Point: Susan Hutson

Independent civilian oversight must not be dismissed as a solution to community trust of law enforcement in Colorado Springs.

As the president of the National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, I am angry and grieving with many of you who are looking for words and wrestling with emotion following the latest deaths of black men and women at the hands of law enforcement. The killing of George Floyd, like De’Von Bailey, on live video, by armed and uniformed officers, is devastating for all of us. These events have forever changed America and further influenced the ability of many communities to trust law enforcement. This lack of trust is proven time and again to lead to a lack of cooperation that law enforcement needs to solve crime, and for many community members, the lack of utilization of public safety services — all effectively undermining what law enforcement was intended to achieve as a public service.

In light of conversations in Colorado Springs between the mayor and the City Council, I strongly recommend that independent civilian oversight be considered and evaluated fully. There are a myriad models to research but few appointed boards are considered effective oversight without full legislative and financial independence, (especially from law enforcement) without clear guidelines for access to documents, data and records from the law enforcement department and command staff, and without specific and regular contact with the larger community through public reporting and outreach. Many effective oversight models also have professional investigators, policy experts and an outreach team to improve the lack of community trust and faith in law enforcement. Teachers, doctors and many other professionals are overseen and audited professionally to ensure that quality and ethics are achieved in a particular field.

Established in 1995, NACOLE is a nonprofit organization founded on the belief that policing should be fair and consistent, and that independent civilian oversight leads to more effective policing and safer communities. Having had the opportunity to meet and discuss community trust and law enforcement accountability with community members and law enforcement from Colorado Springs in March, it is apparent that your city has an incredible opportunity to find solutions to these problems among all stakeholders. While the lack of trust is unfortunate, it is not rare in any American city.

In some cities, it takes several critical incidents like the shooting of Bailey to create the political will and community outrage to begin the discussion about independent civilian oversight. Meanwhile, public safety is highly compromised without community trust and cooperation in policing.

Colorado Springs has a unique window with a broad alliance of community, government, and law enforcement stakeholders to explore the best way for your city to improve public trust of law enforcement. I highly encourage you to take advantage of this energy and commitment to find an independent oversight model that serves everyone. Law enforcement is funded by taxpayers and should be accountable to the community.

NACOLE is the preeminent civilian oversight association in the U.S. and our membership and board of directors are the leading experts in the field of civilian oversight. We offer extensive training to the growing community of civilian oversight practitioners, law enforcement officials, community advocates, and other accountability experts. NACOLE also provides support to communities working to create oversight such as Colorado Springs.

Please take the time to utilize national expertise and research the benefits of independent oversight for the Colorado Springs community. On behalf of the board of directors of NACOLE, we pledge that we will be a resource as your community discusses your public safety needs during this crucial time in history.

Counterpoint: Vincent NiskiLaw enforcement is an ever-changing profession. It is constantly evolving to reflect new best practices, meet the specific needs of our community, and everything in between. While we embrace change and progress forward, I do not believe that improvement requires the dismantling of our current system.

We are proud to be your police department, and I am exceptionally honored to lead this organization whose work, compassion and commitment is second to none.

The department has dedicated resources to training officers in crisis intervention, using the model championed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. So far, 327 officers have successfully completed the training.

School resource officers are also in schools implementing restorative justice practices in lieu of criminal charges and co-teaching classes with teachers on internet safety, driving, and more.

Our Homeless Outreach Team is partnering with local advocacy groups to provide resources before enforcement.

We are active in the Illumination Project, which focuses on listening sessions with community members.

Our Community Response Team partners with medical and mental health professionals who respond with us on calls for service involving people in crisis.

The CSPD is also accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies since 1991. The CALEA Accreditation Process is a proven modern management model; and we are proud to be one of the few agencies in the nation that holds this accreditation.

These are strengths that exist in our system — as several of our practices reflect what many are calling for. That is why I do not believe that rejecting a model that has proven beneficial for our community is the answer.

While there are more examples of how police officers are making positive impacts every day, we know that these successes are not just our doing. We rely heavily on citizen surveys, public input, community committees, and neighborhood groups to help shape the department and how we provide police services.

We have always relied on our community’s voices, and we will continue to look to them. We also understand that our police powers are derived from our community. It is one of our fundamental, underlying values that influences everything we do as police officers.

As in every profession, we fully acknowledge there is room for growth. Right now, our community has the opportunity to come together like never before. We recognize that it is our duty to listen and increase our understanding of how people experience our policing actions.

We ask that our community come forward and get to know the police department for who we are instead of listening to a national narrative. In addition to being police officers, we are mothers, fathers, daughters and sons. We are part of this community. We are all what makes Colorado Springs a great city. As we move forward, we will be intentional in providing more information about your police department and how we serve you. The first step is developing a new public dashboard to show data on key policing actions.

Our officers are here because they have a calling to serve. They have dedicated decades of their lives because they believe in our community. I recognize that there are inequalities that exist in American society, and we know there is work to be done. It is going to take all of us coming to the table with open minds and hearts to move forward. So to our community: We are here, we are listening, and we are ready. A better future is within our reach, and we look forward to having these conversations of progress in a space of shared respect and understanding.

Susan Hutson is the president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement and is the independent police monitor for the city of New Orleans. Vincent Niski is the chief of police in Colorado Springs.

Susan Hutson is the president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) and is the Independent Police Monitor for the City of New Orleans. Vincent Niski is the Colorado Springs Chief of Police.

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