More than two years after Boulder’s city council established a civilian oversight panel to review investigations into misconduct by the Boulder Police Department, the volunteer-led panel is growing: It will soon expand from seven members to 11. The move will allow members to have more resources to review more city investigations into alleged police misconduct and shine a light on any potential officer wrongdoing.
The panel is a core part of the department’s transparency pledge in its plan to “reimagine policing.” Its expansion comes after complaints of overwork, underpay and high turnover in its first two years.
But the growth of the panel and breadth of its review capacity comes at an awkward time.
As the panel enters this new phase, in recent weeks, members were given legal guidance from city officials that has left them feeling as though they cannot speak publicly about cases of alleged police misconduct as much as they had previously, according to current and former panel members.
Some panel members told Boulder Reporting Lab they are now worried about their legal liability if they say too much.
“We have received a lot of communications and a lot of advisements in the last week that has made our work extraordinarily challenging,” co-chair Daniel Leonard, a communications specialist at CU Boulder, said during the panel’s Nov. 10, 2022 meeting. “We have a lot of work to do and we were owed better.”
Panel member Taishya Adams, the first Black woman to serve as a commissioner to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, echoed Leonard’s concerns: “All of the sudden, there is this need to create some additional hurdles to ensure the level of transparency that we had all agreed on.”
Several panel members declined to share communications they received from the city due to legal concerns. In response to a request for an interview with the city attorney, Sarah Huntley, a city spokesperson, said the city attorney does not discuss legal advice provided to clients. (The members are represented by the city attorney, who also represents the city’s police officers.)
The Boulder City Council created the oversight panel in November 2020 through Ordinance 8430. Its creation was spurred by a March 2019 incident in which a Boulder officer drew his gun on a Black Naropa University student. Body camera footage from the incident received national attention and prompted calls for police accountability.
According to panel members, the ordinance reflects a tension between the community’s desire for transparency and the confidentiality protections the city provides for law enforcement officials. The ordinance states that panel members must sign confidentiality agreements that prevent them from publicly discussing their review of investigations. Other parts of the ordinance — including a requirement to publish an annual report — appear to contradict that restriction. Some members want the ordinance to allow them to speak more freely about cases of alleged misconduct.
Like oversight panels in other cities, Boulder’s panel cannot discipline or fire officers. Instead, the members use public awareness of certain cases to advocate for policy changes and cast light on any wrongdoing.
The panel’s first major annual report, published last summer, summarized 58 complaints from community members. It discussed in detail certain cases and how the police department responded. After reviewing one case in which an officer put his knee on a 14-year old boy’s neck, members called for the city to clarify its ban on chokeholds and neck restraints.
Investigation involving five officers stirs frustrations
The city’s most recent legal advice came just weeks after the panel reviewed an investigation into five officers, according to the panel’s meeting records.
The investigation was launched after the police department discovered “systemic issues in the detective section of the department,” Florence Finkle, the city’s interim Independent Police Monitor, told the panel during its Nov. 10 meeting. The discovery was made during the process of updating the police case management system.
“In particular, one person assigned to this section had … a large number of open cases,” Finkle said. The department “subsequently discovered that a portion of those cases had not actually been investigated at all.”
Finkle said the oversight panel, after reviewing the case, recommended that all officers be terminated. Police Chief Maris Herold issued one- to five-day suspensions and several other reprimands. One officer resigned, according to Finkle.
Finkle serves on the board of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, an Indianapolis-based organization. She works for OIR Group, a California-based firm the city hired while it searches for a new police monitor. She declined a request for an interview about the panel’s powers.
Before last month’s meeting, Martha Wilson, a mental health crisis clinician and former child welfare caseworker, told Boulder Reporting Lab she asked the city if she could share with the public more information the panel had received on the case involving the five officers in the detective section. This included the number of people who never had their cases investigated. The city said no, Wilson said.
During the panel’s monthly meeting, the police monitor typically provides a brief summary of investigations reviewed by the panel. Additional information about the investigations can be obtained through a Colorado Open Records Act request. The police department denied a records request related to its investigation of the misconduct case involving officers in the detective section because “the appeals process for this investigation is not complete.”
“All of that was kept from the public,” Wilson said in an interview. “In my opinion, it was important because it would show the gravity of the systemic problem that was happening. It was not an isolated situation.”
That same day, Wilson resigned from the panel, she said. She said she did so in protest.
A city spokesperson said she was unable to comment in time for publication.
‘It is time for a thorough examination of the ordinance’
Wilson’s resignation comes as the panel struggles with demanding work hours and turnover. (The panel launched with nine members.) Several members of the panel — which is more racially and ethnically diverse than any of the city’s community-led boards and commissions — have said they are working more than 15 hours per week. This work includes reviewing investigations into complaints, interviewing new candidates, and organizing the day-to-day business of the panel. Members are paid $200 per month and co-chairs are paid $250.
Besides adding people to the panel, to make the work easier, current and former members have said they want the Boulder City Council to rewrite the code to give the members the ability to say more about investigations. They have also said they want a process for when the panel and the police chief disagree over disciplinary decisions.
Ordinance 8430, which created the panel, allows members to make “comments on the handling of the complaint, the fairness and thoroughness of the investigation and the reasonableness of the adjudication.” According to the ordinance, the panel is intended to “increase community involvement in police oversight and ensure that historically excluded communities have a voice in that oversight.”
The ordinance also states: “All police oversight panel members shall sign a confidentiality agreement which prohibits them from publicly discussing or releasing any information or materials reviewed in closed session.” The panel reviews all investigations into cases of alleged misconduct in closed sessions.
Wilson said she is gathering feedback on potential revisions to the code. Current panel members may soon share ideas.
“There is value in having the community actively involved in reviewing how it’s being policed, but for that to hold true merit in Boulder, I personally believe it is time for a thorough examination of the ordinance and how it’s written to ensure it actually has teeth,” panel co-chair Ariel Amaru, a recent graduate of the University of Colorado Law School, told Boulder Reporting Lab.
“And if that examination is not done soon,” Amaru added, “I think the merit of an objective, independent review panel is ultimately entirely void.”
Correction: This story was updated to correct the job titles of Florence Finkle and Daniel Leonard. Finkle works for OIR Group and serves on the board of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. Leonard, the co-chair of the panel, recently became a communications specialist at CU Boulder and is no longer an assistant director of marketing at CU Boulder’s performing arts program CU Presents.