Two years later, limitations continue to burden Boulder Police Oversight Panel




  • In US
  • 2022-12-08 05:01:00Z
  • By Daily Camera, Boulder, Colo.

Dec. 8-Editor's note: The story below has been updated to correct Darren O'Connor's title as criminal justice chair for the NAACP Boulder County branch.

Two years ago. That's when the Boulder Police Oversight Panel was formed. Yet, in the last 24 months, officials with the local NAACP chapter - and recently panelists themselves - have expressed frustration with the panel's limitations.

But there is hope.

Now, as the panel works to expand, members and residents are optimistic that the resignation of a panelist will be a catalyst for change that will ultimately give it more authority to do what it set out to do in the first place: hold police accountable.

"I am glad to see that (panelists) are realizing the limitations of the ordinance which is what their reach is," said Darren O'Connor, criminal justice chair for the NAACP Boulder County branch. "I would encourage the members to realize where their power came from and continue to be in alliance with the community by holding the police accountable."

During a Nov. 10 Boulder Police Oversight meeting, Martha Wilson resigned as a direct response to the panel's lack of authority and ability to discuss specifics for a recent case. She was not present for the public portion of the meeting but joined and delivered her resignation during the closed session.

"Although, I am devastated because I clearly see the vision of where the panel could grow to be someday, today's city decision to conceal information from the public regarding the specific number and nature of an egregious complaint review involving 'a large number' of impacted community members, is a hard stop item for me," Wilson wrote in her resignation letter, which she shared with the panel during that meeting.

The specific case Wilson referenced was discussed during the November meeting. The city released additional details Tuesday on the case which involved five officers in the department's investigations unit.

While upgrading data and transitioning to a new open data portal, department officials became aware of cases assigned to a detective that hadn't been investigated or investigated fully between 2019 and now, according to a news release from the city.

After discovering the issue in July, Police Chief Maris Herold brought the case to the attention of the department's Professional Standards Unit and the independent police monitor with the Boulder Police Oversight Panel. In August, the PSU investigation was sent to the oversight panel for review before the chief making a final disciplinary determination.

In the end, the department sustained all of the rule violations found by the panel but did not align its disciplinary determinations with the panel's recommendation to terminate all officers involved. The news release added that Herold, police leadership and former independent police monitor Joseph Lipari agreed on the level of discipline for the officers involved.

The rule violations and the police department's determinations included:

-Commander Thomas Trujillo: Violation of rule No. 1: compliance with values, rules and general orders. He received an involuntary transfer to another division, a three-day suspension without pay and placement of a performance improvement plan.

-Commander Barry Hartkopp: Violation of rule No. 1: compliance with values, rules and general orders. He was given a one-year letter of reprimand and is receiving additional training.

-Sgt. David Spraggs: Violation of rule No. 1: compliance with values, rules and general orders. This officer resigned.

-Sgt. Brannon Winn: Violated the same rule as Spraggs. He was suspended for one day without pay.

-Officer Kwame Williams: Violated the same rule as Spraggs and Winn and was suspended for five days without pay.

The department said it has taken the following steps to address the situation and prevent it from reoccurring:

-A preliminary and ongoing analysis was conducted of the detective's caseload.

-The department has rewritten its investigations' case management policy to provide for workload standards, including limiting the number of cases any detective may handle, ensuring a regular review of open cases by supervisors, and imposing time limits for investigations.

-The department has launched its new data portal for case management, allowing supervisors and managers real-time access to case status and assignments.

The Boulder County District Attorney's Office is conducting an independent review of the case, the release said.

"I regret that this happened and consider it a serious situation," Herold said in the release. "We had an employee who apparently became overwhelmed. He has since been reassigned from the investigations unit."

A copy of the case was not provided following an open records request. Aimee Kane, Boulder equity officer, declined to release the full case report citing a section in the oversight panel's ordinance which says "the police oversight panel shall, at one of its regularly scheduled meetings, report on such completed case(s), which may include comments on the handling of the complaint, the fairness and thoroughness of the investigation and the reasonableness of the adjudication."

