“A slap in the face to the community”: NAACP Boulder weighs in on Redfearn as interim police chief, and the Police Oversight Panel

Darren O’ Connor (left) and Annett James (right). Photo Courtesy of Darren O’ Connor

The City of Boulder reopened the application period for the Police Oversight Panel at the request of the Community Advisory Committee due to an unexpectedly low number of applicants. 14 applied in the most recent round, whereas 57 applied just one year ago.

KGNU’s Jackie Sedley sat down with Annett James, President of the NAACP Boulder County Branch, and Darren O’Connor, the NAACP Boulder County Criminal Justice Committee Chair. They talked about the faults of the Police Oversight Panel, and also discussed the departure of Maris Herold, who was the Boulder Police Chief until this past Monday. Now, Stephen Redfearn will take over as interim chief – who, if you remember, came under fire late last year when members of NAACP Boulder County called on him to resign because of his actions and his testimony in the murder of Elijah McClain while in Aurora police custody.

Listen:

Transcript:

Jackie Sedley: As a bit of background for the Police Oversight Panel was created in 2020 as a sort of police watchdog group reviewing complaint investigations cases and making disciplinary policy and training recommendations to the Boulder Police Department. 57 applicants, but this year, They only got 14. And that’s led the city to reopen the application period for the panel. It reopened on January 19th and will stay open until the 29th. Do you, either of you, have any thoughts as to why there may have been such a lower number of applicants this time around?

Darren O’Connor: Absolutely. The first is, you know, Early last year, they were in a cycle of trying to get new members to join and one of the members who, for simply having critical opinions about the police, was ultimately removed in a, what really felt like a sham process with no due process Involving having a complaint brought by some real pro law and order types who many of them that made complaints about the person who was removed literally just said they didn’t even believe in having a police oversight panel, that it wasn’t necessary and that, that process didn’t involve any sort of, you know, hearing finding of facts, they just hired an attorney who did his own investigation and recommended that person be removed. So, after that, the police oversight panel members who remained said they weren’t going to do any work under the current ordinance because they had no faith in the, in being able to do their jobs. And since that time, the ordinance has been rewritten and there’s, while there’s some good things in that, One of the biggest highlights of it is that instead of community members like the NAACP doing the review process for applicants, it’s now under the purview of the city manager. So you have a city manager who oversees the police, she’s the top administrator, she oversees the police, she oversees the attorneys for the city, and now she oversees the POP, and there’s just a big conflict of interest. And I think People are voting with their feet, having watched the cycle of, of, you know, what it was really envisioned to do not come to fruition.

Annett James: Yeah, I would agree with that. What we are hearing is exactly what Darren is describing. People don’t want to subject themselves to this type of one, scrutiny about having any objection to any behavior. from police. If that’s going to classify you as being biased against policing, then what’s the purpose, right? So I feel like people are just saying, look, this is not a true Commission to really look at how we improve public safety. It’s all about creating another entity that removes police from accountability because you get to sanction it. And, you know, one of the questions someone said to me, it’s like, Boulder’s a small town, why is it that they have so many complaints around policing? mAnd when that question comes up, you don’t ever get an answer. Is this in keeping the number of complaints that is registered? Is this in keeping with a city of this size, and policing is so powerful here. As soon as POP members talk about, you know, immediately you’re going on ridealongs and, and trainings and use of force. And so these things almost it seems from the outside, as a community person who care about this issue that it is indeed another arm of policing. And I think the city manager is just not credible as the person who should be deciding who gets to sit on this panel. I mean, she’s come out splitting hairs to justify.

The actions of Redfern and people are aware of this. So, we certainly are not encouraging people to sit on the panel. What types of people make up this panel generally? I know that there’s some requirements, eligibilities or ineligibilities. You can’t be current or former law enforcement.

You’re not required to live in the city of Boulder, but they want you to have strong ties to the city. What other members had you heard about over the past year or two or three, and were those folks seeming to be leaning more anti police, pro police, or a wide variety? I think there has been a variety. I don’t think those issues pro or con toward police or antagonistic toward police was registered by us. I think it really started out to be a good group of people who wanted to make sure what happened to Zayd Ackerson never happened in Boulder again, right? So I think that was the focus, but it quickly got co-opted.

And you know, Darren, basically as part of the NAACP kind of set what the panel makeup should be. So, this was something that we thought would get a, a swath of people who could basically look at these things around policing and make some fair draw some fair conclusions. And that certainly did not happen.

