Nearly two years after the Boulder City Council established the city’s community-led Police Oversight Panel in 2020, the group has published its first report detailing case-by-case instances of alleged misconduct by city police.
The findings come as the city council reviews the police department’s long-term plan to “reimagine policing” in Boulder, and as law enforcement has become a lightning rod issue. While some community members want fewer police on the streets, others are calling for a tougher response to the recent rise in crime.
The panel is required by law to issue the yearly report that includes recommendations for potential disciplinary measures and an evaluation of the performance of the city’s independent police monitor. The city hired its first monitor in July 2020 to oversee investigations into alleged police misconduct.
The 84-page document summarizes 58 complaints and how the police department responded. One of those cases involved the physical restraint of a child. In light of that case, the panel recommended the department reexamine use-of-force training and clarify its prohibition on chokeholds and neck restraints. Like oversight panels in other cities, Boulder’s panel cannot discipline or fire officers.
The report said the monitor has shown “general competency in fulfilling his duties.”
The volunteers who make up the panel serve one- to three-year terms and include professionals with “strong ties to the city.” The panel’s eight members were nominated by a committee that included representatives from two nonprofits — the Islamic Center of Boulder County and the NAACP of Boulder County — and approved by the Boulder City Council. The group has met monthly since March 2021.
“At times, we have not agreed with the Police Department with the ultimate outcome on cases. At other times, we have changed police thinking and led outcomes with the department,” the panel wrote. “We cannot all be satisfied in all of our disputes and will continue to work on processes for redress and remediation.”
In response to a request for comment about the panel’s recommendations, Dionne Waugh, a spokesperson for the police department, referred Boulder Reporting Lab to its statements in the panel’s report.
“[Boulder Police Department] is currently reviewing Use of Force Policies and Procedures from other law enforcement agencies and organizations in order to identify best practices in this area,” the report states. “Once identified, these will be examined for adoption by Boulder PD.”
‘The use of force was completely unnecessary.’
According to the report, 58 complaints involving 88 separate allegations were filed in 2021 by members of the public, as well as several police officers. Police Chief Herold, who joined the department in 2020, determined 16 of those complaints were violations of the city’s policies and procedures.
The panel voted to review about a dozen of the 58. One of those cases involved a complaint of “excessive” use of force from a 14-year-old boy, according to police records.
Panel members were given body camera footage from the June 2021 arrest and said they saw an officer place his knee on the child’s neck. The child was taken to the hospital, where he was medically cleared, before police brought him to the Boulder County Juvenile Center, according to the oversight panel’s report. The police department prohibits neck restraints and chokeholds.
“The use of force was completely unnecessary. This was not a child in the commission of a crime. This was not a child with a weapon. This was just a child,” panel member Martha Wilson, a mental health crisis clinician and former child welfare caseworker, told Boulder Reporting Lab.
The panel “recommended that BPD focus on identifying alternate options for officers who are required to detain juveniles, individuals of a small stature, and children who are at risk or in crisis,” the report states.
The police chief disagreed with the panel’s disciplinary recommendations and exonerated the officer. A summary of the police department’s internal investigation into the incident, provided to Boulder Reporting Lab through an open records request, does not mention the officer putting his knee on the child’s neck.
“The juvenile male continued to struggle and kicked the rear of the patrol car two times with enough force to dent the bumper. He then kicked Officer [Raul] Montano-Banda two times in the knee, causing pain,” according to a case file summary. “Officers used an appropriate and lawful amount of force to stop the juvenile male from assaulting Officer Montano-Banda by taking him down to his knees and controlling his physical movements while being placed in handcuffs.”
The case also spurred the panel to ask the department to consider adding clarity around what constitutes a prohibited neck restraint or chokehold. The department’s policies and procedures define a neck restraint or chokehold as restricting “an individual’s blood flow or ability to breathe for the purposes of incapacitation.”
“There’s a lot of wiggle room in the way it’s written now. I don’t think the wiggle room should be for officers to get out of discipline,” Wilson said. “If they called it what it was, that [officer] would be fired.”
The Boulder Police Department agreed the neck restraint policy “would benefit from more clarity.” An “updated version will be made available to the panel,” it said in the panel’s report.
According to Joey Lipari, the city’s independent police monitor who serves as a liaison between the panel and the police department, the conversation between the two about reforms to its chokehold policy have been productive.
The changes “will end up ultimately producing what I think will be a model policy for the country in terms of neck restraints by being much more technical and specific about what is barred and what is prohibited, as opposed to just using a vague term,” Lipari told Boulder Reporting Lab.
He’s now focused on ensuring the changes happen. “Our job now that we made these recommendations is to continue to monitor their implementation,” Lipari said. “We have to continue to watch that and then continue to report out.”
The report provides brief narratives on a wide-range of other complaints and internal investigations. In one instance, an officer erroneously cited an unhoused person for trespassing when they were legally in a public park. The officer was required to receive training on the city’s trespassing laws. Another complaint involved an officer who fired a Taser at a colleague. That officer received a one-year letter of reprimand. Other allegations involved officers not wearing a body camera, failing to write a police report after responding to a “suspicious incident” at a school, and refusing to provide a business card.
The report also includes summary statistics. One unnamed officer was involved in five allegations of misconduct. (The panel’s bylaws prohibit it from disclosing names.) Black people make up about 1% of the City of Boulder’s population but 10% of the people filing complaints.
‘There are growing pains.’
While Boulder’s oversight panel does not have disciplinary authority, it has access to documents related to police misconduct that many residents might never see. (Boulder Reporting Lab requested documents and body camera footage related to the arrest of the 14-year-old boy. The police department said it would charge $389.)
Reviewing those documents takes time. Panel members said they are spending 10 to 20 hours a week on work related to the panel. The panel is down one member after Jennifer Livovich, the founder of homelessness services nonprofit Feet Forward who is suing the city over its camping ban, stepped down. Livovich said she resigned in part due to the workload.
That’s one reason why the panel is asking the city council to amend the 2020 ordinance that created the panel to increase its size to 11 members.
It also hopes to increase the monthly stipend from $100 to $200 for panel members and $250 for the co-chairs.
“We really want this to be a volunteer opportunity that’s representative of the community,” panel co-chair Ariel Amaru, a recent graduate of the University of Colorado Law School, told Boulder Reporting Lab. “Increasing that stipend will allow us to bring people in who maybe didn’t have time to volunteer or you could use extra resources with child care or just want to be compensated for the time that they’re putting into important work.”
Panel member Taishya Adams, the first Black woman to serve as a commissioner to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said it has spent much of the past year in a start-up phase.
“We may not have lived up to the full expectations of the public or the founding roots,” Adams told Boulder Reporting Lab. “But many of us were surprised at how heavy of a lift this initial component was going to be.”
The Boulder City Council seated the oversight panel in February 2021, less than a year after body camera footage showing a Boulder officer drawing his gun on a Black student garnered national headlines and stoked calls for police accountability.
In January 2022, the panel signed an agreement requiring the police department to notify the independent monitor of any critical incidents such as shootings, in-custody deaths or fatal use of force. In March 2022, it adopted bylaws to guide its work.
“There are growing pains,” co-chair Daniel Leonard, assistant director of marketing at CU Boulder’s performing arts program CU Presents, told Boulder Reporting Lab. “I think it’s a really positive sign that our first ask to change the ordinance is just for more resources.”