The Boulder City Council on Thursday adopted the first set of revisions to the ordinance that created the Police Oversight Panel, a volunteer-led group that reviews investigations into complaints of officer misconduct. The changes are a response to concerns from panel members over transparency and fears they could be sued by police officers for saying too much.
Since the panel’s creation in 2020, following a high-profile incident in which a former city officer drew his gun on a Black Naropa student, the panel has been bogged down by high turnover, demanding work hours, limits on transparency, and a politically fraught appointment process that resulted in two of its members being investigated by a special counsel for alleged city code violations.
The Boulder City Council is expected to make several changes to the ordinance, including removing councilmembers from the appointment process. The ordinance seeks to clarify what the panel members can and cannot say about their case reviews, which are conducted in closed sessions under rules of confidentiality.
The emergency ordinance was passed on Feb. 2 without a public hearing and took effect immediately.
Deputy City Attorney Erin Poe told city councilmembers the purpose of the ordinance was to provide greater transparency to the public about the work of the Police Oversight Panel.
“We believe this aligns with what their practices have been,” Poe said.
The new ordinance allows panel members to speak publicly about the “nature of the allegations and evidentiary analysis” in order to explain their recommendations on discipline. The amendment still prohibits them from disclosing “confidential or protected information,” such as the names of the complainants or officers.
“Panelists shall not discuss at public meetings the identity of involved BPD personnel, witnesses, and victims, or locator information that might tend to identify the event,” the amended ordinance states. “Should questions arise about the appropriate balance between transparency and confidentiality, POP members will consult with the Monitor and/or City Attorney.”
Several members of the Police Oversight Panel have said they were concerned about their legal liabilities and protections when discussing details of their case reviews. The ordinance requires them to sign a confidentiality agreement. But the ordinance also requires them to work with the city’s police monitor to write public annual reports that include recommendations based on their review of investigations.
Late last year, city officials provided panel members with legal advice that included limits on what they were allowed to disclose publicly, panel members said. City officials also advised panel members not to disclose information regarding a high-profile complaint involving officers in the city’s detective section who failed to investigate reports of crime, including reports of domestic violence, child abuse and assault, dating back to 2019. (The details of the investigation have since been made publicly available upon request.)
One of the panel’s founding members, Martha Wilson, a mental health crisis clinician and former child welfare caseworker, said she resigned in protest over the “the lack of information being shared with the public and the tactics being used to silence panel members.”
Wilson said on Thursday that the changes to the ordinance still leave too much room for interpretation.
“Because it is so loose, the panelists could easily be told that they are violating that abstract language choice and not know any better because only a couple are lawyers themselves,” she wrote in an email to Boulder Reporting Lab. “The panelists would be stuck in the same toxic circle that I tried to break open with my exit.”
Wilson said she wants to see the ordinance changed to explicitly allow panel members to report publicly on “facts that communicate context, scale and severity” of the complaints. She has called on the city to provide the panel members free legal representation and advice from an attorney who is independent of the city. (The city attorney also represents the Boulder Police Department.) Such representation, Wilson said, is necessary to reduce a “fear of retribution” that panel members face when doing their work.
The newly appointed 11-member panel is scheduled to meet for the first time on March 8, according to the city. The city is planning to hire a new police monitor in the coming weeks. Both are expected to provide city councilmembers with recommendations for additional reforms to the law in the coming months.
Correction: A previous version of this story said the new panel was meeting for the first time on Feb. 8. A city official later said the plan is for the new panel to meet on March 8.