‘Work in the dark’: Former police watchdogs felt lack of support from city, pushback from Boulder PD

Image by CPOA via Flickr Creative Commons

Saturday, April 8, 2023

From frustration over gag orders and officer discipline to a public fracas over appointment of new members, it’s been a fraught few months for Boulder’s Police Oversight Panel, the civilian group appointed to serve as watchdogs over the city’s cops. 

Boulder is planning an overhaul of the ordinance that established the POP. Conversations are ongoing with current and formal panel members as well as community stakeholders “to understand where to start,” said Aimee Kane, the city’s equity manager.

Input from the broader community will be welcomed as well. Events are planned in May or June, according to Kane, “to get some more feedback from the community about what they think would be helpful.” Recommended changes will be brought to council later this year.

“We want to make sure the community knows they have a voice in this process,” Kane said.

As new panelists settle down to their work, three former members of the POP share their thoughts on what worked, what didn’t and what they’d like to see next.

They describe a lack of support and communication from the city and the former independent monitor, Joseph Lipari, who left the position in September, as well as pushback from the police department. 

But they’re also hopeful for the future. The work they did provides a solid foundation for new panelists that, with a few tweaks, they believe could foster true accountability and transparency in policing.

These interviews were conducted via Zoom, with followup questions via email.

Why are we here? What did you want to share with me, with the public about the panel or your experiences on it?

Taishya Adams: The last few months were particularly contentious with the members and Boulder Police Department due to a pattern of misalignment in discipline recommendations related to termination. However, these tensions are to be expected at this emerging stage of the work. 

While these tensions exist, there has also been significant accomplishments that we do not want to lose in the noise. I also want to ensure that we keep moving forward with a spirit of continuous improvement and trust building.

Ariel Amaru: We were all talking about the unique lens the three of us share as being the Black women that were on the first iteration of the panel. We also want to make sure to do this early on before the new panelists really get up and running.

Martha Wilson: It’s a passing of the baton. We know it is not an easy ask to invite or inspire folks to serve in the fight against police brutality, systemic oppression, and to act on behalf of a community that is experiencing active and reoccurring societal grief and racialized trauma — especially when so many are content to look away or not get involved.

Amaru: Something I wanted to touch on a little bit were some of the structural challenges we faced. We can speak a little more freely now that we’re off the panel.

Because of the changes passed by city council? Or because of limitations specific to panelists that don’t apply to ex-panelists?

Amaru: There were provisions that we had to sign with the tie to the city (as panelists). Also having the city attorney serve as the panel’s attorney, that limited the ways we could speak.

Wilson: Like the whole (late officer Eric) Talley situation… we weren’t even allowed to vote (on whether or not to accept a complaint against him), and we were not allowed to clarify it to the public. That caused friction with the NAACP, which is and always should be our greatest ally. And there are still ripples from that. 

The limits were so strong that, in a crazy way, I feel like my voice is bigger now that I’m not in it. Which doesn’t actually make sense: If we were selected specifically for our activism and work within this community, then why have so many ways in place to silence us or keep the public from knowing what is going on as soon as a decision has been rendered?

It took the two years I was on the panel to see how little communication was going on within the city. — Ariel Amaru

What were some of the structural challenges you referred to? 

Amaru: I was really taken aback when I joined the panel by the lack of structure in place by the city. We spent a lot of time drafting bylaws, creating policy structures, etc. It was also very clear the city had limited resources to devote to the heavy lift that was, including administrative support. 

A lot of advice that was given was to research other panels in the country and pull their bylaws and see what works for you, which is a big task for people who are fully employed and doing this in their free time.

It took the two years I was on the panel to see how little communication was going on within the city. The city’s equity manager, the city manager, the city attorney… I felt like (they) hadn’t actually sat in a room together and discussed the POP and its functioning, until the last six months. Which is worrisome. Those of us doing the work realized the structural powers in place to support us were non-existent in a lot of ways. That was scary and frustrating to realize that far into the process. 

Adams: There was a lot of gatekeeping. There was an assumption that information was being shared across the city based on what we were told by the Monitor. We’d asked many times for information about the public engagement the police department was doing and how we could be a part of it. We never received that information and were rarely invited to publicly facing engagement opportunities. 

