Edit: Boulder Police Oversight Panel will vote on whether or not to suspend its work on Wednesday 5/10 following the removal of Sweeney-Miran as first reported by the Boulder Reporting Lab here.
Boulder City Council decided to remove Police Oversight Panel (POP) member Lisa Sweeney-Miran in a 5-2 vote on Thursday May 4th with two council members voting on technical reasons, rather than the merit of Sweeney-Miran.
Their decision on how the Boulder Police Oversight Panelists will be selected will have far reaching and damaging effects. An effective Police Oversight Panel (POP) could mitigate the cost of the Boulder Police Department’s (BPD) misconduct. The City of Boulder has paid out over $5 million in just the last few years. The optics of removing Sweeny-Miran are not lost on us.
The removal of Sweeney-Miran was based on the language in the ordinance that created the POP,, which states that all candidates should demonstrate an “absence of any real or perceived bias [or] prejudice.” Proponents of Sweeney-Miran advocated that any person with a reasonable interest in police reform will have some form of bias. This language can work to bar or remove any candidate who has previously spoken out on police reform or policing practices. It erodes public trust in the POP and creates doubt in minority communities that their voices are being heard. The wording of the ordinance compounded with other criticisms the POP has faced gives the impression that the City of Boulder does not want an effective independent Oversight Panel
“Not to be a broken record but we need to change the ordinance ASAP.” Council member Friend spoke to the heart of the issue. Having a POP ordinance that states no member may demonstrate bias, or perceived bias, eliminates those who are passionate and vocal about police reform from ever serving on the panel.
There have been numerous incidents involving BPD that have resulted in payouts via lawsuits. These incidents not only deeply affect the lives of those involved, but cost taxpayers millions in settlements. YS calculated over 5 million in payouts over the last few years involving Seth Garret Francos’s settlement, ex BPD’s attack on Sammie Lawrence, and shots fired on Cole Stewart.
The vote to remove Sweeney-Miran continues to bring into question the effectiveness and independence of the POP if members can be removed by City Council for having an opinion on police reform. This vote may ultimately end up costing Boulder residents additional millions in lawsuits if oversight to reduce these incidents is not implemented. NAACP attorney Darren O’Connor also believes that the actions to remove Sweeney-Miran are illegal, and will likely result in yet another lawsuit.
Council Members Friend and Benjamin voted to remove Sweeney-Miran but both clarified that their votes were due to the Special Counsel’s findings, not because they believe that the City Council should have a say in removing POP members. Both council members spoke in favor of Sweeney-Miran, wished that she could remain on the board, and then clarified their votes were made to protect the integrity of the POP board not to condemn Sweeney-Miran. They stated that keeping Sweeney-Miran on the POP despite the special council finding she should resign or be removed could open up any future POP decisions to challenges via lawsuits. This could invalidate the work the POP is doing and hinder the Panel’s effectiveness.
Many citizens also questioned the ability of the POP to conduct oversight of any member with perceived bias against the BPD can be removed via citizen complaint to the City Council. The purpose of the POP is to oversee and correct police misconduct. This mission is hobbled if anyone with a “bias” can be removed via a citizen complaint.
Friend stated that “The Special Counsel’s determination is not appealable under our current processes. To be honest removing Lisa feels like a slap in the face to the people who vetted and nominated her.” Friend clarified that her justification was to uphold the legality of the POP. “In light of the Special Counsel’s findings, I don’t see how Lisa can stay on the panel without threatening the legal sustainability of all the panel’s findings,” she explained.
Council member Benjamin echoed Friend’s statements. “It exposes the Police Oversight Panel to in some ways nullify their work.” Both council members supported Sweeney-Miran’s voice on the panel but felt compelled to vote for her removal due to the Special Counsel’s recommendations.
Folkert commented against removing Sweeney-Miran and criticized the Special Counsel’s findings. She did not believe the Special Counsel laid out a case for her removal and said “I don’t believe that our special counsel accomplished that with his recommendations.” She goes on to question the Special Counsel and said “his comments led me to believe he lacked sufficient knowledge of the history that led to the creation of this panel.”
Folkert shared that “When I was chatting with a panel member yesterday, I was asked if Lisa is removed, who will be next? Will it be me?.” Panel members may no longer feel free to speak their minds or recommend what they truly believe if they feel they can be removed at the whim of the council.
