As Colorado Springs City Council moves toward forming a police accountability commission, critics say it’s already falling short of models in other Colorado cities and across the nation that have more authority and are geared toward creating lasting change.
Last week, council members voted 8-1 in favor of an ordinance outlining the creation of a commission that aims to "foster transparency, accountability and trust" between the Police Department and residents, the draft stated.
The decision came amid weekslong demonstrations by residents protesting the death of George Floyd — a Black man who was killed by Minneapolis police — and demanding accountability.
Policing experts and residents, including a group advocating for increased transparency and civilian oversight since the August 2019 death of De’Von Bailey, say the proposed commission lacks the independence necessary to create change in the city.
Independence from the law enforcement agency being overseen, especially in the aftermath of high-profile incidents, is essential for effective change, said Gianina Irlando, who sits on the board of directors of the National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE).
Irlando has been working with several Colorado Springs residents for months to explore the best oversight models for the city.
Their proposal, which included creating an independent board, was rejected by City Council last month. Instead, council members approved a council-appointed commission, which will present recommendations to council members, who can then make recommendations to the mayor.
While there are no “best” oversight models, one without sufficient authority and jurisdiction to bring reform is not effective, Irlando said.
“It’s problematic when you don’t have legislation that clearly defines what you have access to, what you're allowed to do, what the police department has to do in response,” she said.
Unfettered access to resources is also crucial to the commission’s success, Irlando said.
“They are defeating themselves by seating the board in the first place,"she said. "They are not actually meeting the demands of the community that has been working on this and has been affected.”
Police Chief Vince Niski said previously that he does not support a civilian oversight committee.
"We are not solely sitting here saying, 'We know how to do it best,'" Niski said in April. "We do follow best practices, we do do it right," he said, noting his department is part of two national police organizations that routinely publish best practices.
'Taking away the moment'
The Rev. Stephany Rose Spaulding, who attended the NACOLE symposium in Austin, called the creation of the commission “a step backwards.”
“It doesn’t have power to do much, all it can do is provide recommendations," Spaulding said. "If it is not a recommendation that City Council desires, then it is not one that City Council will act on and same goes for the mayor.
“It appears on the surface like they have done something — and they have. They have taken the moment away from the city to actually get community, transparency and accountability.”
Advisory boards usually are born of high-profile events, such as Floyd’s death, and are often temporary and lack authority and objectivity, said Maria Haberfeld, professor at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who has studied police training for more than two decades.
“There is a lot of pressure to bring an immediate resolution and immediate solution,” Haberfeld said. The problem, she said, is that advisory “doesn’t necessarily spell out an independence approach or an objective approach to the problem.”
Advisory boards that are overseen by the city government typically have “an agenda,” whereas civilian oversight boards tend to be more permanent, she said.
Haberfeld said imposing reform within police departments is challenging and an effort that takes a thorough understanding of department procedures, including police training, recruitment and selection, discipline and a standard of procedure.
To be effective, boards should have a policing expert or social scientist who will know what to look at and understand what the data means, she said.
“It is a real profession and a very complicated one,” Haberfeld said. “Therefore, it requires the inside knowledge.”
Trending toward reform
The effort in Colorado Springs comes at a time of nationwide calls for police reform and on the steps of a comprehensive police reform bill that made Colorado one of the first states to make officers financially liable if they are found guilty of violating civil rights.
Colorado Springs’ proposed commission follows in the footsteps of several other cities in the state looking toward revamping police accountability.
While no two civilian oversight agencies are the same, they can generally be broken down into three models:
- Review model: Agencies that review completed police investigations to ensure they are fair and thorough. These are often made up of volunteers.
- Investigative model: Agencies that conduct independent reviews into allegations of police misconduct and are staffed by nonpolice investigators.
- Monitor or auditor model: Agencies that can review or investigate police complaints as well as conduct more broad, systematic reviews of police policies.
“It's very important that you adopt something that works for your community,” said Aimee Kane, equity program manager of Boulder’s police oversight task force.
“If you take your time with it, you can really establish something that's a win-win for the department, for the community, and really put in a system that works for them,” Kane said.
Boulder began working on a task force after a video went viral in March 2019. It shows a Boulder police officer pulling a gun on a Black man who was picking up trash outside his home.
The city’s process began with a subcommittee, made up of two City Council members and three members of the Boulder County NAACP, which reviewed applications for those interested serving on a task force, Kane said.
The task force was made up of 13 residents, all of which were people of color expect for a white trans person, and representatives from the District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, the police union and deputy chief of police, Kane said. Task force members ranged in age as well, from a 21-year-old Colorado University student to a woman who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., she said.
Adapting the auditor-monitor model, Boulderwill hire an independent police monitor, as in Denver, who would monitor the internal investigations within the Police Department and make disciplinary recommendations to the chief and oversight panel, she said.
Aurora appoints task force
In Aurora last month, City Council appointed 14 residents to create a police task force after realizing its oversight board was weak and ineffective, said Mayor Pro Tem and Councilwoman Nicole Johnston.
The death of Elijah McClain last August, which has since prompted national outcry, demonstrated to the community that an additional, independent set of eyes was needed to look at the Police Department’s use of force that resulted in death or injury, Johnston said.
“I realized that independent oversight and models shouldn’t come from me as a council member, but should be from the community,” she said.“They are going to be studying the different models.”
The task force includes a member of the Aurora Public Schools Board of Education, the president of Aurora’s chapter of the NAACP, a representative of a center which provides housing for formerly incarcerated people, a longtime sergeant with the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office, and a protest organizer and advocate for the McClain family.
The task force also has a nonvoting representative from the Aurora Police Department.
It comes about six years after the city created an Independent Review Board to look at discipline matters for the police, but not use-of-force cases.
Johnston called the independent review board’s scope “too narrow” and said it was used infrequently. In September 2018 — the last time it was convened, though it still exists today — the then-police chief asked the board to review a case after a group of officers used a racial slur.
“In terms of teeth, it is up to us, I am taking their recommendations seriously and will seriously consider into policy, possibly charter changes, ordinances like that," Johnston said. “The teeth part is coming from me, as an elected official, I will do something with this."
Creating meaningful change
Creating significant change within a police department is challenging, Haberfeld said, but possible with buy-in from law enforcement agencies and city government.
“You have to buy the hearts and mind of law enforcement, but it is very hard to achieve when things are created in the aftermath of a scandal. It is perceived as a punitive move rather than a progressive move,” she said.
Haberfeld, who helps train officers and advocates for stress-management training for officers, said any in-service training is often met with resistance.
“Before you introduce anything … you have to make them understand why it needs to be done,” she said.
To be successful, it takes experience, she said.
“It requires certain skills to explain to police chiefs and other law enforcement executives that at the end of the day, it is for the future,” she said. “It is not a punitive move, it is something that will benefit them as much as it will benefit the community.”