Boulder council poised to overhaul public supervision of police force

October 11, 2019 in Boulder



Boulder City Council on Thursday wrestled with how to reform public supervision of the city’s police department with input from a task force of diverse community members and top officers.

After hearing from members of the newly formed volunteer Police Oversight Task Force, and then Interim Police Chief Carey Weinheimer, council expressed a preference to install an auditor-monitor system to inspect Boulder Police Department internal affairs investigations into allegations of officer misconduct.

Doing so, and forming a new body of community members to accompany the auditor-monitor and review its findings, was recommended by a majority of the task force, a group of 13 volunteers created mostly in response to a March incident involving a now-former Boulder policeman and Zayd Atkinson, a black Naropa University student at the time.

The task force came together after Atkinson was repeatedly asked by a policeman, who has since resigned and was given severance pay by the city, for proof the student lived at the apartment building where he was outside picking up trash with a metal tool and bucket. Community members of color and council were troubled by the officer’s body-worn camera footage of the incident, which quickly spread to make local and national headlines.

It raised questions of whether racial bias is a problem in the Boulder Police Department.

“Racism and implicit bias in Boulder is a historical and immutable fact, not just within the police department, but pervasive throughout the area,” task force member Shawn Rae Passalacqua said. “… We are tired and weary of fighting every day for our lives to exist.”

A minority of the task force preferred council implement a system that would allow a community liaison to bring in an entity fully independent from the city and police force to investigate high-level misconduct complaints. The task force suggested a panel of community members also should be able to review the independent probe findings under that model and make a recommendation for how the police chief should respond.

But Weinheimer and other officers present hesitated to support adopting the second model that would more heavily rely on fully independent investigations of serious complaints.

“I know that independent investigation sounds very good,” Weinheimer said. “I have to stress that there is nothing we take more seriously than an investigation of misconduct. … Going with an independent investigator … presents a lot of issues to overcome. What authority do they have? Whose authority do they work under?”

Council, however, with Mayor Suzanne Jones leading the way, suggested merging the two models, using an auditor-monitor alongside the community oversight panel in most cases, while reserving the option to bring in a fully independent party in certain instances.

The panel of community members the task force recommended should work alongside the auditor-monitor or independent investigator would serve a similar function as the current Professional Standards Review Panel. That is a body of six members of the public, four sworn police officers and two other police department employees that was formed in 1993 to ensure the thoroughness and fairness of outcomes of Boulder police internal affairs probes.

But the task force has identified issues with the panel.

Those are namely a lack of racial and educational diversity among members, and that it “has very limited authority to only review the internal investigations of serious allegations of misconduct and make recommendations regarding disposition, and almost never dissents from the police department’s findings, giving the perception that they do not increase accountability,” the task force’s memo to council said.

“I think the Professional Standards Review Panel has worked well,” said Peter Spear, a member of the volunteer panel for the past four years. “That said, things can always be improved and I think taking a look at policies and procedures and looking at how we can improve them is always a good thing we can do.”

He said he agreed with a “a good bit, maybe most” of the new task force’s findings and recommendations, but contends that police department employees, perhaps less than the current six, should be included on whatever new community review panel is formed; the task force recommended replacing the current Professional Standards panel with the auditor-monitor oversight model.

“From sitting on the panel, I can tell you there (may be a perspective) we’re somehow influenced or under the wing of the police department, and don’t want to disagree with their recommendations,” Spear said. “The members of that panel are very dedicated to what they’re doing. They’re not cowed by the police department or overly influenced by the fact the internal affairs may have come to a particular conclusion.”

Despite the task force’s criticism of the Professional Standards body’s lack of dissent from the department, it appears to also agree with the police internal affairs process when it finds problems with officer behavior, which occurs with most of the complaints it reviews.

According to the task force’s research, 56% of the investigations of Class 1 complaints, those of the most serious nature, were sustained, meaning the complaint was found credible and discipline for the involved officers was possible based on the finding.

But none of the sustained Class 1 allegations against officers were based on complaints submitted externally, meaning from a party outside the police department. Sustained findings in those cases were only in cases initiated by a fellow officer or another police department employee, the task force’s research shows.

Among the 26 less serious Class 2 allegations against officers between 2014 and 2018, 79% were sustained, and the sustained cases included both internally and externally submitted complaints. Class 2 complaints are investigated by an officer’s immediate supervisor in most cases, while Class 1 cases are handled by the department’s Professional Standards Unit.

Council plans to schedule a public hearing to hear community feedback on its potential new model of police accountability. Councilman Bob Yates mentioned voters may have to weigh in during the 2020 election if the new council-preferred system requires a charter change, such as having the new auditor-monitor or the community oversight panel report to council.



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