For example, we asked for more information about arbitration since this is a barrier that the Chief shared related to our termination recommendations. If there’s a higher standard for getting rid of a ‘bad apple,’ how the panel can make sure we’re meeting that higher standard in our recommendations? We never received that information.

Wilson: Some of the stuff just felt off. We had asked for juvenile data. The data that was given was provided by the data (analyst) and didn’t include stuff that we had just seen from having been reviewing for a year and a half. Stuff like that felt very disingenuous

We knew that at least a couple of juveniles had encounters with BPD because POP reviewed a couple (cases) involving minors in the last two years, so to see zero use-of-force complaints felt like data was being cherry-picked and not actually reflective of the truth. 

Adams: The cause that was shared with us (was that) the city felt like they wanted to respect the autonomy of the panel, since this is the first oversight panel in the city structure. I think now we’re seeing a stronger role by city staff and council to stay abreast of what’s going on. And just transparency in general, which is what the communications and engagement committee had been advocating for since its formation.

The committee identified a variety of public engagement and communication strategies, including monthly reports that are already produced and shared with city council. We need frequent and ongoing communication with council and city staff since together we have the power to strengthen equitably and respectful public safety for all Boulder residents, visitors and workforce. 

The pushback, the resistance I felt while on the panel was directly from the police department. — Taishya Adams

I’m hearing that you didn’t feel supported by the city in the way that you felt elected officials intended when they set up the panel, to pursue greater accountability and reform within the police department. Is that accurate?

Adams: When we say the city, there are different components to the city. When we talked to Chief Herold during a quarterly check-in, she specifically said, ‘Y’all are here to get rid of bad apples, you’re not here to fix the whole system.’ Bad apples can’t exist in a healthy system. That’s why we have so many policy recommendations. The pushback, the resistance I felt while on the panel was directly from the police department. 

If anything, I felt like we were ignored by the city council because there were other priorities, and because of gatekeeping from the previous independent monitor. 

Wilson: Yeah. We had no idea what was being reported, what was being shared, what opinions …. As we’re in meetings, it sounded like the previous monitor agreed with us, but apparently in the summaries, that was not true. 

The ordinance is clear that the monitor is not supposed to have a vote, but if the chief is saying ‘I’m siding with the monitor.’ Not only do they have a vote, they have a vote that is bigger than the entire panel’s vote.

Adams: That was the stunner for me. It wasn’t until the OIR Group came in (that) I didn’t know what I didn’t know. (Editor’s note: OIR Group are the current consultants handling the monitor position temporarily while Boulder searches for a new one)

The city did meet with, not just the department, but with the national police oversight organization, NACOL. They did have information about how this stuff has been done elsewhere. It felt like we were in the dark when we got there, but then to realize (the city) did have access to this information, there are shared folders with all of the research… That doesn’t conflict with our autonomy by giving us data, especially if we’re not required to use that information. 

Amaru: The other thing is thinking about accountability. The chief has said this, we have said this: We often came down the same (when it came to whether) wrongdoing had been found or not. We differed often on discipline. Something that came up as a theme, when the panel made stricter disciplinary recommendations, including leaves as well as termination, that is a place the chief said she would not be going on with the panel. 

Part of that is the arbitration process (available to officers) as well as the strength of the police union. Something that just became clear to me is accountability for officers — and most officers are honorable and trustworthy, but the number of those who violate citizen’s constitutional rights and deeply sully the reputation of our police, need to be held accountable. And I don’t think the law is in place to do that. 

Wilson: I think my perspective is a little different because I resigned in protest. I couldn’t just go along with some of this stuff anymore. It just became unclear where the line was. We were saying all these things about transparency and accountability, but when push came to shove, it wasn’t there. 

At that point in time, it felt like it was a form of oppression that had just adapted, versus people coming to the table to support us in a new way. 

Adams: It wasn’t clear who had the power to do what. That made it challenging. 

Wilson:  If we knew what the structure was, we could have designed around the structure. But because it was just like, ‘Here you go” … then expecting us to be cool with failing to provide context or enough information so that the average community member could understand and follow along. It wasn’t right or fair to do that. 

