Following a monthslong investigation, a special counsel appointed by the Boulder City Council is recommending that a member of the Police Oversight Panel resign due to evidence showing a bias against police, a suggestion that is likely to reignite a debate over community policing in the weeks ahead.
In late January 2023, the city council launched the investigation after a Boulder resident filed a complaint over the nomination of Lisa Sweeney-Miran, the executive director of Mother House, a homeless shelter. Sweeney-Miran was also a former plaintiff in a lawsuit against the police chief that seeks to overturn the city’s camping ban. The complaint alleged her nomination violated a provision in city code that Police Oversight Panel members demonstrate an “absence of any real or perceived bias.”
The special counsel, Clay Douglas, a former city attorney for Longmont and Loveland and a municipal law consultant, conducted the investigation. It included a review of Sweeney-Miran’s social media posts and a phone interview.
“Available evidence of Lisa Sweeney-Miran’s ‘real or perceived bias or prejudice’ could undermine public trust in and effectiveness of the Police Oversight Panel,” Douglas stated in an April 14 memo to city officials. “I recommend Council consider requesting Sweeney-Miran’s resignation from the Police Oversight Panel. If she refuses such a request, I recommend Council consider removing her.”
In response to the finding, Sweeney-Miran told Boulder Reporting Lab she does not plan to resign from the panel. She said she does not believe the Boulder City Council has the authority to remove her from the post.
The ordinance creating the panel states that members can be removed by other oversight panel members “for failure to perform duties or violation of any signed confidentiality agreement.” The city council then has final say.
“That I have expressed heartfelt concern over past instances of police violence, and that I am open to alternatives to police responses when force is not needed, does not make me biased — it makes me the sort of thoughtful person who is intended to be on Boulder’s [Police Oversight Panel],” she wrote in a tweet on Friday.
The results of the investigation mark the latest flashpoint over efforts to reform policing in Boulder. The Police Oversight Panel was created in 2020 after a city police officer drew his gun on a Black college student picking up trash outside his apartment. The 11-member group of volunteers primarily reviews internal investigations into police misconduct.
Since its creation, the Police Oversight Panel has gone through a number of growing pains, including high turnover among panel members due to the workload, concerns over legal liability, and most recently, a politically fraught appointment process. That prompted residents to lodge five separate code of conduct complaints, most of which sought to prevent Sweeney-Miran from serving on the panel. One resident who filed a complaint referred to her as a “cop hater.”
The first complaint was filed against the volunteer panelists and nonprofits who helped nominate new panel members. This selection committee included representatives from the NAACP Boulder County and El Centro Amistad. The complaint claimed the committee did not follow city code when it nominated Sweeney-Miran due to her alleged bias against police.
This complaint had merit, according to the investigator. He said the committee “failed to adequately evaluate” candidates for bias.
Several of the other complaints did not have merit, Douglas said.
When the Boulder City Council voted to launch an investigation into the complaint, Councilmember Junie Joseph voted against appointing a special counsel to lead the investigation. That vote prompted a complaint from a resident who argued the decision was not discretionary. The investigation found this complaint “has no merit.”
In response to the first complaint, the Boulder City Council postponed voting on the appointment. That prompted an additional complaint from Zayd Atkinson, whose interaction with a Boulder police officer in 2019 is often cited as the reason why Boulder needs civilian oversight of its officers. Atkinson alleged city councilmembers did not “fulfill their required duties” when they delayed a vote on appointing new panelists. The special counsel determined the complaint “did not have merit.”
Ultimately, the Boulder City Council voted 6-3 in support of the selection committee’s recommendations for six new panel members. That spurred another complaint alleging Sweeney-Miran was unfit for the role due to bias. The special counsel determined some parts of the complaint had merit.
A separate complaint, meanwhile, alleged city police officers violated department policy and city code in attending a January city council meeting when the appointment was being discussed. That complaint was routed to the city’s Police Standards Unit for investigation, according to city officials.
The results of the investigation are likely to prompt heated debate in the coming weeks, when the Boulder City Council is expected to weigh in. If councilmembers seek to remove Sweeney-Miran from her post, it would pit them against the community groups they sought advice from. This includes the NAACP of Boulder County, a civil rights organization that played a central role in the formation of the Police Oversight Panel.
“I find it an outrageous power grab,” Jude Landsman, a vice president with the NAACP of Boulder County and a member of the selection committee, said of the investigation. “I find it completely disrespectful to the community groups.”
What would be Council’s reaction if a Panel member was accused of having a strong bias in favor of the Police? Would that be considered as having the potential for that member’s opinion to be a threat to the functioning of the Panel?
The ACLU should NOT be allowed to influence or manipulate Boulder police policy from behind the scenes; considering public statements by several Police Oversight Panel members, it’s painfully obvious this is happening.
Human beings are inherently biased, and decision-making groups are no exception. As individuals, we are shaped by our unique experiences, values, and beliefs, which inevitably color our perspectives. Attempting to eliminate all bias from a group, therefore, is not only unrealistic but also goes against the fundamental nature of human cognition.
A problem-solving group, by definition, recognizes the existence of a problem or bias that needs to be addressed. As such, a wide range of opinions and perspectives should be welcomed and valued, rather than suppressed. A healthy debate within the group not only helps identify the problem’s various facets but also fosters creativity in generating solutions. When individuals with differing opinions are willing to engage in open dialogue and be swayed by discussion and evidence, the group’s collective decision-making is enriched and strengthened.
Let’s not undermine the credibility of the group. Vapid efforts vilify one member who has before this panel held a critical opinion of factual scenarios of police behavior doesn’t withstand scrutiny or fair application to the opposing set of beliefs. Will we attempt to remove the panel member who has distinguished themselves just a bit too loudly with praise of some BPD action? Certainly not, yet if we are not fair in application, what sort of effect are we going for here? A resulting bias played out in a panel, let’s call them the foxes…Instead of attacking minority or dissenting opinions, the focus should be on fostering a culture of open dialogue and critical thinking.
The pursuit of a completely unbiased decision-making group is not only impossible but also counterproductive. By attempting to remove one type of bias, we risk introducing an overall bias that diminishes the group’s credibility and effectiveness. Instead, we should embrace the inherent presence of bias in human thought and encourage diverse perspectives within problem-solving groups. We should praise those who speak truth out loud, even if we happen to disagree because doing so will lead to more informed and well-rounded decisions, promoting positive change and challenging the status quo.
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