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Two years after the Boulder Police Oversight Panel’s conception, the City of Boulder is still failing to hold the Boulder Police Department accountable to the standards of its community, Resulting in Boulder Police Oversight Panel Member, Martha Wilson Resigning in Protest

Two years after the Boulder Police Oversight Panel’s conception, the City of Boulder is still failing to hold the Boulder Police Department accountable to the standards of its community, Resulting in Boulder Police Oversight Panel Member, Martha Wilson Resigning in Protest


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Boulder Police Oversight Panel Meetings
This December 15th, 2022 City Council meeting is to appoint the new Panel.

In 2014, Boulder residents shut down 28th St. to protest Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson’s killing of Black teenager Michael Brown. They formed a large circle in the middle of the intersection and held their hands up high in the “hands up, don’t shoot” posture.

These Boulder citizens had gathered around a cause many of them had the privilege to ignore given Boulder’s majority-white demographic. It also caused the community to look inward at its own policing. The resulting increased scrutiny has led Boulder down a path of self-reckoning. It seems there is much more to be done, however.

“That was kind of the first time I saw that people in Boulder were getting activated over issues of race, and policing, and killing of Black and Brown people,” said NAACP Boulder County Branch’s Criminal Justice Chair, and Attorney, Darren O’Connor. “I started to see how [the] police reacted. At first they were supportive, and this is sort of a pattern with policing: they’re supportive of the First Amendment, but as soon as you push any sort of boundaries, such as shutting down a road, they start to show their true colors.”

But there were some disturbing incidents related to the Boulder Police Department’s handling of some of the protesters. According to O’Connor, a car ran over a young Latino protester’s foot. When the young man came to the police for assistance he was mistakenly arrested for a warrant that belonged to an older white man. A Black protester who came to aid the injured Latino protester was also arrested.

Although Black people represent only about one percent of Boulder’s population, they account for six percent of total arrests. Latino people make up about 13 percent of the county’s population. Latinos make up 22 percent of all criminal defendants according to a study by the Vera Institute of Justice, whereas white people make up 78 percent of the county’s population and 72 percent of total criminal defendants. Possible racial disparity in Boulder County’s policing is part of a larger concern about overall police conduct, policy, and oversight.

During the protest, O’Connor and others went to the police station only to find that the first arrested protester had been “snuck out the back” and driven back downtown, according to O’Connor.

“To me, that was showing that they were aware of their culpability of having unlawfully arrested this guy,” O’Connor said. “They were worried about people getting upset, so they released him and snuck him out.”

Seth Franco

More recently Boulder has paid out several settlements to victims of police misconduct as reported extensively by Shay Castle of the Boulder Beat. In 2021 Boulder was ordered to pay $3.41 million to the family of Seth Franco, who was on probation for assaulting an officer. Police visited Franco for a welfare check due to suicidal comments he made during his job at Dushanbe Teahouse. Franco cried when officers immediately arrested him instead of addressing his mental health concerns. Franco reported being mentally troubled by the initial and subsequent arrests and later committed suicide.

“As usual, the police department makes no admission of guilt, even though they lost that case,” O’Connor said. “They just never admit that they could have done things differently.”

Most recently, Boulder City Council agreed to pay Coleman Stewart $1.3 million in July 2022 for a 2014 incident. Stewart ran from a cab after arguing with the driver over the small fare. Police officers followed him home and shot Stewart twice. After initially being convicted of menacing, Stewart was later exonerated on appeal based in part on questionable testimony by the officers involved, as reported by Westword.

Zayd Atkinson

In 2019 Boulder Police Officer John Smyly made himself nationally famous when he accosted Black Naropa University student Zayd Atkinson while he was picking up trash around his home, ending in a $125,000 settlement to Atkinson. Former Boulder Police Chief Greg Testa retired shortly after the Zayd Atkinson incident and was replaced by Chief Maris Herold.

“She gets touted all the time as a progressive police chief doing great things, but in reality, she’s opposing actual legislation and [supporting] policy that we know is the most harmful about policing,” O’Connor said.

