On March 1, 2019, Boulder police surrounded Black Naropa University student Zayd Atkinson, threatening his life and safety, for the crime of doing his job. The incident went viral, drawing attention to facts on the ground — Boulder is no different than any other city in America. People of color are twice as likely to be stopped by police in Boulder, police officers are unskilled in de-escalation tactics and quick to use compliance as justification for excessive force. NAACP Boulder County called for citizen police oversight in response, demanding not only an oversight entity, but a community-led process. NAACP Boulder County, a local unit of the national organization, has learned from 114 years of experience what would happen if community voices were left out of the decision-making process. Indeed, four years later, City Council wishes to overturn Police Oversight Panel (POP) members and their community decision-making and put it firmly in the hands of Council members aligned with a particular political agenda.
The newly formed POP was to be a community-led decision-making body, even if their decisions were limited by the inordinate powers of the police chief. Despite the relatively quick response of City Council to calm an outraged community in 2019, it is becoming clear the city was insincere in its efforts to create effective community police oversight.
The nascent panel was given the overwhelming task of creating their own by-laws. The city appointed police monitor Joey Lipari and obscured the mission in favor of the police union, as evidenced by Lipari’s unnecessary statements in support of the police, which immediately undermined his credibility as a neutral actor.
POP panelist training included an intense regimen of police involvement — inclusion in police ride-alongs and use-of-force trainings, working in police offices with armed officers, and little privacy. There was zero city infrastructure in place for a POP panel, inadequate and intimidating legal advice given, omission of what rights panelists did have, with panelists essentially under a gag order with the public.
How any attorney working with police oversight models could leave out an appeal process in an oversight ordinance is worrisome. Equity Officer Aimee Kane was apparently unable to assist either the panelists or the monitor in meaningful community engagement, which still has not occurred, despite the ordinance requiring it. The POP became such a disappointment, deviating from its original intent, subverted and obfuscated in its mission, that the NAACP considered calling for the resignation of all original POP panelists.
In 2022, in accordance with the current ordinance, one representative each from NAACP Boulder County and El Centro Amistad, along with two currently serving panelists, made up the POP Selection Committee, entrusted to choose six new panelists. The POP Selection Committee interviewed prospective panelists using the same guidelines as the previous Selection Committee, with the same interview questions, and were overseen and guided throughout the process by Equity Officer Kane and contracted administrator and original Police Task Force member Shawn Rae Passalacqua.
Considering the city’s willingness to take on a Boulder citizen’s baseless complaint regarding the POP Selection Committee process and an alleged failure to assess the bias of potential POP nominees, it is unfortunate that Council shows no faith in the city’s own staff and hires.
Bias, in all its nuances, was considered throughout the POP selection process — cultural sensitivities, diverse experiences and disproportionate policing statistics must be included in any discussion of police interactions with the community. The POP Selection Committee unanimously confirmed and reaffirmed the slate, twice, presented to City Council. Certain Council members and the police union exhibited hysterical reactive bias toward one particular candidate on the slate. NAACP’s goals for the POP were to identify candidates who possess the ability to assess complaints, offer remedies through proposed sanctions, policy and training recommendations, and identify areas of concern to the community. If community concerns were addressed proactively, incidents such as Zayd Atkinson experienced in 2019 could be avoided.
To be outspoken about the possibility of more equitable policing strategies is not a disqualification for citizen police oversight under the current ordinance. Attempts to skew the intent of the word “bias” to justify efforts by some City Council members in overriding community decision-making regarding POP selection is patently absurd and borders on the Orwellian. The same Council approved the entire slate of recommended POP members and is now considering substituting the opinion of one attorney who failed to get facts right in his report to Council.
Council members have irresponsibly wasted taxpayers’ money hiring a special counsel/investigator in a misguided attempt to undo the results of their own vote. Lawyers have already called the Special Counsel’s work “shoddy” and vulnerable to legal attack for his ruling’s lack of investigative credibility. City Council initially failed to vote on the POP slate, but ultimately, the slate passed six votes to three. In obvious frustration, council members Yates and Winer telegraphed their intent to revise the ordinance — apparently pushing to have community groups no longer hold any sway in choosing who would serve and represent diverse community interests.
Instead, these Council members would make the POP just like every other city commission, with participants chosen through the “superior judgment” and political savvy of City Council members, ensuring a POP panel less apt to threaten the status quo. Such actions would result in a loss of legitimacy and would, in fact, render police oversight completely toothless and ineffectual, which appears to be what many on Council and the police union want.
City Council can vote to not act on the Special Counsel’s ruling on May 4. And they should. It is the only choice with any semblance of integrity.
Empty words stating council members’ support of police oversight coupled with actions that absolutely undermine POP’s abilities to be a voice for community members says something loud and clear to all: The city does not want effective police oversight.
Community of Boulder, please be better than this. Police, if sincere about accountability, have nothing to fear from community-driven oversight. Council members, if sincere about representing more than just a powerful minority, whose complaints show they do not even believe police oversight is necessary, have nothing to fear acting with integrity and according to the law. Community members, we have everything to fear if this rare and limited opportunity for community decision-making is quashed. Effective police oversight needs freedom from City Council politics.
This opinion does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.