Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023
A plan to overhaul police oversight in Boulder got its first nod of approval from elected officials this week, sending the redone ordinance to a second vote and public hearing on Oct. 19. The reworked rules are meant to prevent another messy and protracted process like the one Boulder saw earlier this year, with the appointment and removal of a panelist and a work stoppage by police watchdogs in protest.
Current and former oversight panelists praised the work as a major step forward. But they also expressed significant concern about the shifting of power away from community members and said the new guidelines are insufficient to ensure the Police Oversight Panel is adequately supported by the city.
Time is short to incorporate the critical feedback, which was not included in the laws City Council approved this week. The POP is set to resume work Oct. 20 — one day after a scheduled final vote on the ordinance.
It’s unclear whether City Council intends to amend the ordinance or extend the moratorium on review of new cases of alleged officer misconduct. Thursday’s vote on the ordinance was unanimous, and panelists’ concerns were not discussed.
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How did we get here?
But when Lisa Sweeney-Miran, a vocal critic of police action, was appointed early this year, opponents — including the police chief, police union and community members — protested. A complaint was filed and an investigation ordered. Sweeney-Miran was removed in May.
Work began the next month to rewrite sections of Ordinance 8340 to address the issues that led to Sweeney-Miran’s appointment and removal. Members of POP had already requested and suggested changes to the ordinance that would help them perform oversight more effectively.
A working group met weekly from June 13 to August 29. It included representatives from NAACP Boulder County, El Centro Amistad, the Boulder Police Department and city attorney’s office, a former POP member and two current police oversight panelists.
Because the changes are so significant, city staff recommend repealing the original ordinance and replacing it with the new one.
The new ordinance includes a purpose statement for the POP and clarifies their responsibilities. It requires the city manager to re-evaluate Boulder’s police oversight structure every five years, and allows the panel or monitor to meet with the police chief to discuss disagreements over officer discipline.
The ordinance does not give the panel any authority or appeal powers in matters of officer discipline. POP recommendations will remain advisory in nature.
The update also addressed a section of the previous ordinance that led to Sweeney-Miran’s removal: language requiring panelists to be free of “real or perceived bias,” in which bias was not defined.
Under new guidelines, panelists must demonstrate an “ability to be fair-minded, objective, and impartial; to build working relationships and communicate effectively with diverse and multicultural groups [and] to relate to and understand community concerns.”
POP members do not have to be members of communities historically impacted by policing, per the ordinance language. Panelists may, but are not required to, “value equity, diversity and inclusion.”
But the biggest change was who picks panelists. That task was previously given to a selection committee of two POP members and two representatives from nonprofits who work with communities historically impacted by policing.
Now, the city manager has the sole power of appointment and removal. (Removal was previously under the purview of the City Council.) The independent monitor — who under the new rules will no longer be a non-voting member of POP — was given the power to appoint alternates to the panel in the case of vacancies.
The city manager may convene a community group to advise on new panelists, but the ordinance language does not require even that step.
City failed ‘in every instance’ to provide support
That was a big sticking point for POP co-chair Daniel Leonard. In notes to City Council ahead of the vote, he wrote that the change “opens the door to more activist panels … weakens oversight generally [and] threatens to deeply politicize the city manager’s office.”
In an interview, Leonard acknowledged the flawed selection process and the need for changes.
“It was a total mess,” he said. But it was also “the first time we tried to do a full selection process. What isn’t hard the first time?”
The community’s only control in police oversight was picking panelists, Leonard noted. The independent monitor is an employee of the city, as is the police chief and all officers.
“I do not believe that grabbing power away from the community is a viable or ethical answer to the challenge,” he wrote to council members.
Leonard’s concerns are amplified by the lack of support panelists have experienced from the city, which he detailed extensively in 13 pages of notes.
POP was “denied resources, services, and protections … afforded to other boards and commissions by the city,” he wrote, including repeated requests for “services from and access to the communications department” and a failure to provide staff to take POP minutes or completed a required annual report in 2023.
“City employees routinely pressure panelists to conduct administrative work or refuse to conduct administrative work,” Leonard wrote. “The panel has regularly struggled to utilize city information and communications systems … panelists have had to step in and try to train each other on how to use city systems.”
