Boulder’s Debate Over Police Oversight Highlights a Cultural Divide

Photo from Wikimedia Creative Commons

Boulder City Council members discussed the future of the city’s Police Oversight Panel, or POP, again during the Thursday, June 15 meeting.

The conversation comes on the heels of last month’s vote to remove Lisa Sweeney-Miran from the panel. The vote prompted the remaining members of the POP to enact a work stoppage in protest.

As KGNU’s Alexis Kenyon reports, the clash reflects a divide between Boulder residents over what civil rights advocacy looks like against the glare of Boulder’s wealth disparities.

This story was reported by Alexis Kenyon and Jacob Agatston

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    Boulder’s Debate Over Police Oversight Highlights a Cultural Divide Alexis Kenyon

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Alexis Kenyon: 

Boulder City Council discussed, again, last night the future of the city’s Police Oversight Panel or POP.

This comes after close to a month of heated debate and protests over the council’s decision to remove Lisa Sweeney-Miran from the panel.

Sweeney-Miran is a lawyer, an advocate for unhoused people, a BVSD School Board member, and the mother of three. The decision to remove her from the panel came in response to a citizen complaint from Boulder resident and Attorney John Neslage.

John Neslage: Well, so yes, I did. I did write it in January I was quite frustrated with what I was observing. The problems hide in plain sight here in Boulder, and I decided that I’d had it and I was gonna put my name out there and say something.

Alexis Kenyon: Neslage says he filed the complaint to the city because he believed there was plenty of evidence to support an argument that Sweeney-Miran didn’t meet the non-biased criteria necessary to serve on the police oversight panel. He pointed to an abolish the police social media post and her involvement in the American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against Chief of Police Merris Harold over Boulder’s so-called camping ban.

John Neslage: I don’t think you’d want to put someone who’s an incredibly strident police person on there the same way I don’t want to see someone who’s an abolitionist on there. And that’s my main objection.

Alexis Kenyon: Sweeney-Miran, says she dropped out of the ACLU lawsuit after the complaint to mitigate any perceived conflict of interest. And she stands by her tweets.

Lisa Sweeney-Miran:  At no point have I said or have I ever believed or do I think that there is any conflict between standing up for the constitutional rights of the citizens of Boulder and being a member of a police oversight panel.

But having said that, I also don’t think I’ve demonstrated any police debt bias against police officers. I’ve demonstrated clear criticism and concern of specific things that officers in our community have done, and I will keep doing that.

Alexis Kenyon:  Boulder City Council created the Police Oversight Panel in 2020 at the peak of nationwide protests over the murder of George Floyd and after a Boulder police officer pulled a gun on a Black Naropa student.

The officer said Zaid Atkinson, who was picking up trash outside his apartment building, didn’t look like he ‘belonged.’

Dan Williams, an ACLU lawyer who represents Sweeney-Miran, says the police oversight panel was designed to get more diverse perspectives at the table, including ones that call out failures in our current policing system.

Dan Williams: I mean, that’s why the NAACP, Boulder County had a seat at the table. And that’s why El Centro AMISTAD has a seat at the table, And frankly, that’s why it was created. I mean, it was created because there was a sense in the community that the police department wasn’t doing enough to ensure that its police officers were behaving in a just manner towards Black and Brown people.

Alexis Kenyon: In response to Neslage’s complaint that Lisa Sweeney-Miran was biased against police, Boulder hired an outside attorney from Loveland to investigate named Clay Douglas.

After $20,000 in legal fees and a month-long political battle, Douglas reported back to the Council and told them that the POP selection committee should not have impaneled Sweeney Moran in the first place. In his opinion, she demonstrated “a measurable bias against police.” Douglas recommended that the city remove Sweeney-Miran from the panel.

City council members voted in line with Douglas’ recommendation a few weeks later.

Lisa Sweeney-Miran: One of the most shocking things about that investigation is that Clay Douglas came to the conclusion that the members of the POP selection committee had not done their job without ever speaking to any of them.

Alexis Kenyon: Really?

Lisa Sweeney-Miran: That’s correct. He’d never interviewed a single member of that committee. And he based his conclusion on the idea that he said they had not done their job to review for bias.

