Boulder’s Police Oversight Panel has temporarily stopped watchdogging internal investigations into officer misconduct, halting one of the city’s primary ways of ensuring police officer accountability through civilian oversight.
The decision came after the Boulder City Council voted last week to remove one of its members, Lisa Sweeney-Miran. The removal followed allegations from a group of residents — later upheld by a special counsel — that she was biased against police. City code prohibits anyone with a “real or perceived bias” from serving on the panel.
Following the vote, some members on the 10-person panel worried they, too, could be removed over similar allegations of bias. Others were concerned that their work, which includes making disciplinary recommendations to the city’s police chief, could be legally challenged.
In light of these concerns, the panel decided to suspend just about all of its work. In the meantime, it will use its time to begin drafting revisions to the 2020 ordinance that created the panel.
“In an effort to avoid a large-scale walk out, what we are proposing instead is sitting in until this work is done,” co-chair and founding member Hadasa Villalobos, a quality supervisor for a local food manufacturer, said during the meeting on Wednesday.
Co-chair Daniel Leonard, a communications specialist at CU Boulder, was also one of the founding members. Since the panel first began meeting in early 2021, it has struggled to keep members due to workload, restrictions on what they can say publicly, and, most recently, an appointment process that resulted in an unusual amount of scrutiny.
Leonard said by pausing its work, he hopes to preserve the panel. The panel is among the only government bodies in Boulder whose stated mandate includes ensuring that historically excluded communities have a voice.
“I am trying my best to represent my viewpoints and experiences as a queer person. And I think if diverse people walk away from this process, diverse people won’t walk towards it again,” Leonard said.
The panel voted 8-1 to approve the motion. Sarah Holt, of Longmont, was absent. The only member to oppose the motion was Jason Savela, a criminal defense lawyer for a Boulder-based firm who was appointed in January.
“They have succeeded in shutting us down and preventing us from doing our job by taking away one of us. I think that we prove ourselves by doing our work and doing it well,” Savela said. “I want to review cases and do casework.”
The panelists considered asking the Boulder City Council to approve their decision to suspend work. This was based on a suggestion by Erin Poe, the deputy city attorney, who said that without council approval, residents may file more code of conduct complaints against panelists.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen next. This is a unique situation,” Poe told panel members after the vote.
The panelists, however, decided not to seek city council approval. Some described stopping work as a “strike,” potentially sending a message to councilmembers of what’s at stake when they interfere with the panel.
“I don’t see how the city council that got us into this situation can make a decision about whether or not we should continue,” Sam Zhang, a Ph.D student of applied mathematics at CU Boulder and union organizer, said.
“Let them file more complaints,” Zhang said, referring to residents. “There will be complaints no matter what.”
Madelyn Strong Woodley, a member of the NAACP Boulder County who helped create the Police Oversight Panel in 2019, said people did not seek permission for marches, sit-ins and protests during the civil rights movement.
“Change happened as a result of taking some very drastic actions,” Woodley said. “And whatever is decided, it has to be decided with heart. It has to be decisive. And it has to be unified.”
The panel members said they will complete the review of the cases they already started. This work typically entails reviewing police reports, body camera footage, and other evidence related to internal investigations into complaints. After reviewing cases, members determine whether an officer has violated any rules or procedures. They then make disciplinary recommendations to the city’s police chief, who has the final say.
Flo Finkle, the city’s interim Independent Police Monitor, can still review cases during the panel’s hiatus. Under city code, the monitor has the authority to observe investigations in real-time and determine whether they are “thorough and complete.” (Finkle works for OIR Group, a California-based firm hired by the city while it searches for a new police monitor.)
By not reviewing cases, the panel members will be able to expedite their work on reforming the ordinance that created the panel. The Boulder City Council created the oversight panel after a city police officer drew his gun on a Black student in 2019.
During the meeting on Wednesday, the panel members agreed to form an eight-person working group to meet regularly and go line-by-line through the ordinance. The group will include two panelists, two community members, a representative from the City of Boulder, a representative from the Boulder Police Department, an independent attorney, and Martha Wilson, a former member of the panel who resigned last year after city officials said she could not share certain information about a high-profile case publicly.
The city hired Farah Muscadin, the former director of the Office of Police Oversight in Austin, Texas, to help with the code revisions on a contract basis. Prior to the panel suspending its work, she proposed a “tentative timeline” to have a new ordinance approved by the Boulder City Council in October 2023.
“I have no control over the timeline because community input and feedback is always a wild card,” Muscadin said. “I would really like to see us get started as soon as possible.”