Boulder City Councilmembers on Thursday scheduled a vote on whether to remove a member from the Police Oversight Panel, setting itself up to exert its influence over a group that has received almost no oversight from councilmembers since it started meeting more than two years ago.
The vote, scheduled for May 4, comes after a special counsel, Clay Douglas, a former city attorney, recommended that one of the panel members, Lisa Sweeney-Miran, resign or be removed by city council due to her “real or perceived bias” against police.
The 2020 ordinance that created the panel bars anyone with “real or perceived bias” from serving on it. This sort of provision has often been used in other cities, including Denver, to prevent officers from serving on the boards set up to oversee them.
The investigation was triggered by complaints from residents who argued Sweeney-Miran was too biased to serve on the panel given her prior involvement in a lawsuit against the city’s police chief seeking to overturn the city’s camping ban, and her outspoken advocacy for police reform on social media. The 11-member panel of volunteers reviews the internal investigations into allegations of officer misconduct and makes disciplinary recommendations.
Sweeney-Miran has said she does not plan to resign. Earlier this week, her lawyer sent city officials a letter criticizing the investigation and arguing the city council lacks the legal authority to remove her. Doing so, the letter alleges, could open the door to a First Amendment lawsuit against the city.
The investigation revealed little new information about the saga over Sweeney-Miran’s nomination to the panel. Citing a Merriam-Webster definition of “bias” and a Wikipedia excerpt on the “police abolition movement,” Douglas concluded that Sweeney-Miran’s involvement in the camping ban lawsuit and social media post on abolition, among other evidence, demonstrated some level of bias against police. He said this amounts to a violation of city code, and as such, the Boulder City Council has the authority to remove her from the panel.
Depending on how the city council weighs in next month, the outcome could establish a precedent for giving residents and councilmembers more power over who serves on the panel.
When creating the panel, councilmembers sought “to increase community involvement in police oversight and ensure that historically excluded communities have a voice in that oversight,” according to the ordinance. At the time, some councilmembers raised concerns about having any involvement in choosing panel members. The Police Oversight Panel was created in 2020 after a city police officer drew his gun on a Black college student.
“I think resigning sets a precedent that it’s okay … to let members of the Police Oversight Panel be pressured by city council, by the police force, by members of our community that don’t like their work,” Sweeney-Miran, director of a homeless shelter, told Boulder Reporting Lab.
During a city council meeting on Thursday, Ana Karina Casas, a representative from El Centro Amistad, who served on the selection committee that nominated Sweeney-Miran, criticized the investigation for not interviewing her, among other reasons. “He failed to make a distinction between bias and informed opinions,” Casas said.
Jude Landsman, a vice president with the NAACP of Boulder County and a member of the selection committee, also defended Sweeney-Miran. “The selection committee unanimously chose to promote a slate that would fulfill the mission the oversight panel was created for: to assure community members that efforts will be made to hold the police accountable for misconduct,” she said.
Several of the founding members of the Police Oversight Panel told Boulder Reporting Lab they, too, do not want panel members to face political pressure. But they are worried the dispute has become a distraction and could inadvertently jeopardize the work of a panel they spent the last two years helping to shape.
“It is no longer doing the panel any good to test whether city council would actually go so far as to remove someone,” said Ariel Amaru, a former co-chair and founding member of the panel whose term ended in February. “It is not fair that [Sweeney-Miran] is being asked to resign,” she added. “And yet, she should resign because she’s hurting the panel.”
Amaru said that many members are busy working on changes to the city’s ordinance that created the panel and reviewing investigations into cases of alleged misconduct. The panel has struggled to keep members due to the workload.
“This is supposed to be a mostly diverse panel conducting oversight,” Amaru said. “The work of the panel is being entirely lost in this protection [from the panel] for a white activist, who I think is really well-intentioned, who I think is a great panelist.”
Others worry the dispute could result in city council seeking more oversight of the nomination process. Currently, deliberations by the selection committee, which is made up of representatives from nonprofits and panel members, are confidential.
“I don’t know where the cuts will end from there,” Martha Wilson, a founding member of the panel who resigned late last year, told Boulder Reporting Lab. “And for that reason, I don’t think she should be asking the panel to protect her. I think she should be protecting the panel by stepping aside.”
“It’s a lose-lose situation,” she added. “It’s clear that these people are not going to stop until they have Lisa’s head. And I know that’s unfortunate and unfair.”
While some panel members have voiced their support for Sweeney-Miran, the Police Oversight Panel as a whole has not publicly weighed in on the resignation fight. Sam Zhang, a Ph.D. student at CU Boulder and union organizer who joined the panel this year, told Boulder City Council in an email that he stands with Sweeney-Miran.
Mylene Vialard, a translator who also joined the panel this year, did not weigh in on Sweeney-Miran specifically. She told city councilmembers at Thursday’s meeting that she believes there are people in the community who want the mission of the Police Oversight Panel to fail — a mission that aims “to ensure that historically excluded communities have a voice in police oversight.” She described the effort as “overarching” and “meant to discredit the independence of the panel before it even gets to work this year.”
The two current co-chairs of the panel, Daniel Leonard and Hadasa Villalobos, declined to comment on whether Sweeney-Miran should resign. But they said the dispute has affected the work of the panel.
“The counterproductive attention and the distraction from our purpose is causing significant strain on the panel,” they said in an email. “Our primary concern is getting back to the panel’s mission, which is bringing together and empowering marginalized voices to conduct oversight of our community’s police department.”
Sweeney-Miran said she was aware that a founding panel member wanted her to resign. She agreed the fight has been a distraction for the panel. She said she hopes the Boulder City Council considers the impact the dispute is having on the panel’s work when it decides how to move forward.
“This will be an opportunity for them to stand up and do the right thing for our community,” she said. “I think it’s incredibly unfair that the members of the Police Oversight Panel are being dragged through this process with me. They have done such amazing and important work over the last few years.”
The debate over how to proceed has prompted dicey conversations about race and privilege.
The lawyer representing Sweeney-Miran, Dan Williams, a civil rights attorney, sent city officials the letter this week in her defense. The letter calls out Douglas and the resident who filed the complaint as “two privileged white male lawyers.”
“Removal of Ms. Sweeney-Miran would only exacerbate the problem of Panelists feeling that their voices are being silenced, further undermining the Panel’s work and effectiveness,” the letter states. “It should not go unnoticed, for example, that all of the Black women on the panel resigned or declined to extend their terms in 2022.”
In response to the letter, Amaru said she did not seek another term because she moved away from Boulder and was ready to pursue other volunteer opportunities, among other reasons.
“We actually are very proud to have completed our full terms,” she said. “The angle that I am seeing here is: Three Black women were silenced and now Lisa has to stay on the panel to champion them. That feels wrong to me.”
For Wilson, who resigned after city officials said she could not release certain information related to a case of alleged misconduct involving the city’s detective section, the fallout from the appointment fight feels like another example of not being able to share the full story with the public.
“This letter is also not providing the full story,” she said. “That’s why I’m so upset. It wasn’t a lift to Black people.”
Correction: A previous version of this story said that Police Oversight Panel member Mylene Vialard “defended Sweeney-Miran.” In her public testimony to Boulder City Council, Vialard did not weigh in specifically on whether Sweeney-Miran should resign. Her quote has been updated to more accurately reflect her testimony.