Chief Maris Herold

For example, Herold publicly opposed Senate Bill SB21-062 by testifying at the State Capitol. The bill aims to curb pretrial incarceration for minor crimes. Before a trial, those with financial resources can be bailed out, leaving less wealthy people stuck with the ramifications of losing their jobs and homes while spending time in jail.

“Chief Herold of Boulder, without any permission from staff or counsel, went down to Denver to the legislature and spoke at a committee to say how bad [Senate Bill SB21-062] was,” O’Connor said.

 

Herold also proposed that a Boulder Police Officer be allowed to work part-time for the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, with approval from City Council. This is an issue because of the context of racial discrimination and unequal policing. Community distrust stems from historical and present issues with the FBI. The city moved forward with Boulder Police working with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force despite the opposition of the 25 community members who attended the public hearing.

“If you look at the history of the FBI they’ve been a very anti-Black organization that is known to [have] organized the murder of Fred Hampton from the Black Panthers,” O’Connor said. “Communities of color and other marginalized communities showed up unanimously to say they were against partnering with the FBI, and [the City Council] still [approved a Boulder Police Officer’s work with the FBI]. It was never about what the community wanted. It’s always about getting more access to tools to direct the powerful policing system against the very people they claim they’re protecting.”

In 2005 the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado released documents confirming that the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in Denver was targeting and harassing peaceful activists.

“To have the FBI going after people like that is not acceptable, and certainly we don’t need to create volunteers from our police force to be part of an organization that behaves like that,” O’Connor said. “The FBI claims they stopped the illegal practices, but there was no punishment. They thought it was OK until they got caught.”

Recently leaked FBI documents reveal the FBI surveils what they call Black Identity Extremists, which the Bureau asserted are likely to target law enforcement officers. The ACLU filed a lawsuit, and the FBI admitted there wasn’t a threat from these organizations to warrant the dangerous rhetoric.

According to O’Connor, for local people of color, this is akin “to be[ing] told by white politicians, and a white chief of police that they know what’s in their best interest and what they consider is in the Black community’s best interest is to work with the historically and presently racist organization that spies on them.”

Boulder police oversight panel

In 2020 following the wrongful executions of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of police, coupled with the other local incidents involving Boulder police described in this article, Boulder finalized Ordinance 8430. The ordinance established the Office of the Independent Police Monitor and the Boulder Police Oversight Panel.

Two years to the day from the panel’s founding, board member Martha Wilson resigned in protest over lack of transparency and an organizational structure that had the fox guarding the henhouse.

Martha Wilson

“For nearly the last two years, the limitations of the current ordinance have constrained the Police Oversight Panel to a key-sized amount of information sharing with the public as seen in the contents of the 2021 annual report,” Wilson wrote in her official resignation letter sent to YS. “On the two-year anniversary of the ordinance’s adoption, that key-sized sliver of information was reduced further to the size of a pin, and I, Martha R. Wilson, resigned in protest.”

 

 

Wilson stated that a recent misconduct investigation opened internally against a BPD detective with “a large number” of open complaints that have not been investigated was a direct reason for her resignation. The oversight panel conducted its own investigation and recommended that the detective and four supervising and managing officers involved be terminated. The department instead settled on small suspensions that lasted less than a week. Wilson believes this is nowhere near the appropriate misconduct action level.

During the Dec. 8, 2022, Police Oversight Panel meeting, which is open to the public, O’Connor quoted Boulder City communication manager Shannon Aulabaugh’s recent statement defending Chief Herold’s decision to go against the panel’s recommendation for officers committing serious policy violations: “disciplinary action of the police is intended to be corrective rather than punitive.”

“Wouldn’t it be nice if people that were arrested were treated this way as well?” O’Connor asked.

Conflicts of interest

The fox that was guarding the henhouse in this situation was the Office of the Independent Police Monitor. Until Sept. 2022, that position was held by Joey Lipari. According to the ordinance, the police monitor trains the Police Oversight Panel.

