The Boulder City Council last week unanimously approved a new ordinance that effectively overhauls the rules governing the city’s Police Oversight Panel, a volunteer group that reviews internal investigations into complaints of officer misconduct.
The most significant change gives the city manager the authority to appoint new members to the 11-member panel. Previously, Boulder City Council made these appointments. The change was motivated by this year’s prolonged and contentious appointment process.
Under the ordinance, the city manager will be required to form an advisory committee that may include community members to assist with the selection process for new panelists. (The city manager will solely determine student appointments due to the expected higher turnover among student panelists.)
The emergency ordinance will take effect immediately.
“It is not perfect, but it is perfectible,” Maria Soledad-Diaz, a panel member who was part of the working group responsible for drafting the ordinance, told councilmembers last week. The panel paused its work reviewing investigations to focus on revising the ordinance. “We want to get back to work,” Soledad-Diaz added.
The ordinance creating the Police Oversight Panel was first passed in 2020, the year after a city officer drew his gun on an unarmed Black college student who was picking up trash outside his home. The founding members of the panel had raised concerns over issues of transparency, legal liability and general inconsistencies with the previous law governing their work.
The issue came to a head earlier this year when the Boulder City Council was in the process of appointing six new panel members. This culminated in several complaints from residents, a dramatic decision to remove a panelist following allegations of bias against police, and a lawsuit against councilmembers alleging they “acted arbitrarily, capriciously, in violation of the law.” The panel’s decision to pause its work was intended in part to help shield it from political disruptions and protect the credibility of its oversight work.
“We were in a pretty dark place earlier this year and I was losing hope for the success of this effort in our community,” Mayor Aaron Brockett said during last week’s council meeting. “And here we are, with a ray of light and all the hope restored.”
Only four people spoke during the public hearing, reflecting a relatively subdued community reaction given the contentious appointment process earlier this year.
Daniel Leonard, the panel’s co-chair, requested that the council make additional changes to the ordinance, including increasing city support for training. Ultimately, with a looming election in which five seats on the nine-member council are up for grabs, councilmembers decided to move ahead with a vote.
Leonard and other members of the Police Oversight Panel were given a presentation on the ordinance in September, on the same day the working group released the proposal to the public. Leonard suggested this was not enough time to provide feedback.
The day after the city council vote, he handed in a resignation letter to the city manager. The decision highlights a lack of consensus on the ordinance and reveals long-standing frustrations among some panel members, who, until recently, have faced more roadblocks than recognition for their work.
“In this new oversight law, all I asked was for my suggestions and experience as a founding member and longest co-chair of the panel to be considered. I was patient with and respectful of the chosen process, waited my turn and submitted my suggestions just a week after the first and only draft of the law was shared with me,” Leonard wrote. “I can’t hold on to my sense of self-worth and continue working for a system that dismisses even considering hearing my voice.”
The new law was drafted by a working group, which included two members of the Police Oversight Panel and several city officials, and was led by a consultant contracted by the city, Farah Muscadin, the former director of the Office of Police Oversight in Austin, Texas. Muscadin will continue working with the city until the end of the year.
“We still have a lot of work ahead of us,” Muscadin told councilmembers, referring to the need to create new bylaws, among other tasks.
In addition to revising the appointment process, the ordinance makes the following changes:
- It repeals a prohibition on panelists who demonstrate any “real or perceived bias” and replaces the provision with a requirement that they have “the ability to be fair-minded, objective, and impartial.” Panel members are also prohibited from having certain ties to the city’s police department.
- The city’s police chief will still have the final say over whether to discipline an officer, which is common in other cities, according to Muscadin. But the new rules allow the panel members to request a meeting with the police chief to discuss any disagreements they have over disciplinary decisions.
- Two students will serve on the panel. And the overall makeup 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.”
- Panel members will be required to undergo certain training before beginning their work reviewing cases. This includes training on the police department’s policies and procedures.
- Under the previous code, panel members could only review internal investigations into alleged officer misconduct after a complaint was filed. The panel now has the power to review “critical incidents,” such as a police shooting, even if no complaint is filed.