O’Connor: Yeah, I would add to that, for example, the, the types of people we’re looking for were people from communities that would historically have issues with policing, you know, through mass incarceration we, you know, that, that’s not an allegation, that’s just a fact, so, black people, Latina, Latinx people the, one of the, The two initial board chairs, one was a young black woman who was an attorney grew up in Boulder, the other one, Daniel, I can’t remember his last name, was a gay man. Daniel, Daniel quit over the changes to the ordinance, you know, was not even listened to. Another black woman who was on there, Quit because she didn’t feel protected in doing the work. You know, they were being threatened with lawsuits threatened by the city attorney’s office who advised them saying, oh, you can’t say those things. You’ll get sued. And you know, even in the original ordinance, they were supposed to be pre protected by the city attorney’s office, but that city attorney’s office is the same one. who defends the police. So they’re just, you know, the fact that with the person they removed, they claim there was bias and conflict of interest. It’s just astounding that that’s the excuse when the city attorney’s office and the city manager just ignore the conflict of interest inherent in their advising this group.

Sedley: So, are oversight panels like this common across the states?

O’Connor: They’re becoming more so, yeah. I, I think five years ago it wouldn’t have been the case. It was a newer sort of body and step towards police accountability, but now it’s, it’s becoming more prevalent and there’s a, a national group that advises on best practices, NACOL.

So it’s, it’s become sort of establishment and, you know, they have limited. Limited power. So you really need for the limited power that they have, you really need, if you’re going to have any results from it that are positive people who are willing to stand in the cut and be objective and not be afraid to challenge the police. We had that in Denver with Nick Mitchell who was the police monitor. You know, phenomenal work, and you could always just see that he maintained that objectivity, but Boulder has really lacked that the former, Monitor for Boulder was, you know, repeatedly made statements, even in his own reports about how great the police are here and that that’s just not what you should be doing in an objectively neutral position.

Sedley: Do you think it’s possible for this oversight panel in Boulder to reclaim some sense of positive effect on the community?

James: I think it’s going to require a tremendous amount of work. I think a lot of harm has been done. A lot of distrust. And I think people walking around in Boulder are very concerned about speaking out against policing.

Because they come after you very strongly. And they’re powerful. And so I think that in order for a collaborative process to take place, it would require some separation. It should not be in the hand of the direct line of the city manager or even council for that matter. So I think it needs to be thoroughly independent they’ve done you know, the last supposedly independent monitor they hired immediately was in bed with policing and also controlled the panel in a really interesting way that basically went back to support rank and file, and really was not interested in how we make things better, because that’s our only goal is, you know, in a little bit of criticism, they cannot handle any modicum of criticism. They immediately start a whole process of disclaiming, discrediting. And people are afraid of that, right? We live in this community and we want to be safe.

Sedley: And on the topic of Boulder’s police force, the police chief, Maris Herold, just moved on to the U. S. Department of Justice after serving just under four years with the Boulder Police Department. Starting with, with her, how was her term in the eyes of the NAACP?

O’Connor: God awful. From the very beginning, you know, the first time we met with her, she asked questions of us that implied that, that we were associated with or knowledgeable about activities that were criminal in the community, as if somehow being, you know, a Black organization, we would know about these things.

We did not. She defended one of the worst officers to, hopefully, ever serve in the police force, who had come from Denver, where he had, he was under investigation for beating the heck out of someone, a prisoner, in the jail, and before that investigation was complete, Boulder hired him. Now, she wasn’t the chief when that happened, but she defended him and then she, basically refused to, to meet with us after that and tried to go around the NAACP local branch to the state branch to get to get the kind of opinions that you wanted and, and tried to pit pit the NAACP membership across the state against each other, you know, we’re, I’m personally very glad she’s gone, but the the new boss is not the same as the old boss, he’s potentially worse. And hopefully we’ll talk about that.

James: Yeah. And I think. You know, one of the things they said is that, oh, she’s so progressive, but she didn’t support any of the legislation around reining in policing. So, she obviously was not very aggressive progressive. And she was basically, never told us the truth. You know, she’d say something and then it’d be completely opposite. So, she certainly didn’t have, wasn’t trusted by the organization.