But according to O’Connor, “He (Joey Lipari) was very close with the chief of police, and the police union talked about how great they were. [He] just seemed never to meet a police officer he didn’t want to defend. You have the police monitor who’s also supposed to be independent, who’s anything but, training the Police Oversight Panel telling them what they can’t do, and then the Police Oversight Panel is supposed to do oversight of the police monitor.”

Furthermore, the BPD and the oversight panel have been advised by the same attorney, Teresa Tate, since October 2021. We reached out to Tate for comment on how the city attorney handles the potential conflict of interest between the two parties it represents and did not receive a response.

O’Connor also strongly encouraged the panel to seek legal advice from attorneys who are independent of the city: “The conflict of interest [of] being advised by the same attorneys that defend the police has been evident for some time,” O’Connor said. “This arrangement appears to be leading to you all having your voices silenced. Most importantly, I’d like to encourage the community to be at the table for training on police oversight models and to revise the city ordinance from police oversight in Boulder. These revision efforts need to be public, transparent, and inclusive.”

To bring these points home succinctly, O’Connor urged the panel before his two minutes of speaking time ran out at the meeting: “Building friendships with the police is not your job and creates an appearance of a lack of independence. I encourage you to build relationships with the community and not the cops you oversee.”

Revising the ordinance

New panelists are being onboarded now as part of the revision process. Wilson now works outside of the panel with community members to revise the ordinance. She hopes that, in addition to community input, she can collaborate with members of the Boulder Police Officers Association and people working for the city. (We could not find a website for the Boulder Police Officers Association but they did release this statement in 2020:

“Every officer at the Boulder Police Department was appalled at George Floyd’s death. It was a horrific act and the exact opposite of what good police officers do,” Bliley wrote. “The idea that those who swore to protect and serve would act in such a way is particularly horrifying to those of us who strive daily to support, defend and enforce the laws of Colorado.”

While the Boulder Police Officers’ Association acknowledges the existence of racism and is not “blind to its corrosive influence,” Bliley wrote, “we soundly reject the idea that law enforcement should be judged by the actions of the worst examples of our profession.”

“The Boulder Police Department is well ahead of many of our peer agencies when it comes to training and policies that deal with bias,” he wrote, claiming that the department, several years ago, already adopted almost all of the policies and requirements outlined by Senate Bill 20-217.

Like other members of the panel, Wilson represents the everyday people of Boulder. She is an activist, a caseworker, and former social worker for the State of Colorado until 2022.

“I’m hoping that in my decision to give up my vote, I can not only speak out but really, really hone in on gathering the public to help rewrite that Ordinance [8430] in a very quick turnaround so that next month, when the new panelists come on board, they actually get to do the things that were envisioned for this panel to do,” Wilson told YS.

YS reached out to other members of the panel who addressed Wilson’s resignation. “We have new panelists coming on very soon,” current panelist Hadasa Villalobos said during the Dec. 8 open meeting in regard to Wilson’s resignation and the Panel’s plans moving forward. “Timing just worked out that we brought on new people. As far as her reasons, we definitely all agree that there are major gaps and are hoping that we can help to address those gaps. We look forward to working with Martha on helping us in the future and any other members of the public that would like to join.”

The new panelists are slated to be approved at this Thursday’s City Council Meeting on Dec. 15 when their names will be announced, according to an email sent to YS from Leonard.

Transparency

In addition to the apparent conflicts of interest, the panel also was fraught with a lack of transparency, according to Wilson. Wilson believes that restricting information allows the BPD to conceal from the public many facts pertaining to its internal operations.

“There has to be a very clear understanding that minimizing [public information sharing] for the comfort of the person who did the harm is wrong,” Wilson said. “The people and the impacted community members need always to take priority. That needs to be clear because [BPD’s] mission is to protect and serve. If they’re not doing that, that needs to be made available in a way that people can understand the gravity and impact.”

According to Wilson, there was also a systemic lack of committed support for the objectives of the panel. “We were routinely reminded that anything we said could be used against us,” Wilson said. “We were told that it was optional whether or not the city attorney would defend us should we be sued. That exact wording felt very much like suppression at the time.”

