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

The Boulder City Council voted 5-4 on Thursday to delay a decision, again, on whether to approve a list of new candidates to serve on the city’s Police Oversight Panel, which reviews investigations into allegations of officer misconduct.

The decision is another rebuff to the selection committee assigned to nominate new members to the volunteer-led oversight panel. The committee includes representatives from NAACP Boulder County and El Centro Amistad.

The vote to approve the list of new candidates has generated pushback from groups of residents who allege two of the candidates are biased against police, referring to them as “cop haters” during a public hearing on Thursday night. City police officers also filled several seats at City Hall, urging the city council to delay a vote.

Ahead of Thursday’s meeting, a resident filed a complaint against the city alleging that the selection committee violated city code when it vetted and nominated candidates. The complaint stirred uncertainty among city councilmembers over how to proceed.

“The selection committee signaled their unwillingness to comply with the applicable ordinance governing qualifications of panel members by renominating the same candidate despite demonstrated bias, prejudice and conflict of interest,” John Neslage, a resident of Boulder, wrote in the Jan. 19 complaint. “Additionally, this candidate also fails to satisfy another stated precondition requiring an ability to build working relationships and communicate effectively with diverse groups.” 

The candidate who has drawn the most scrutiny from these community members, Lisa Sweeney-Miran, is the executive director of Mother House, a homeless shelter. Some of her critics, including members of the public safety advocacy group Safer Boulder, have been outspoken in their desire for city officers to clear out encampments of homeless people. They have also criticized Sweeney-Miran’s public statements that questioned police power. 

Sweeney-Miran is a plaintiff in a May 2022 lawsuit against the City of Boulder seeking to overturn the city’s camping ban, which makes it illegal for homeless people to sleep outside in public spaces. The lawsuit names Police Chief Maris Herold as a defendant.

In response to the complaint, several councilmembers said they preferred to hold off on approving the new candidates. 

Tate said under city code, the city council is required to order an investigation into the complaint. She said the investigation could be completed in a matter of weeks. How the city council proceeds will likely be decided during a special meeting next Thursday. 

It’s unclear how the delay will affect the panel’s ability to meet next month, on Feb. 8. Two panel members are planning to finish their terms before the next meeting, creating some urgency to get the new 11-member panel seated. Since the panel was created in 2020, its members have struggled with high turnover, a demanding workload, and new legal guidance from city staff limiting how much they can say publicly about cases of alleged misconduct. 

Councilmembers who supported delaying a vote until next week were Mayor Aaron Brockett, Bob Yates, Mark Wallach, Tara Winer and Matt Benjamin. 

“I would hate to proceed and then … have things potentially go badly,” Brockett said. “Once we get a judgment on this, I think we could proceed, probably free and clear, with these selections, potentially. So I’m reluctantly willing to postpone for now but with the intention of coming back soon.”

Those voting against the delay were Councilmembers Rachel Friend, Junie Joseph, Nicole Speer and Lauren Folkerts. Some saw the complaint as an example of how politicized the appointment process has become for a city council that is otherwise uninvolved in the business of the Police Oversight Panel. Others worried it could set a new precedent. 

“There’s no prior precedent,” Joseph said. “And I’m worried that people can just think, ‘Oh, yeah, let me complain and I’ll just halt the work of the council.’”

The panel was created in November 2020, spurred by an incident in which a Boulder officer drew his gun on a Black Naropa University student. Body camera footage sparked calls for police accountability. The 2020 ordinance that created the panel states its members should demonstrate “an absence of any real or perceived bias, prejudice or conflict of interest.”

The city received 57 applications among members of the community to serve on the panel. 

They were scored on a variety of characteristics, including former experience living homeless or being incarcerated, and an “awareness of the covert and overt racism in the context of policing or over policing,” according to a city staff memo.

According to the ordinance that established the panel, the Boulder area nonprofits chosen to help select nominees “must be organizations” that “serve a population that has significant contact or a difficult relationship with law enforcement, and serve a historically excluded community.”

Before the vote, Judith Landsman, a vice president with the NAACP of Boulder County and a member of the selection committee, urged the city to not delay a vote. 

“Respect our input in the decision-making process,” Landsman said. “Asking for community feedback is an empty gesture when that feedback is not incorporated into policy. The panelists selection committee is a rare community entity invested with the power to make decisions. How sad and telling that city council saw it fit to question our competence and not their own.”

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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