By John Herrick, Boulder Reporting Lab
The Boulder City Council has voted to remove a member from the Police Oversight Panel, the latest flashpoint in a dispute that has dominated Boulder headlines for months. The decision was seen by some as a rebuff to the community organizations that helped appoint the member, and it may prompt a lawsuit against the city.
Council members voted 5-2 to approve a recommendation by a special counsel to remove Lisa Sweeney-Miran from the panel due to her outspoken advocacy for police reform, and involvement in a lawsuit against the city’s police chief seeking to overturn the city’s camping ban. The recommendation was based in part on a provision in city code prohibiting anyone with a “real or perceived bias, prejudice or conflict of interest” from serving on the panel.
The 11-member Police Oversight Panel reviews internal investigations into cases of alleged officer misconduct and makes disciplinary recommendations to the city’s police chief, among other responsibilities.
In casting their votes to remove Sweeney-Miran, who was appointed in January 2023, some council members said they did so to ensure public trust in the panel’s work. Several supported her appointment and said she was fit to serve. Some even consider her a friend.
“I support the panel’s work wholeheartedly. And it is critically important that they have the clean slate from which to do the work and have that work be trusted and validated,” Council member Matt Benjamin, who voted for Sweeney-Miran’s removal, said. “This is a tough one.”
Council member Rachel Friend also voted for her removal. She said if Sweeney-Miran were to stay on, it would “threaten the legal sustainability” of the panel’s work. If officers were disciplined based on the recommendations of a panel that included Sweeney-Miran, she said, they would likely appeal and “have pretty strong evidence for reversal.”
“We are mired in the politicization of these appointments,” Friend added.
In addition to Benjamin and Friend, Council members Bob Yates, Tara Winer and Mark Wallach voted for Sweeney-Miran’s removal. Voting against it were council members Nicole Speer and Lauren Folkerts. Council member Junie Joseph was absent. Mayor Aaron Brockett was also absent, but he wrote in an email to council members prior to the vote that he would oppose removing Sweeney-Miran.
“Regardless of the outcome of tonight’s discussion, it’s imperative that we try to heal our divisions and work together going forward on policing and police oversight in our community,” Brockett wrote.
The Boulder City Council created the Police Oversight Panel in 2020, the year after a city police officer drew his gun on a Black college student. Council members sought with its creation to give “historically excluded communities” a greater role in civilian oversight.
Folkerts suggested that the special counsel, Clay Douglas, a former city attorney, “lacked sufficient knowledge of the history” surrounding the panel’s creation when he made the recommendation to remove Sweeney-Miran.
“Everyone has biases, and acknowledging our biases is important for accountability and working towards justice,” she said. Folkerts added, “We must consider the chilling effects on free speech of any potential actions … I question not only who will be left to speak, but what they will feel comfortable saying.”
“When we ask people with marginalized identities to use their time and energy to give us feedback, we need to be prepared to use their input and to have their back when others attack their perspectives,” Speer said. “Otherwise, we’re wasting everyone’s time and making people feel dismissed, tokenized and vulnerable.”
This year’s appointment process for the Police Oversight Panel marked the most involvement by city council since the panel began meeting in February 2021. Since then, the panel has struggled to keep members due to the workload. One member resigned from the panel, in part to protest limits on what panel members can say publicly about cases they review. In a letter to city council members this week, Ariel Amaru, one of the founding members of the panel whose term ended earlier this year, said the situation involving Sweeney-Miran is distracting the panel from doing its work.
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“I worry that this conﬂict could spell the end of the Panel,” she said. “I hope that this conﬂict doesn’t make us forget that the core of the Panel’s work is good work.”
The vote is the latest twist in the drawn-out appointment process.
In January 2023, about a week before council members approved a new slate of panelists, a Boulder resident, John Neslage, lodged a code of conduct complaint alleging the committee set up to nominate new members to the panel violated city code due to Sweeney-Miran’s “obvious bias” against police. The selection committee included representatives from the NAACP Boulder County, El Centro Amistad, and two members of the Police Oversight Panel.
Neslage, who is helping residents gather signatures for a ballot measure that aims to put pressure on the city to clear out encampments of homeless people near schools, pointed to social media posts made by Sweeney-Miran critical of policing. Residents opposing her appointment have also cited her previous involvement in the lawsuit over the camping ban, which allows officers to ticket homeless people for sleeping in public spaces. Sweeney-Miran is also a member of the Boulder Valley School District school board, and has advocated for removing police officers from schools. She runs Mother House, a homeless shelter in Boulder.
Douglas, the special council appointed by council members, investigated the complaint — as well as several other complaints related to the appointment process. He determined that the selection committee “failed to adequately evaluate” the candidates for bias and that Sweeney-Miran could “undermine public trust in and effectiveness of the Police Oversight Panel.” To address the issue, he recommended she resign or be removed by city council members. (Douglas has already billed the city about $11,000 for the investigations this year, according to city data. His contract is capped at $20,000, according to city officials.)
‘This has far-reaching consequences’
Leading up to last night’s vote, Sweeney-Miran’s lawyer, Dan Williams, told council members he does not believe the city council has the authority to remove a member from the Police Oversight Panel. In a joint statement with Sweeney-Miran after the vote, they hinted at legal action.
“The vote this evening to remove Lisa Sweeney-Miran from the police oversight panel was taken despite Boulder City Council having neither cause nor authority to act,” the statement said. “The city has broken their own laws, violated due process, and trampled on the first amendment. While this vote is over, we are not done with this fight.”
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After the vote, the groups that helped nominate Sweeney-Miran were outraged by the council’s actions. Jude Landsman, a vice president with the NAACP of Boulder County and a member of the selection committee, said the city council has misused its power by overriding what was supposed to be a community-led process.
“I think the [Police Oversight Panel] is done,” Landsman told Boulder Reporting Lab. “This has far-reaching consequences and sets a terrible precedent.”
Ana Karina Casas Ibarra, who represented El Centro Amistad on the selection committee, expressed grave disappointment.
“It’s heartbreaking to see the vote of some of the council members who I thought supported our community,” Casas Ibarra told Boulder Reporting Lab. “It always turns out this way for our community. We’re used to it.”
She said she lives in North Boulder and frequently sees police in her neighborhood. She said her husband was recently stopped by police while walking their dog. She was considering seeking a spot on the Police Oversight Panel one day, she added.
“But seeing what is happening, What is the point?” Casas Ibarra said. “Look at what they did to this white woman from Boulder. Think about what they would do to me.”
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