Because the city has not provided after-hours support, panelists have “regularly” been “forced by city staff” to conduct panel business while at their daytime jobs “and have been cut out of critical decisions and input opportunities due to untimely communications and meetings.”
Leonard believes the ordinance does not go far enough in requiring the city to provide adequate resources for police oversight, while at the same time requiring specific training to be completed in a limited timeframe.
POP members’ requests for training and meetings with city officials were repeatedly ignored by the city manager’s office, Boulder Police Department and independent monitor, he wrote, calling it “one of the most significant challenges” for the panel.
The city did not even provide “basic legal trainings on public meetings, internal communications, and city operations” until two years into the panel’s operations, according to Leonard, and “only at the insistence of the panel co-chairs.” Other unfulfilled requests include bias training, a meeting with or training on the police union, instruction on the union’s collective bargaining agreement and the arbitration process, both crucial to determining officer discipline in cases of misconduct.
“In every instance of training shortfalls,” Leonard wrote, “the city failed to provide training.”
“Drastically expanding the city manager’s power and control over community oversight to reduce the community’s power, all without any added accountability checks in the law on the city manager’s office, is a suspect solution to this situation.”
While Leonard made a number of suggestions for the ordinance, he has two that are “non-negotiable”: Requiring the city manager to form a community advisory group for the appointment of new panelists (changing one word in the ordinance from “may” to “shall”) and adding a section mandating that money and staff resources be set aside in the city budget for POP’s operations.
Without those changes, he wrote to elected officials, “I do not support the ordinance text as proposed.”
The group who worked on the new ordinance “didn’t necessarily want to” address administrative items like budgets and staff time in the law itself, according to Martha Wilson, one of the members and a former oversight panelist.
“I was constantly being told, ‘Let’s not make it too specific and lock people in,’ “ Wilson said. “They were trying to focus on key points.”
In regards to giving the city manager power over panelist’ selection, Wilson said that idea was to not overburden members of the panel or community groups who were “hurt” by this year’s controversy.
‘More beef and bone’
Wilson is pleased with the results overall, but thinks two areas “still need a little more finessing,” including the section on member qualifications.
“Although we eliminated the ‘real or perceived bias’ language, I think people are still going to want a firm definition [of] the ideal candidate,” she said.
She also would like to see some protections against frivolous complaints. An unprecedented amount were filed this year after the appointment of Sweeney-Miran and the POP’s strike. Most were dismissed.
“I think we could potentially end up in a similar place if something doesn’t go the way certain folks want,” Wilson said.
Wilson and Leonard are hopeful that feedback from the POP will be included in a final draft. The full panel did not vote on the ordinance, a draft of which was delivered just six hours before their scheduled meeting.
Members Madelyn Strong Woodley and Mylene Vialard also submitted comments, including a request to “rework [an] entire section’ of the ordinance about confidentiality requirements. Leonard also noted that changes made earlier this year to allow panel members to speak more freely were not included in the new ordinance.
“I’m still hopeful it will end up in a place that is better,” Wilson said. “The way it is now, it’s good enough that I’m sad I’m not still on the panel. It’s got more bones and beef in it than it had before. It’s clearer to follow on a basic level.”
Council can change the ordinance at the next vote, but it will require another vote to finalize or an emergency vote of six members to pass immediately. If the council does not wish to pass it on an emergency vote, it will be another two weeks before the new ordinance is in place.
The legal timeout on POP’s review of new cases, meanwhile, expires Oct. 20. Leonard said the panel does not wish to resume work under the old ordinance. Council could vote to extend the moratorium which provides the panel protection from lawsuits or complaints if the new ordinance is not adopted by that time.
Working group members will be present at council’s Oct. 19 meeting to answer questions and provide feedback, City Manager Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde said this week, in response to questions from councilwoman Rachel Friend.
Leonard also appreciates the ordinance as it exists today.
“The working group, on such a short timespan, the work they’ve done is really brilliant,” he said. “They did a great job.”
“My feedback is not offered as a criticism of that work,” Leonard said, but as the fulfillment of his duty to the community’s trust in the Police Oversight Panel — trust that was greatly harmed by this year’s events.
“To quote [Strong Woodley],” he said, “ ‘The community trust is sacred.’ I want the community to trust that we did everything we could to solve these problems.”
— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle