Police Chief: Some current Boulder department policies ‘fall short’ as officials press for, promise reform

Stan Smith / June 08,2020

A caravan of motorists Tuesday evening cruised throughout Boulder, including just outside City Councilwoman Rachel Friend’s house, spooking her dog during a virtual meeting of elected officials and municipal staffers that was dominated by discussion of proposed local police reform.

The drivers, Friend said, made a bunch of noise and displayed a sign while driving down her street demanding the city overhaul its police department, and the councilwoman made a plea over the meeting’s broadcast for the activists to stop in part for the sake of her dog, saying she heard them and promised to oversee local law enforcement change.

Riley Mancuso said participants in the moving car rally were out “to show our support for de-funding, disarming and taking steps to disband the Boulder Police Department, immediately, in 2020, without waiting for the next budget.” They made their way down the streets of all the Council members, as well as City Attorney Tom Carr’s and City Manager Jane Brautigam’s.

The demonstration was the latest locally and just one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, that have occurred in the name of police reform and racial justice across the country in the days since a white Minnesota policeman, now facing a criminal murder allegation, was seen in widely circulated video kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a black man who died during the arrest on May 25. The drivers acted following Monday comments from Boulder City Manager Jane Brautigam that this year, amid a pandemic resulting in economic damage that left the municipal budget in tatters, is not a good time to make changes to currently allocated police department funding, and such conversations should be started during the 2021 budget cycle.

Friend, an attorney who teaches in the field of criminal justice, said the “de-fund the police” movement is worth discussing because of the roots of law enforcement in the United States being intertwined with explicit racism. She didn’t directly oppose Councilwoman Junie Joseph’s inquiries about whether police cruisers’ window tint could be removed and whether more unarmed community officers could be hired by the department, but Friend felt such suggestions were not enough and the topic of policing should be considered more broadly. Friend also expressed appreciation for Police Chief Maris Herold’s plans presented Tuesday to elected officials, but the councilwoman pointed out the chief was unlikely to recommend funding cuts to police, an idea many across the nation have made a rallying cry.

“From everything I read and teach is that the roots (in policing) are partly collecting taxes, but also primarily the police forces were formed to hunt down (people) who escaped slavery.” Friend said. “… If we baby-step, we’re not going to make the transformation that is needed in policing.”

Joseph pushed back on the notion that her ideas to start making changes were not the right, high-level topics for the moment.

“It’s the little things within the police departments that need to change in order for the big changes to take place. I don’t think we should discount the little things,” Joseph said.

Mancuso’s group took to the roads as Council decided to support the statehouse bill SB20-217 Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity that could lead to sweeping policing reforms such as strictly limiting the use of less-lethal projectiles and chemical agents. Council also delayed the initial passage of a change to the city’s definition of criminally obstructing a peace officer that some community members, including the Boulder County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, have found troubling. There is debate about whether the proposal’s language — which City Attorney Tom Carr said aligns local law with state statute already in place that municipal cops can currently rely on to make an arrest — gives officers broader or narrower discretion when dealing with a civilian onlooker of official activity in public.

Specifically, the state law does not include a provision criminalizing a person’s failure to obey an order to move away 8 feet, while the city’s law does. Boulder staff has suggested eliminating that provision.

“The proposed change would allow for fewer grounds to charge obstruction. In a tense situation it can be difficult to estimate an eight-foot difference. This presents challenges for both the officer and the person receiving direction. Making the city ordinance parallel to the state code will allow more certainty for members of the community, including police officers,” a city staff memo said.

Friend was part of a 5-4 Council majority that opposed moving forward the tweak, which had been a subject of Council debate earlier this year, particularly because of a clause found in the state law with which she said the city should not adopt.

That line in the proposed ordinance is: “It is not a defense to a prosecution under this section that the peace officer was acting in an illegal manner if he or she was acting under color of his or her official authority.”

The obstruction definition will be the subject of future Council discussion, as will ongoing analysis of Boulder Police Department policies with Herold, who said she is continuing to review each one since being hired earlier this year.

“Some fall short. Some need to be enhanced,” Herold said, promising after her review that “they will meet the standard of model policies.”

Implementing a new departmental use of force plan known as the “Critical Decision-Making” model, which trains officers to value the sanctity of human life and operate in a manner that works to prevent the death of anyone during a police incident, is on Herold’s near-term agenda.

Council appeared set to take up a high level of engagement with police practices and finances when the department’s master plan starts undergoing an update in October, while Herold said her entire plan for changes to support just policing could take two years to fully complete.

Councilman Adam Swetlik contended there is no time like the present to take a top-to-bottom look at the police department’s budget since the city’s financial standing requires huge spending cuts due to the coronavirus-inflicted economic upheaval.

America’s culture surrounding firearms and its prevalence of shootings compared to other wealthy nations is a contributor to the police department’s need for what some consider heavy-handed and military-like equipment, such as tear gas, pepper balls and long guns, Herold said.

“If we could get rid of all those weapons in our society, it would be a much easier conversation,” Mayor Sam Weaver said.

Council observed a moment of silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds to commemorate Floyd’s life, the period of time prosecutors say the Minnesota officer spent kneeling on the man’s neck.

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