For more than a month, the Boulder City Council has delayed approval of new members to serve on the city’s volunteer Police Oversight Panel, which reviews city investigations into complaints of officer misconduct.
The prolonged process is a response to allegations by several community members — and the Boulder Police Officers Association — that the selection committee violated city law when it nominated an outspoken advocate for police reform to serve on the 11-member panel. They argue the nominee is too partial, citing a provision in the law establishing the panel.
The 2020 law — which has come under close scrutiny amid debates over public safety and police reform — requires that members be free of “any real or perceived” bias, while at the same time it emphasizes the importance of a perspective shaped by a “difficult relationship with law enforcement.”
These and other seemingly contradictory requirements have caused confusion about how the panel works and how to select new members.
Several people involved in the creation of the panel, for instance, told Boulder Reporting Lab the provision about bias was at least in part intended to prevent police officers, or people who are racist or homophobic, from serving. Regardless of why it was included, it can be too open for interpretation, some experts say.
“It is hard to identify the ‘bias-free’ individuals who do not have a preconceived notion about police work,” said Maria Haberfeld, a professor at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who has been involved in training New York City police officers. “Some cities require the members to have a legal background, for example. Others advocate for members with law enforcement experience. There is also the issue of diversity that seems to play an increasingly important role.”
The committee that nominated the panelists includes representatives from the NAACP of Boulder County, a civil rights organization that for years has played a role in creating the oversight panel, and El Centro Amistad, an organization advocating for Latino families.
The skirmish over the nominees has put councilmembers in the awkward position of siding with vocal supporters of the city’s police department — against the advice of the selection committee — in deciding the makeup of a panel set up to watchdog complaints against officers. Under the law, the city council must confirm the nominees.
In cities across the Front Range, provisions related to bias vary. Denver’s oversight board bars members if they or their immediate family have ever been employed by the Denver police, sheriff or fire departments. The Aurora Independent Review Board prohibits members who have a “partiality” that could bring the board into “disrepute.”
In light of the recent controversy, some councilmembers said they are interested in changing the ordinance to avoid another drawn-out selection process. For years, some have raised concerns that council’s involvement could politicize appointments.
“I definitely want to have a conversation about how it might be done differently,” Mayor Aaron Brockett said of the process. “I don’t know exactly how it should change. But I think we definitely want to look at the appointment process because I think it’s been a challenging one for all involved.”
‘Negative bias towards the police’
Councilmembers, city officials and current panel members have already been outspoken in their desire to revise Ordinance 8430. The debate over how to best select new candidates is just one example of a growing list of concerns since it was unanimously adopted by city council in November 2020.
Its creation came after a city officer in 2019 drew his gun on a Black Naropa University student, Zayd Atkinson, who later told Good Morning America “I’m blessed that I got out alive.” The murder of George Floyd a year later by a Minneapolis police officer bolstered community support for the panel.
The moments of racial reckoning are reflected in the ordinance. It states the city must “ensure that historically excluded communities have a voice in that oversight.” The law also set up a selection committee that must include representatives from two nonprofit organizations that “serve a population that has significant contact or a difficult relationship with law enforcement.”
Late last year, the selection committee nominated Lisa Sweeney-Miran, the executive director of Mother House, a homeless shelter that serves people who “identify as women, transgender, or nonbinary, and their children.” Sweeney-Miran is also 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. Sweeney-Miran serves on the school board for the Boulder Valley School District, and advocated for removing officers from its schools as part of a broader effort to reduce disparities in punishment for Black and Latino students.
The ordinance that created the police oversight panel also includes a provision that states members shall demonstrate “an absence of any real or perceived bias, prejudice or conflict of interest.” Some residents have cited this provision, among others, to make a case against Sweeney-Miran.
In an email to Boulder City Council, Safer Boulder, a group with the stated mission of advocating for public safety, including enforcement of the city’s camping ban, said Sweeney-Miran demonstrates a “strong negative bias towards the police will NOT be in the best interest of the panel’s mission or the safety of our community.” John Neslage, a corporate lawyer who has been outspoken in his concerns about crime in Boulder, later filed a formal complaint alleging that the selection committee violated city code when it nominated her.
Following initial complaints from residents, the Boulder City Council on Dec. 15 approved a motion directing the selection committee to provide, in writing, an explanation of how they followed city code in choosing nominees. (Even this request has run into complications with city code, which states “selection panel deliberations shall be confidential.”)
“It was clearly disrespectful,” Jude Landsman, a vice president with the NAACP of Boulder County and a member of the selection committee, said of the directive from the city council. “It feels like they are trying to influence our decision.”
Panel members have reaffirmed their support for the candidates. On Jan. 19, after Neslage filed his formal complaint, triggering an investigation, the city council again delayed approval of new panel members.
On Thursday, Jan. 26, the city council will for the third time decide whether to approve the new members.
Other revisions under consideration
When the dust settles on the appointment process, city councilmembers are likely to solicit feedback from new panel members and the independent police monitor. They will then begin revising the ordinance.
One area of interest involves a requirement that panel members sign a confidentiality agreement that “prohibits them from publicly discussing or releasing any information or materials reviewed in closed session.” This has resulted in members raising concerns about their legal liabilities for doing their work, including writing annual reports, which are required under the ordinance. One founding member resigned in protest over issues of transparency.
Like the selection process language, such concerns over transparency are not unique to Boulder’s Police Oversight Panel, according to Haberfeld, of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“Overall, I think what is needed is more clarification about what kind of information needs to remain confidential and what can be discussed with external audiences,” Haberfeld wrote in an email to Boulder Reporting Lab.
Another longstanding concern among advocates is the panel’s inability to discipline officers, a power that resides with the city’s police chief.
For the most part, panel members and the police chief have agreed when determining whether an officer violated rules and procedures, and how the officer should be punished. But there have been at least two notable exceptions. One case involved an officer who put his knee on the back of a 14-year-old boy’s neck. Another involved five officers in the detective section who did not investigate cases for years.
During a public forum with the candidates for independent police monitor in January, candidates said many other cities have an appeals process to resolve disagreements between panelists and the police chief.
“All of the boards that I have ever worked with have due process and an appeals process, which this one does not,” Cathy Rodriguez, a compliance manager with Colorado’s POST, which oversees officer training and certification, said. “I find that quite interesting.”
Aimee Kane, the city’s equity program manager who has been involved in the implementation of the police oversight ordinance, said she could not comment on potential reforms. Kane said the discussion will be driven by new panel members and the newly hired independent police monitor. The city plans to hire a new independent police monitor in the coming weeks.
“Hopefully we get a panel approved on Thursday, [Jan. 26] and we can move forward with our work,” Kane said.