Sedley: So then moving on to Deputy Chief Steven Redfern, who will take over as Interim Chief, who did take over as of January 22nd, this past Monday. We’ve talked about Redfern at length previously, the three of us, that conversation aired on KGNU and can be found on our website. We at KGNU invited Redfern to join us for a live call and show this week, but the city said this in response as interim chief Steve Redfern is focusing right now on ensuring that the police department and all its employees are fully supported during this transition, we’d be happy to consider this request once an ongoing chief has been named. So with all of that in mind, and with the information that we’ve discussed about Redfern before and his involvement with the murder of Elijah McLean while he worked for the Aurora Police Department. How does the NAACP Boulder chapter feel about Redfern standing as interim chief right now?

James: Well, our position has not changed.

Our position is he doesn’t, he hasn’t exemplified the type of ability to be fair. and to keep people safe based on what happened. We want an officer, a chief to be thorough in their investigative abilities. We want them to be honest. We want them to not go from suspicious person to assault on an officer as a charge when that is absolutely not the case.

We want someone with self control to not go outside of his district and shoot someone. We’re looking for someone who understand young people in a college town and that all colors of skin has a right to be in this community and be on the hill and enjoy what it, what you enjoy at 20 without fear of discrimination.

And, and, and, and, you know, Redfern just has not – his history just doesn’t show us that he is the person for the job in this community and, you know, I would argue any community it’s so important that police officers have self-control and the ability to be above reproach or is not the career choice.

O’Connor: Yeah, this is an officer who comes from Aurora, which is their police force, where he served for 21, 22 years was 3. 9 times more likely to shoot a black person than a white person they’re in the news all the time. They’ve had, I think they’re now on their fifth police chief in, in five years. And he comes here, And on, on one of the first investigations he’s either involved in or at least speaking for the department on, you know, he says where there’s, there was a fight between some apparently Latinx and, and black people up on the hill.

He, he says we’re, you know, we’re going to throw the book at them and we’re going to, I’m asking our officers to ask why they come to Boulder. I mean, that just screams, you don’t belong here to anyone. who doesn’t fit the white normative population of Boulder, and that’s just, those kind of statements are just clearly not what we’re being told the reimagined policing work that was done should result in. And the fact that the city decided, after all the, all the information we provided to the city about Redfern, that they would just put him straight in as the interim chief of police with, with this many criticisms, warranted criticisms, is truly troubling.

James: And our voices will not change. We feel that we are on the right side of this history and we feel that the city its management and staff should not have made this decision and they’re equally, as we see it, culpable for poor policing.

If you’re making those kinds of choices and then willing to go on record and split hairs to try and justify the unjustifiable is a problem. And it should be for every person in this community, not just for Black and brown folk. Because we all have the right to live here and we’re gonna be living here. So we might want to look at how we work together. And we’re not going to stop speaking out. And they’ve tried everything, you know, breaking up, you know, going to state conference for the NAACP to try and silence the Boulder branch. And then just making people feel fearful.

We’re going to sue you you know, so all these things as a ways to silence. And silence is not what is needed at this time.

Sedley: I wanted to remind listeners that last time we spoke, the NAACP Boulder branch was asking for the resignation of Steven Redfern, and now obviously that is not the case and there has actually been an interim promotion. Is there anything else, Darren or Annett, that you would like to add? Those are all of my questions.

O’Connor: Well, the search for a new chief of police should be transparent. I don’t think this community should believe or does believe for a moment that the best they could find came from the Aurora Police Department involved in the Elijah McClain murder, which Stephen Redfern was involved right from the beginning in that. And If we can’t find someone better than that, we’re not looking.

James: Yeah, and I mean, to elevate him with all of this out there is, was a slap in the face to the community. We don’t know all of the reasons Redfern was able to have this great, soft elevation landing coming from Aurora. But for whatever reason we have to do what we are obligated to do.

And our obligation is to get the very best and policing that we can have. And this is why policing never changes, right? From its origin of catching people who look like me and returning them to bondage until this day when you can, you know, kill a black person on the street and get exonerated or nothing’s changed because city government support it, and if we’re ever going to change policing someone has got to be willing to be, have some integrity, and it’s gonna, it’s us for now, until we get some allies in government, and some powerful people to join us and we hope that will happen, but if it doesn’t, we’ll continue where we are.

Sedley: All right, Darren O’Connor and Annett James with the NAACP Boulder Branch. Thank you so much for joining this afternoon to talk about this.

James: Thank you.

O’Connor: Thanks for having us.

Jackie Sedley

Jackie Sedley

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