“We must consider the chilling effects on free speech of any potential actions,”’ Folkert also stated, insinuating that current or future Panel members may feel stifled in speaking out against police practices. If panel members feel muffled, we wonder how they can effectively oversee police misconduct and abuse without fearing retribution.
“A founding member of the Police Oversight Panel resigned in protest because she felt the panel was limited in its ability to hold police accountable following misconduct,” Folkert referenced Martha Wilson’s protest resignation. Wilson’s resignation, the influence of the BPD and citizen groups into POP selection, and now the ability for the Boulder City Council to remove any member with a perceived bias effectively takes the teeth out of the POP. The panel is supposed to provide an avenue for marginalized communities to influence policing in Boulder but seems to have become another political tool for city politics.
The Police Oversight Panel was created in response to the BPD’s interactions with Zayd Atkinson which resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in a lawsuit. Boulder Police have also cost the taxpayers millions in additional lawsuits regarding their conduct.
Folkerts expanded that “with a panel of eleven members, there should be room for a wide diversity of appointments around the role of police in Boulder, including opinions that are highly critical of law enforcement as an institution.”
Multiple members of the public spoke with passion both for and against the removal of Sweeney-Miran. Most spoke against her removal stating that their trust in the City Council and the POP would be brought into question if Sweeney-Miran was removed.
Attorney Darren O’Connor representing the NAACP defended Sweeney-Miran and interpreted her removal as not only illegal, but also stifling community involvement. He said “This process for recommendation and approval of POP members was developed with the intent of including historically excluded communities in police oversight. A vote to remove Sweeney-Miran would negate all the work of the diverse selection committee members and would ultimately reverse any progress in achieving community oversight of the police.”
Sweeney-Miran was recommended for the position by the Boulder chapter of the NAACP as well as El Centro Amistad. Both of these groups spoke strongly in support of Sweeney-Miran, stating that her views were valid and they supported her appointment to the POP. Several public comments suggested that Boulder City Council voting to remove her can be seen to undermine public trust in the panel, Boulder Police Department, and City Council.
Public comment from Samantha Weithraud reinforced and affirmed earlier speakers, she said that “a decision to remove Sweeny-Miran would undermine the confidence in the city’s intent to include historically marginalized communities in the oversight, instead it would be a continuation of a long history in which wealthy white landowners of Boulder are maintained at the cost of black and brown people.”
Lupita Jamie from El Centro Amistad spoke powerfully about the impact the removal of Sweeney-Miran would have. “Tell us, what message are you sending us if you refuse to accept the recommendations of our community members? Our community, the children as well as the adults, have always been monitored and harassed by the police. We clearly know what bias is. We live it everyday,” Jamie said. She continued that it was “unfair and atrocious that the guidelines that were written to defend the rights of our community are being used against us.”
Critics of Sweeney-Miran allege that her previous involvement in a lawsuit against the Boulder Police Department and her social media comments should have been enough to disqualify her from ever being appointed to the POP. They point to the above wording regarding bias as grounds for her removal whereas defenders of Sweeney-Miran point to it as evidence that the language needs to change.
Some citizens disagreed. One asserted that “oversight means working within the existing system to make them better, it doesn’t mean abolishing them,” in reference to Sweeney-Miran’s criticisms of policing as an institution. The main arguments against Sweeney-Miran were her vocal positions on police reform and racial justice. Excluding advocates from the panel who hold diverging views will limit the ability of the panel to propose comprehensive solutions to systemic police misconduct and racial bias.
Those arguing against her removal spoke on the fact that all humans have a bias, especially those who want to be involved in police oversight. Folkert elaborated, “Sweeney-Miran has expressed her opinions about policing as an institution and has been vocal about her concern over past instances of police violence. This viewpoint should not disqualify her, or anyone else, from serving on the police oversight panel.”
Founder of the panel, Martha Wilson, previously resigned in protest over the lack of oversight the panel actually had over the BPD. Wilson stated that the information shared with the Panel from BPD was minimal, and the panel’s efforts to investigate police misconduct were not taken seriously.
Boulder Police Department has paid out millions of dollars in lawsuits over misconduct. The impetus to create the Police Oversight Panel was created in response to the Zaid Atkinson incident for communities to have more oversight into the BPD. However, anti-police reform citizen action groups and the BPD themselves have weighed in on the appointment of POP members, raising the question of the effectiveness of the oversight panel itself. If the panel cannot effectively criticize and oversee police conduct, or address racial justice, we have to wonder what the point is other than to appease the requirement for having oversight.