Members of Boulder’s Police Oversight Panel are considering suspending their review of internal investigations into officer misconduct, an indication that the politicized appointment process that culminated in the removal of a panelist this week could jeopardize the city’s civilian oversight of its police department.
During a regularly scheduled meeting on Friday, co-chairs and founding members of the Police Oversight Panel, Daniel Leonard and Hadasa Villalobos, said the 11-member panel should consider pausing its review of cases until the Boulder City Council updates city code. The goal would be to give them greater protections from legal challenges and political backlash.
No decisions have been made. Nor did the co-chairs suggest specific policy changes. The full panel is scheduled to meet on Wednesday, May 10, to weigh in on how to proceed with its work.
Unless changes are made to city code, Leonard said a significant number of panelists may resign. Since it started meeting about two years ago, it has struggled to keep seats filled due to workload and other challenges. And last year, a founding member said she resigned in protest after city officials advised her not to release certain information publicly regarding a high-profile case.
“I’m hearing the extreme concerns about how we do the work and how safe we are in doing the work,” Leonard said during the meeting.
Their concern is based on a provision in city code that prohibits members who have a “real or perceived bias” from serving on the panel. Last month, a special counsel appointed by the Boulder City Council found that the selection committee that nominated six new panelists did not “adequately evaluate” them on the question of bias. The selection committee included representatives from the NAACP Boulder County and El Centro Amistad, as well as two members of the Police Oversight Panel.
As a result, the special counsel, Clay Douglas, recommended the removal of Lisa Sweeney-Miran, the director of a homeless shelter and advocate for police reform who has been the target of several complaints from Boulder residents. City council approved the recommendation by a 5-2 vote on Thursday, May 4.
The panel co-chairs worry this provision will be used against other panel members nominated by the selection committee, either to discredit their work or remove them.
“I don’t think any decisions would be protected,” Villalobos said.
Leonard said that he had requested the Boulder City Council address this issue by updating the ordinance before voting on Sweeney-Miran’s removal. In a January op-ed, Leonard wrote that the provision around bias is “frustratingly open to interpretation.”
“Panelists feel threatened by this idea of ‘perceived bias,’” Leonard said. “We’re marginalized people. I’m a gay man. I live in a world where there are people in my community who perceive gay men as pedophiles. And I operate under an ordinance that says any perceived bias can get me kicked off this panel.”
The Boulder City Council passed the ordinance creating the Police Oversight Panel in 2020, the year after an officer drew his gun on a Black student. In other cities, such provisions around bias have largely sought to prevent police officers from serving on the panel set up to oversee them. Some argue the dispute over the appointment process playing out in Boulder has shown that the provision can be used against the “historically excluded communities” the ordinance sought to protect.
“I don’t know a single member of this panel who isn’t critical of the police,” Leonard said. “So there is this fundamental threat that inhibits the panel’s work, but also this new question of whether the panel has credibility.”
Before the vote, the Police Oversight Panel had been preparing to begin rewriting the 2020 ordinance that created the panel over the coming months. Topics under consideration include the selection process for new members, giving the members greater influence over disciplinary decisions, transparency around what they can share with the public about their case reviews, and access to independent legal counsel. The city hired Farah Muscadin, the former director of the Office of Police Oversight in Austin, Texas, to help with the revisions on a contract basis.
During the Friday meeting, Muscadin said she would like to begin that work in the coming weeks, accelerating the timeline.
“Time was already of the essence,” she said. “But it is clearly more of the essence.”
In the meantime, it is unclear what work will be suspended, if any.
Flo Finkle, the city’s interim Independent Police Monitor, will still be able to review cases even if the panel members abstain from doing so. Under city code, the monitor has the authority to observe investigations in real-time and determine whether they are “thorough and complete.”
It is also unclear whether the panel could pause its work, even if members wanted to.
“Just stopping the work would be problematic,” Aimee Kane, the city’s equity officer and liaison for the Police Oversight Panel, said during Friday’s meeting. “That’s an ordinance violation and that could add to some code of conduct complaints.”