Alexis Kenyon: The POP, less than a week later, decided to halt their work in protest.

Shay Castle, a Boulder City Council reporter and founder of Boulder Beat News says the members of the panel felt like once again, their voices weren’t being heard.

Shay Castle: Let’s not forget that Blue Lives Matter is a direct response to Black Lives Matter: a movement criticizing and calling out police brutality.

There was some very passionate testimony from a member of the Selection Committee, from members of the NAACP, and even from City Council members very passionately saying like, you basically have your foot on our necks. And you have continued to ask us to participate in this process and have a voice in it. And then you ignored it.

Yeah, the emotion in that was incredibly palpable. And they talked about, you know, their negative experiences being policed and that they felt very betrayed like you asked us to be part of this. You said you cared what we had to say. We pick someone, and now you’re like, ‘No, thanks.’

If you’re a community that has been historically over-policed, basically, they said, the council is sending a message that like, ‘Don’t talk about it, or you’ll be excluded from having any say in how you’re policed.’

Alexis Kenyon: Dan Williams says the decision was politically motivated.

Dan Williams: So I mean, I’ve been told directly by at least one member of City Council that after Lisa was nominated, that the Chief of Police said she was opposed to Lisa being on the oversight panel and that’s been reported in the press as well. So, while she hasn’t publicly written a complaint that’s been published, she certainly made her view known to the members of the City Council and to others in the community that she opposed Lisa being on the police oversight panel.

Alexis Kenyon: Sweeney-Miran says she thinks at the end of the day, the council’s decision to remove her from the panel has less to do with policing and more to do with who showed up.

Lisa Sweeney-Miran: I think that a great deal of this is about the sort of question the city has been struggling with and facing for years around what does it mean to be one of the wealthiest, most educated cities on the planet, and to have at the very center of our city in both literal and figurative sense, hundreds of people who don’t even have access to a shower who don’t have access to a toilet. But I think one of the base goals of police oversight should be that every single person in the city feels safe calling the police, calling an emergency number when they need help.

John Neslage:  She’s on the school board. There was an actual swatting incident where their kids thought and the staff thought they were going to be killed. Does anybody say thank you to the police? No, none of them.

Alexis Kenyon: Again, John Neslage.

John Neslage: I actually criticized them all on the record at a school board meeting and said, “You’re all an embarrassment. Where’s the thank you from the school board?”

Alexis Kenyon: Regardless of anyone’s stance on police, as of now, there’s no panel overseeing them in Boulder, which Shay Castle says should be the focus of the conversation

Shay Castle: We forget that last year was a historic year in terms of police settlements. And it came right after the discovery of wrongdoing in a detective unit by five people: one detective and four supervisors in which they did not investigate dozens of cases. That is incredibly serious.

I think, intentionally or not, the fact that it happened right after this serious misconduct, it’s really shifted the conversation away from police misconduct and onto this like, ‘Is she too anti-police to be on a policing panel?’ Which is like, it really serves to distract from the very real and serious misconduct right that occurred.

Alexis Kenyon: KGNU contacted Boulder City officials and Police Department for a comment on the story. But after weeks of internal referrals a Police Department spokesperson wrote that they didn’t feel it was appropriate to do an interview at this time.

Meanwhile, at last night’s meeting, Boulder City Council discussed another POP-related citizen complaint. This one questioned the decision by POP members to enact a work stoppage in protest of Sweeney-Miran’s removal.

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    Boulder’s Debate Over Police Oversight Highlights a Cultural Divide Alexis Kenyon

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Alexis Kenyon

Alexis Kenyon is an experienced radio reporter with more than 15 years of experience creating compelling, sound-rich radio stories for news outlets across the country. Kenyon has master's degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism in radio broadcast and photojournalism. She has worked in KGNU's news department since 2021 as a reporter, editor, and daily news producer. In all her work, she strives to produce thought-provoking, trustworthy journalism that makes other people's stories feel personal. In addition to audio production, Kenyon runs KGNU's news internship program and oversees the department's digital engagement.
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