Kane added that the city has interpreted that section to say cases can only be released during a meeting - a gray area she hopes the panel will work to change in the future.

During interim independent police monitor Florence Finkle's report in November, panelist Taishya Adams expressed concerns with the police chief's continual disagreement with the panel's recommendations for discipline. Adams added that she wants the panel to look at ways it can implement an appeals process for future cases.

"I am hopeful as we are seeing this acute pattern that we can identify some policy solutions that allow us as a panel to do our job - to do what the voters and our community has asked of us," she said.

How we got here

The city's push to form the oversight panel began in March 2019 after Zayd Atkinson, a Black Naropa University student, was picking up trash with a grabber outside his student housing building when former Boulder police officer John Smyly confronted him and asked for identification. The incident escalated, resulting in multiple officers on the scene and Smyly drawing his stun gun and handgun.

Atkinson eventually settled with the city for $125,000.

Soon after, the City Council agreed to hire an independent police monitor to investigate complaints against officers, along with a panel of community members to evaluate the auditor-monitor. But as the city worked to create the panel's ordinance, officials with the NAACP and community members expressed concerns about the panel's ability to effect meaningful change.

While the ordinance stipulates that no city employee or immediate family member of a city employee can be a member of the Police Oversight Panel, the Boulder Police Chief has the final say on disciplinary action.

"There was a task force created, and when they came up with their proposed ordinance (for the Boulder Police Oversight Panel), we sent a letter to council and the task force letting them know that there was no binding impact from the decisions of the police oversight because ultimately the police chief could make the decision," O'Connor said. "Now, we fast forward three years later and that's exactly what's going on."

NAACP's frustration with the panel harkens back to a request it made for the panel to reexamine a 2014 complaint against late Boulder Police Officer Eric Talley that was filed by a Black man who said Talley pulled him over while off duty and held him at gunpoint for unsafe driving. The panel eventually denied the request.

The panel announced it had ruled that it could not review the case, and said legal counsel "advised the panel that the law grants it authority to review an investigation and access the requisite evidence before the chief of police makes a final determination."

For the NAACP, this decision didn't hold merit because the panel receives its legal advice from the city attorney -the same attorney who also represents the police department, O'Connor said.

"Had it come from a neutral attorney whose only job was to advise the panel members it would have had a lot more weight for us," he said. "We wouldn't have been left feeling like this was just a simple decision."

Additionally, Lipari completed an independent review of the case and concluded that Talley could have been exonerated on one of the rule violations while concluding that the other could not be substantiated.

O'Connor said he hopes the panel works to change pieces of its ordinance that determine who it receives legal advice from, as well as its relationship with its police monitor, who is overseen by the panelists it is responsible for training.

"I did talk to one task force member who was writing the draft ordinance and they said 'Darren, do you really think that if the panel makes a decision, the police chief would ignore it?' They're not there to be the police's friends, but what happens is they built friendships, and they can't imagine the police working against them until it happens," O'Connor said.

Holding fast to its mission

The panel is in the process of interviewing at least two candidates to expand from nine members to 11. Panel co-chair Ariel Amaru didn't know how those in charge of selecting new panelists will go about replacing Wilson but said she assumes they will choose an alternate candidate to fill her vacancy.

In addition, the panel hopes to have a new independent police monitor hired by early next year, Kane said.

Among the panelist selection committee is Jude Landsman, economic opportunity chair with the NAACP. So far, she said the process has been enlightening. During her work, Landsman realized that the public has lost sight of the panel's purpose, with many believing it's about improving relationships between the community and the police department.

"The oversight panel is about transparency and police accountability to the community in which it serves," Landsman said.

In the two years since the oversight panel was formed, it has not been as effective as what the NAACP had once imagined. Now, the NAACP is out to help change that, Landsman said.

"The NAACP would like to make it worthwhile to serve on the oversight panel and work to the betterment of all," she said. "It means making it be effective by making sure the community gets more insight - gets more information and transparency and the police are held accountable instead of (the panel) being ignored by the police chief or (police) union."

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