The Boulder City Council will hold a public hearing this week on a proposed ordinance that seeks to shield the city’s Police Oversight Panel from the kind of political disruptions that halted its work earlier this year and clarify rules related to its day-to-day business, which includes reviewing internal investigations into complaints of officer misconduct.
The proposed ordinance, which has been in the works since June, essentially scraps the 2020 law that created the 11-member volunteer watchdog group. The impetus for the change stems primarily from a politically fraught appointment process earlier this year. The Boulder City Council added six new members to the panel and later made a dramatic decision to remove one member following allegations of bias. The Boulder City Council was then sued over the kerfuffle, and the lawsuit is pending.
Perhaps the most significant change to the ordinance would be to remove the city council’s role in appointing panel members and instead give it to the city manager. The city manager would also gain the authority to remove members.
The city manager would need to involve the community in creating the appointment process. But it is unclear whether this input would be ongoing. The ordinance would also give the city manager discretion to decide whether to create an advisory committee to help select new panel members.
Daniel Leonard, the panel’s co-chair and a communications specialist at CU Boulder, said in a letter to the Boulder City Council that the ordinance revisions are “a significant step forward.” But regarding the appointment process, Leonard said he wants the ordinance to require the creation of an advisory committee to assist in the selection process. Without such a committee, he argued, the city manager would have “unacceptable control” over the panel, among other concerns.
“I do not believe that grabbing power away from the community is a viable or ethical answer to the challenge,” Leonard wrote to councilmembers.
Councilmembers will have to balance multiple priorities when it comes to the appointment process question. On one hand, many have stated they want to avoid politicizing the appointment process again, and bringing in community members could potentially hinder that goal. At the same time, the stated intent of both the current and proposed ordinance is to “increase community involvement in police oversight and ensure that historically excluded communities have a voice in the oversight.”
Removing the no-bias requirement
The contentious appointment process revealed problems with a separate ordinance provision about bias.
The existing ordinance prohibits the appointment of members who have any “real or perceived bias.” This provision was cited by a special counsel who recommended that Lisa Sweeney-Miran, a director of a homeless shelter and political organizer previously involved in a lawsuit against the city’s police chief, should resign or be removed. The political controversy surrounding the appointment process prompted Police Oversight Panel members to temporarily halt their case reviews, in part because they feared similar allegations of bias could threaten their work.
The proposed audience would require members to have “the ability to be fair-minded, objective, and impartial.” It would also disqualify members with certain ties to the Boulder Police Department and law enforcement more generally.
Removing the no-bias criteria is likely to make it harder to challenge the appointment of members. Leonard, however, said he would like to see the word “objective” removed, as “a criterion of objectivity could disqualify any individual and counter the diversity values of this ordinance.”
Efforts to include a diversity of perspectives on the panel are still baked in throughout the proposed ordinance. For instance, it requires the appointment of at least two students to the panel and states that the overall composition of the panel “shall seek to exceed the diversity of the Boulder community, including the ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic status as well as the diverse professional backgrounds, lived experience, and expertise of the residents of Boulder.”
The diversity requirements reflect the broader intent of the original ordinance. Councilmembers passed the ordinance after a city officer in 2019 drew his gun on a Black Naropa University student, Zayd Atkinson, who was picking up trash outside his home when confronted.
Leading the ordinance revision process was Farah Muscadin, the former director of the Office of Police Oversight in Austin, Texas. She was hired by the city in February to help with the code revisions on a contract basis until the end of the year. She helped create the Police Oversight Ordinance Work Group, which began meeting in June 2023. The working group included two Police Oversight Panel members: Hadasa Villalobos, a co-chair of the panel and a quality supervisor for a local food manufacturer, and Maria Soledad-Diaz, the shelter program director at Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (SPAN). It also included Martha Wilson, a founding member of the panel who resigned last year, as well as representatives from El Centro Amistad and NAACP Boulder County, and from the City Attorney’s Office and the Boulder Police Department.
The panel members did not vote on whether to support the ordinance. But it is likely several will be present at the Boulder City Council meeting on Thursday to give feedback.
Disputes over discipline
Currently, city code grants the police chief sole authority to discipline or fire an officer. Panel members and the police chief usually agree on how or whether to punish officers accused of wrongdoing. But they have disagreed, and when they do, the panel members have little power to influence the final outcome.
Under the proposed revisions, the police chief’s authority remains intact but spells out a process that could bring more transparency to the disagreements.
For instance, the panel members would be able to submit written objections if they disagree with the police chief’s determination in an investigation. “Panel objections may be made public in a manner consistent with all applicable confidentiality requirements,” the ordinance states.
If panel members disagree with the severity of the punishment — or if they believe no punishment is warranted — they could request a meeting with the police chief to “discuss the complaint, investigation, the outcome, and the rationale for the discipline decision.”
The ordinance does not specify whether this meeting is open to the public.
Under the current rules, panel members are bound to confidentiality requirements when discussing their case reviews during public meetings. Wilson, a former panel member, resigned after she said city officials barred her from sharing information related to the panel’s review of a high-profile complaint involving the city’s detective section.
The ordinance does not appear to give panel members the authority to disclose more information.
“All Panel members shall sign a confidentiality agreement which prohibits them from publicly discussing or releasing any information or materials reviewed in closed session,” the proposed ordinance states. “The monitor, their staff, the Panel, all consultants, and experts hired by the monitor shall treat all documents and information regarding specific investigations of officers as confidential except to the extent needed to carry out their duties.”
Panel members have also raised concerns about their legal liability and some have requested that the city pay for outside counsel to represent them. Some felt they have had no legal protection, while the City Attorney’s Office represents the Boulder Police Department.
The ordinance gives the city attorney the authority to decide when to bring in outside counsel to help the panel.
“The city attorney has authority to seek and retain outside counsel to support the monitor and/or Panel,” the ordinance states. It also states “it is the intent that Panel members be free from personal liability for acts taken within the course and scope of carrying out their official duties and functions. The city shall therefore defend and indemnify members to the maximum extent permitted under the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act and other applicable laws.”
The new ordinance would require members to participate in trainings on police department policies, privacy rules, legal liabilities and city code. They may also participate in “at least one four-hour ride-along in-car session or one two-hour walk-along session with police department patrol operations.”
Leonard, co-chair of the panel, suggested that the ordinance be amended to require the city to provide additional support and resources for trainings.
“One of the most significant challenges over the last three years was that the monitor, city manager’s office, and [Boulder Police Department] did not fulfill the panel’s requests for additional training,” he wrote in the letter to the Boulder City Council.