Wilson felt that serving on the panel was performative if only half of the intended work could be accomplished due to the limitations of the ordinance, the conflicts of interest, and the lack of transparency.

“Whenever people are standing up against large systems, there’s a lot of fear,” Wilson said. “But this panel was literally designed to help provide civilian input and present accountability to law enforcement, to keep that pipeline open to the public, because we are the public.”

City of Boulder’s response

We reached out to the Boulder Police Department and the City of Boulder for comments on the settlement cases referenced in this article as well as the issues related to the oversight panel, including Wilson’s resignation in protest.

While we did not get answers to all of our inquiries, the City of Boulder provided this statement:

The City of Boulder values transparency as well as the oversight that was envisioned with the creation of the Police Oversight Panel. The recent disagreement about discipline in a particular case, as well as the resignation of Martha Wilson, has demonstrated the need for further community conversation.

There is currently a level of confidentiality that panel members are required to uphold in relation to cases they review. This limits what the panel, collectively, and individual members can disclose about specific situations. The Boulder Police Department, however, has released information about the recent case and will continue to do so in upcoming weeks on a schedule that recognizes the officers’ due process rights.

We anticipate having a meaningful discussion in early 2023 that will revisit the issue of roles and what panel members can share publicly. We welcome robust discourse around these questions. All perspectives on them are welcomed.

You are correct that the City of Boulder has agreed to settlements in some police-related lawsuits, including those you cite. When a city chooses a settlement, this usually reflects a risk assessment about the likelihood of success in litigation as well as potential penalties. The city did not accept fault in either of the lawsuits filed by the family of Seth Franco and Coleman Stewart, so we do not agree with the characterization that misconduct occurred.

As for any potential conflict, per the City Charter, the City Attorney’s Office is charged with representing the city organization and all entities within that organization, including boards and commissions, working groups and panels. The office is accustomed to identifying when a conflict may exist and takes measures to address that.

Lastly, our communications staff list is current and correct. My team provides media support on weekends for emergencies and breaking news but does not have capacity to monitor or respond to interview requests for ongoing matters outside of typical business hours.

Sarah Huntley

Communication and Engagement Director

City of Boulder

 

Going forward

O’Connor remembers when he was just a person concerned with the rights of people experiencing homelessness due to the housing crisis in 2008, which disproportionately affected people of color. Now he says he has no choice but to see the racism persisting around him today.

“I just think that our city of Boulder would be so much better if, for example, when a complaint comes in, instead of just turning it over to attorneys to just defend, defend, defend, our city council members could be included in the decision making, and maybe be able to look at a complaint and think, ‘Gosh, this really isn’t the police force that we want,” O’Connor said.

“Instead of saying we didn’t do anything wrong and defending against it, delve into making things better, which would be a big shift in the model of policing. For Boulder congratulating itself on being so progressive, our city attorney’s office and our police are no better than any other police force when they’re called out for violating civil rights. They dig in, say that they did nothing wrong and fight, fight, fight to maintain the status quo of what they’re doing. That’s not progressive.”

Wilson’s resignation does not mean she’s done fighting for police reform in Boulder. She is one of the contenders for the police monitor position.

“I think more people should actually share when they’ve applied to things because a lot of time the sentiment in Boulder, in particular in the workforce, has been, ‘Well we don’t have people of color applying,’” Wilson said. “I know that’s not true because I definitely apply to a variety of things.”

Wilson thinks some Black applicants are getting screened out before they get an interview when applying for jobs in Boulder, so she wants to make her running for the monitor position clear to the public.

Wilson is inspired by the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote: “Three hundred years of humiliation, abuse and deprivation cannot be expected to find a voice in a whisper.”

Author

Zoe Jennings
Zoe Jennings is a freelance writer who is a firm believer that everyone has a story. With degrees in journalism and history from Colorado State University, Zoe served as editor for the arts and culture section of the University’s daily newspaper, The Collegian. She is the author of the creative non-fiction book “The Word on the Yard: Stories from D.O.C. #166054,” a piece about the humanity of those who are incarcerated.

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