Boulder’s Police Oversight Panel to suspend most operations

Less than a week after the Boulder City Council removed Lisa Sweeney-Miran from the city’s Police Oversight Panel, the panel voted Wednesday evening to suspend some of its operations until the city ordinance that governs the panel is modified.

Daniel Leonard, co-chair of the oversight panel, said at Wednesday’s meeting that he and fellow co-chair Hadasa Villalobos were calling for a vote on the matter because they were “concerned about the number of people telling us they are considering resigning or intending to resign” after Sweeney-Miran’s removal.

“We’re in an unprecedented situation,” Leonard said. “A member of the panel was removed because of their critical viewpoints of police and not for misconduct, and was not recommended for removal by this panel body.”

“I think we’re all Lisa,” said panelist Madelyn Strong Woodley. “In terms of someone not liking what you said, your viewpoint — I lived a lot of my life with people not liking the color of my skin. … Just keep in mind that we’re only one somebody’s decision away from (being removed).”

Villalobos added that the Police Oversight Panel selection committee that had nominated Sweeney-Miran for a spot on the body had followed city ordinance “to a tee” in its selection process, and said the situation had made plain that the ordinance needed to be changed before police oversight can continue.

“What I’m proposing, instead of walking out, is sitting in until this work is done,” Villalobos said.

After an emotional discussion, the panel voted 8-1 to review cases it already had committed to, but to pause consideration of new cases and suspend other panel work not related to the ordinance. Panelist Sarah Holt was not present but voted by proxy in favor of the suspension. Jason Savela was the only panelist to vote against the suspension.

It was not immediately clear, though, how the panel would proceed with suspending its operations. Although Leonard proposed going through the official city-sanctioned channel of bringing proposed start and stop dates to the City Council for it to approve, other panelists rejected the idea.

“How can we get permission to sit in from the place that we’re sitting in?” Zhang asked. “We need to just stop reviewing cases and stop doing business until council looks this situation in the eye and realizes they can’t have it both ways. They can’t claim to be this magical progressive city and keep gutting the police oversight panel.”

Several other panelists, including Strong Woodley, Mylene Vialard and Maria-Soledad Diaz, echoed Zhang’s concern, saying they did not favor asking the council for permission to stop doing work.

But Boulder Deputy City Attorney Erin Poe said that if the panel were to suddenly stop doing its work, panelists could risk facing code of conduct violations and even possible removal.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen next. This is a unique situation,” Poe said, noting that the City Council was aware that the oversight panel would be discussing this issue and that it would likely provide guidance on what to do next.

Also on the evening’s agenda was a discussion on forming a new ordinance working group. The working group will not be a decision-making committee but will do the work of proposing changes to the police oversight section of the city ordinance governing the panel.

“We’re not trying to rewrite everything, we’re just trying to improve what we have so that we can keep doing the work,” said Villalobos.

Nevertheless, Zhang emphasized that the needed revisions to the ordinance could have significant ramifications.

“This revision is not just low-stakes tweaking around the margin, fixing some punctuation. This is about fixing the structural issues that got us here in the first place and the things that allowed the City Council to act the way they did,” Zhang said.

After discussing the matter, the panel voted for a final composition of one seat for former panelist Martha Wilson, who resigned late last year; two community seats, of which the NAACP and El Centro Amistad — the community groups that formed part of the selection committee — would get the first pick; two current panel members; a representative from the Boulder Police Department; a representative from the city; and an independent attorney.

The Police Oversight Panel co-chairs will work with consultant Farah Muscadin to begin filling the seats of the working group.

During the public comment segment, members of the public expressed a mix of support, solidarity and concern. Annett James, president of the Boulder County NAACP, said the whole purpose of the panel was for it to “be able to offer meaningful policy and procedural recommendations.”

“If as soon as anyone says anything negative or perceived as a negative about police, you’re in jeopardy of being removed, that is absolutely a toothless, worthless panel,” James said.

Darren O’Connor, an attorney and member of NAACP Boulder County, addressed Poe’s earlier suggestion that panelists could face complaints or be removed if they stopped their work, saying the panel was “not getting good advice” and that it should seek legal advice from “someone not beholden to the police.”

“The fact that they are potentially threatening you folks on this panel with things that could happen to you for standing up for the very actions you need to take to be safe … is just an example of why I think you need independent counsel,” O’Connor said.

The panel was also set to discuss the selection of an alternate panel member to fill the vacancy left by Sweeney-Miran, a discussion on public case review, committee reports and a full review of cases, but these issues were tabled for discussion at a later date.

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