There was an opportunity there to invite us (panelists and community members) to the table to own up to forgetting about us and let us know how they were going to repair that communication gap. Instead, we were essentially given instructions on how to work in the dark of sunshine public meeting rules for openness. However, the entire point is to be on the up and up about everything, so it just didn’t feel right. 

The public gets to know; we should be focused on opening doors where meetings are happening, not closing them. 

We were saying all these things about transparency and accountability, but when push came to shove, it wasn’t there. — Martha Wilson

There’s also work you are proud of, correct? I think you said you wanted to not lose sight of that with all the controversy over the new members.

Adams: We were able to increase the accountability and transparency level for police oversight in this city in significant and meaningful ways. After thoroughly reviewing cases, our panel frequently overturned the professional standards unit’s more lenient recommendations with those that aligned with the discipline matrix we were provided. The majority of our recommendations were sustained by the chief. Those many successes were very empowering. 

For example, our policy recommendation for a reduction of officer caseloads to ensure that cases do not go uninvestigated – like the detective who was found to not have investigated more than four dozen cases. There are many positive impacts we were able to make in that role, yet there is still much work to be done. 

We still need to clarify who has the power to do what, and especially when the chief and the panel do not agree – what is the appeal process?  How is the public and council made aware in cases of life and death? Even though the selection process was clunky, I’m grateful that it raised the level of public awareness and engagement. This panel will not succeed without collective activation. That disruption really allowed for another opportunity. It does invite a higher level of activation by the city manager, city council and the city attorney. 

I’m grateful about the city’s willingness and investment in updating the ordinance, so it’s clear on who has the authority to do what. I’m hopeful it has some process when the chief does not agree with the panels on termination in particular. The increased number of panelists, increase in pay… that’s huge. We were working past capacity. 

Wilson: The review itself is fantastic. We put a lot of work and thought into that process, and what we developed is fantastic. Full transparency of what happens after is what I’m concerned with at this point. 

Do you have any hopes and/or concerns for the new panel? Any words of encouragement?

Wilson: I do think with the new panelists, they’ll get their feet wet and get ready to get into it. It’s unfair of me to say be ready today,  because we took some warming time to get acclimated. But (at the March 8 meeting) when a couple people abstained from votes, I was like, whoa whoa whoa. What is going on here? 

And the fact that termination had been recommended again, this time the chief agreed but that person had already resigned — that is a pattern that’s happened again and again that is not being addressed.

In the same meeting, case SM2022-005 was discussed. It appears that a training officer repeatedly sexually harassed a new officer they were training, creating an unsafe work environment. The violations included two Rule 1s, a Rule 4, and a Rule 8 that were sustained by POP and the Chief. A recommendation of termination was given and sustained by the Chief, but the officer in question was allowed to resign while under investigation, so it will not truly be enforced.

I did suggest maybe that next step is to send that referral or reporting to the national registry so that other departments know what they’re potentially welcoming into their communities. That’s a pretty serious thing for it to be sustained but not able to go anywhere or do anything.

There are no 2023 entries from BPD in there, despite their claim to report each ‘resigned while under investigation’ to POST, but the POST website does not reflect that as true either. John Smyly isn’t in there. Waylon Lolotai isn’t in there. David Spraggs isn’t in there. Perhaps that needs to be a step that occurs within a specific time frame such as 30 days or an assignment of the monitor to ensure that happens. 

(Editor’s note: POST is Colorado’s Peace Officer Standards and Training office. POST maintains a database of officers who have resigned, been terminated, lost certification or have been found guilty of other misconduct. Learn more: https://post.coag.gov/s/)

The new batch of panelists were picked specifically to enforce and uphold the guiding principles that were created in May of 2022. They have the gift of a review structure that we did not, and they now have an amplification that we did not. The best power is the power of the people, so I am hopeful and optimistic and can’t wait to see what they can accomplish.

Adams: The lack of clear termination processes and authority allows an officer who did not meet our public safety standard to get rehired somewhere else. It’s a national problem. 

We lose arbitration cases… that rotten apple is going to come back into the department. I also saw this pattern in supervisors acknowledging misbehavior (by officers) but not administering the discipline that is required in the books.

Bad policy creates and sustains bad apples. Know better, do better.

— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle or on Mastodon at toot.bldrweb.org/@shayshinecastle

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