already keyed up, panelists have expressed frustration and fear over limitations placed on them and their authority. Now, that work may play out with the heightened attention of a divided community.

Some fear the inflamed rhetoric is already becoming detrimental.

“This public battle we’ve had over these appointments adds to the toll that policing and oversight work takes on all involved,” councilwoman Rachel Friend said, restating her desire to have city council play no role in the selection of new POP members, an objection she first raised upon its formation.

“Anytime this council touches anything, it becomes politicized,” Friend said. “We find ourselves at a level 10 out of 10 concern.”

In a vote to appoint special counsel to review a complaint against the POP selection committee, Junie Joseph opposed and Nicole Speer abstained. Both cited impacts to current panelists, noting that two appointees withdrew from consideration.

“I’m just really concerned about the intimidation factor of having a complaint like this come in,” Speer said, “and I don’t really see any protections that we have in place that can kind of mimic the anti-SLAPP law that can offer people or groups who are targets of complaints the opportunity to have the complaint dismissed if there is evidence it’s goal is to silence or intimidate critics.”

A complaint against the selection committee was made by resident John Neslage, who opposed the appointment of Lisa Sweeney-Miran, executive director of a nonprofit assisting unhoused women and member of the Boulder Valley School District board. Sweeney-Miran is inappropriately biased against the police, Neslage wrote in his complaint, and fails to demonstrate the “ability to build working relationships and communicate effectively with diverse groups.”

“Determination of bias is not in the opinion of the nominee, but rather from the perspective of the persons to be governed/overseen by this Oversight Panel,” Neslage wrote. “The nomination of Lisa Sweeny-Miran by this panel demonstrates their intention to use whatever criteria they feel like, rather than those criteria carefully deliberated and codified into Ordinance 8430.”

Neslage declined to discuss his concerns in more details, writing in response to an emailed request for an interview that “the complaint I filed along with the related exhibits speak for themselves.”

Those related exhibits were screenshots of tweets by Sweeney-Miran in which she questioned the use of a military-style tank by Boulder Police Department and recommended a book about police abolition, among other criticisms. (Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Sweeney-Miran’s tweets had been deleted, as Neslage claimed in his complaint. The tweets are still available, and linked above.)

Sweeney-Miran defended the tweets as disapproving of specific police actions and not indicative of bias against all officers. She is not an abolitionist, she said, and in fact utilizes and interacts with the police in her capacity at Mother House.

Bias, credibility and code

Sweeney-Miran and another appointee, Sam Zhang — opposed by police and their supporters for requesting that Boulder reallocate police funds to mental health and other community needs — were not mentioned by name during Thursday’s discussion, but many comments centered on the issue of bias.

Ordinance 8430, referenced in Neslage’s complaint, requires that POP candidates not show any “real or perceived bias, prejudice or conflict of interest.”

“It’s not bias to include people on the police panel who understand the fact that all of our systems — including policing, not just policing — are biased against” people of color, poor people, queer and trans people and people with disabilities, Speer said. Responsive and inclusive leaders should “welcome criticism.”

–> For more council comments and context, read a Twitter thread of the discussion

Lauren Folkerts, reading the definitions of bias and prejudice from the dictionary, noted that they hinged on the ideas of being “unfair or unreasonable.”

“My job is to determine if they are expressing an unfair or unreasonable feeling,” she said. “Given the actions of both Boulder Police Officers, those that preceded the formation of the oversight panel and instances we’ve seen on the national stage, I don’t believe the sentiments expressed by these candidates are necessarily unfair or unreasonable.”

“We all have biases,” Friend said. “I imagine, frankly, that all panelists we have seated — in the past, in the present, and in the future — have bias. The question to me is whether they can be fair or impartial. I trust that those nominated will not inject bias where they ought to be impartial.”

Mayor Aaron Brocket agreed with those sentiments, and added that the panel was too important to stop: without approving nominees, POP would not have members to continue after February 8.

Tara Winer, who along with Yates and Mark Wallach voted against approving appointees, said the question of what ‘bias’ actually means in the code is undecided. City council should wait until that is settled “before we move further.”

To Wallach, matters were clear cut: The code requires “an absence of bias” from members, and these “inappropriate candidates” did not meet that standard, he said, but were instead “reflexively antagonist” and had “open, persistent and well-documented hostility” toward BPD.

“In taking this action tonight, we will also diminish the panel of credibility and moral stature as an arbiter of police behavior,” Wallach said. “Their future determinations will be seen largely as the biased product of a biased panel.”

Yates joined Wallach in his dire prediction and criticism of the selection committee for failing to follow council direction. “The selection committee either did not comply with city law, or they failed to explain how they did so,” he said.

‘Better does not mean anti’

Shawn Rae Passalacqua, a founding member of the oversight panel who served on its first selection committee and helped to write the criteria, said the issue of bias “as stated in the ordinance” was considered.

“Bias is very challenging to define in terms of police oversight,” Passalacqua said. “There is an idea that if you’re looking to oversee the police, that you are against the police. That is not necessarily the case.

“There are people both on the police staff and in the community that would like to have better policing for the community members of Boulder, and better does not necessarily mean anti.”

The same criteria used to seat the first panel were applied this time, Passalacqua said. The panel has struggled under its heavy workload, with council voting last year to add two members. In 2021, the POP investigated 88 separate allegations of misconduct. Police Chief Maris Herold determined that 16 were violations.

Most recently, the panel drew attention for its recommendation that five officers in the detective section be fired for their failure to properly investigate more than four dozen open cases spanning three years. Those officers were given one- to five-day suspensions, leading one panel member to resign in protest.

The selection process — and resulting public tumult — began shortly after.

The full POP meets for the next time February 8. In coming weeks, they will also be joined by a new independent police monitor. Complaints about the process should also be ruled on within roughly the same time frame.

— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle or on Mastodon at

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