A Boulder resident has filed a formal complaint against the city alleging that the Police Oversight Panel selection committee violated city code when it approved panel members. Credit: John Herrick

Police Chief Maris Herold met with the city’s volunteer-led Police Oversight Panel on Monday to discuss issues of officer accountability and police transparency.

It was Herold’s first public meeting with the panel members after the watchdog group made a rare recommendation to fire five city officers. One member resigned last month in protest because she was not able to share more information about the case of alleged misconduct

At the same time, panel members have voiced concerns about what feel like new restrictions being placed on their ability to talk publicly about police misconduct cases.  

In response, Herold, who is working on a long-term plan to “reimagine policing,” acknowledged those frustrations. 

“We need to work more collaboratively,” Herold told the panel members. “I want to hold people accountable too.” 

When it comes to her disciplinary decisions, she urged panel members to learn more about the role of police unions and the arbitration process. Police unions frequently use private arbitration attorneys to help officers fired for misconduct get their jobs back and force local governments to pay for lost wages. 

“Arbitration is a huge union issue,” she said. “I think the panel needs to really work with the interim and the new monitor and try to understand this and see where you can start peeling back this a little bit.” (The city is planning to hire a new police monitor early next year.) 

The far-reaching and complicated issue of police unions was just one topic of conversation at the meeting. The quarterly meetings — which are not recorded but are open to the public — are an opportunity for panel members to speak to the city’s police chief about top-of-mind concerns. The meeting was held in-person and over Zoom. 

Transparency concerns 

The first issue they discussed Monday night was the department’s online complaint system. On Nov. 22, city officials said they discovered they had not received at least 12 complaints and comments from community members since April 2022.

Jennifer Douglas, the city’s chief innovation and technology officer, said during the meeting that a former Boulder Police Department employee had linked the city’s online complaint system to his email address. When he left, she said, the city no longer received notice of complaints.

Douglas said the complaint system was updated within hours once they found out. She said the complaints are now routed to three city employees in the police department and to the city’s interim police monitor.

The panel members also discussed the issue of transparency. They have been sounding alarms about recent legal guidance from the city attorney that limits what they can say about cases of alleged officer misconduct. Under the 2020 ordinance that created the panel, members are required to sign confidentiality agreements related to investigations into alleged rule and procedure violations. But they are also required to help write public annual reports and make policy recommendations, presumably based on those investigations. Panel members consider this a conflict in the city’s ordinance.

City Attorney Teresa Tate is “working right now on immediate changes,” co-chair Daniel Leonard, a communications specialist at CU Boulder, said at the meeting. “We’re gonna revise the ordinance. Let’s do it. Let’s get it right.” 

Limits on the amount of information that can be shared with the public by panel members was one reason Martha Wilson, a mental health crisis clinician and former child welfare caseworker, said she resigned from the panel. 

“To see her at all beat down or discouraged was, personally, really hard for me,” panel co-chair Ariel Amaru, a recent graduate of the University of Colorado Law School, said during the meeting. “It caught her up in a place where she felt like she had no more room to advocate and that’s heartbreaking.” 

Amaru has said the panel needs the ability to share more information with the public. “Otherwise the impact that this panel can have is ultimately a hollow reassurance for the community,” she said during the meeting. 

Police Chief Herold said she was sorry to learn about Wilson’s resignation. 

“I hope she continues to work with the community on this important issue,” Herold said.

The role of police unions

The conversation then turned to instances in which the police chief and the panel disagree over disciplinary measures. According to the panel’s most recent annual report, disagreements are relatively rare. 

One notable exception involved an officer who in June 2021, put his knee on a 14-year-old boy’s neck, which panel members argued was a violation of the city’s ordinance prohibiting chokeholds and neck restraints. Panel members recommended training and a one-year letter of reprimand for the officer. Herold exonerated him of wrongdoing. 

The other instance involved five officers — one detective and four others within his chain of command — in the city’s detective section who allegedly had not been investigating cases starting in 2019. The panel recommended all five officers be terminated. The police chief recommended suspensions without pay and letters of reprimand, the city said in a news release. One of the officers retired by resignation. The case is being audited by the Boulder County District Attorney’s Office.

The police department “has rewritten its investigations’ case management policy to provide for workload standards, including limiting the number of cases any one detective may handle, ensuring a regular review of open cases by supervisors, and imposing time limits for investigations,” the release said.

The city has not disclosed how many cases were not investigated. It has denied a records request related to the investigation because “the appeals process for this investigation is not complete.” The city is not providing interviews with reporters about the situation.

Police Chief Herold, speaking generally about the issue of discipline on Monday, said she needs to closely follow the city’s discipline matrix to avoid arbitration disputes with the police union. 

Disputes with arbitrators representing officers can result in fired officers being rehired and back-paid for lost time. Herold said the panel should learn more about the arbitration process. 

“Let’s all get the same training so we’re all speaking the same language,” Herold said. 

State law and city contacts with the police unions govern much of the arbitration process. Across the U.S., such contracts are viewed as an obstacle to police accountability. Taking on such reforms would be a tall task for panel members. 

Panel member Taishya Adams, the first Black woman to serve as a commissioner to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said the panel can at least help the police chief make a strong case for disciplinary measures.

“These issues are not acute just to us,” Adams acknowledged. “But again, at the end of the day, I want everybody to feel when they see a peace officer that that person is here to help. And right now, that is not the case.” 

Herold said the panel and the department might not always agree on whether and how to discipline an officer.

“You have a role to play and I have a role. And that’s okay. Right? But I want you to trust me enough to call me,” she said. “Policing is a bunch of humans doing a very challenging job, and we’re gonna make mistakes. No matter what I do, no matter what things I put in place, we still have human condition.” 

John Herrick

John Herrick reports on housing, climate, health and local government for Boulder Reporting Lab. He previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for VTDigger.org. He is interested in stories about people, power and fairness.

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