Friday, June 12, 2020

City Council expresses support for police advisory committee

Posted By on Fri, Jun 12, 2020 at 10:13 AM

click to enlarge Protesters set up a memorial for Black men killed by police outside City Hall. - HEIDI BEEDLE
  • Heidi Beedle
  • Protesters set up a memorial for Black men killed by police outside City Hall.
As a crowd gathered outside City Hall to protest police brutality against Black people — with coffins laid on the building steps — City Council met inside for a special work session to discuss the possibility of a citizen advisory committee for the Colorado Springs Police Department.

The project has been in the works since a panel discussion in February, where community members aired grievances against CSPD. After that meeting, Councilor Wayne Williams, Rev. Promise Lee, members of CSPD and several community members attended a conference in Austin to help them research possibilities.

The conference was organized by the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE), a nonprofit that supports independent civilian oversight of police departments around the country.

Police Chief Vince Niski has said he opposes creating a civilian oversight board to review police use of force. Some community members have pushed for such oversight since De'Von Bailey, a Black 19-year-old, was shot and killed while running from police in August (and even before that particular incident).

A grand jury ultimately ruled that the officers who shot Bailey, who had a gun in his shorts, were justified. But more and more people in the community are demanding more accountability from the police department.

In Colorado Springs and across the nation, protests have continued since George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee against Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes. Protesters mourn Floyd, Bailey and other Black people who've died at the hands of law enforcement.

Before the protests began, the group that went to Austin had been meeting with Williams to discuss plans for a committee to help develop recommendations for local police. The committee's aim, according to Williams, would be to "advance public safety and community trust in the highest purposes of law enforcement and to recommend positive, evidence-based police transparency and accountability practices."

Williams presented on some of the group's progress in developing plans for the committee at an April City Council work session, but another presentation was scheduled for June 22 to lay out the proposal in more detail.

That presentation was moved up slightly in hopes of easing tensions.

On June 11, some of those tensions were on display not only outside City Hall, but also inside the building.

Lee, the pastor of Relevant Word Ministries in the Hillside neighborhood south of downtown, bemoaned delays and pushback in the process of installing a committee.

"The tragedy with Mr. Floyd has simply illuminated what goes on in cities and states and counties across the globe," Lee told Council. "And the protests that we are seeing is an indication and an illustration of how tired people are of the systemic racism and the systemic oppression that continues to perpetuate itself over and over and over again."

In recent days, new voices have been added to the conversation.

Several young protest organizers who call themselves "The People" have met with council members separately and with the group that went to Austin earlier in the year. Their proposal for police accountability differs from what the Austin group has been planning, though neither plan was pitched at the work session.

Instead, Jody Alyn, a local diversity consultant who went to the Austin conference and has been involved in the process as a volunteer for several months, and Renee Alexander, a leader of The People, both asked Council for another week so that the two groups could merge their proposals.

"We had the opportunity to meet a group of young people who are earnest, who have done their homework and want to be part of the process," Alyn said.

But she added that the Austin group wants the board or committee to be completely independent from city infrastructure to ensure that it's not controlled by members of government. This type of group wouldn't need approval from Council; rather, Alyn said, it could exist with officials' endorsement and support.

As an example of an independent committee, Williams pointed to the Trails, Parks and Open Space Coalition, which doesn't have support from city staff or have members appointed by Council.

An alternative option would be a formal, City Council-appointed committee similar to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board.

Mayor John Suthers spoke at the work session in favor of a formal committee, which he said The People had proposed.

Suthers said it would be important for the committee to use that structure in order to have a fair application process for members, the support of the city attorney's office, and the help of city staff in completing extensive research on current policing practices.

All Council members spoke in favor of creating some sort of committee, and some — including Councilors Andy Pico and Jill Gaebler — suggested they preferred The People's plan to the Austin group's, praising the young people's thorough research and willingness to bring a variety of voices to the table.

Councilor Yolanda Avila, however, voiced her concern that this supposed preference was really a sign that the mayor and City Council would try to "co-opt" The People's plan, and were mainly supporting it because they wanted a Council-appointed committee.

In the past, Council has ignored some recommendations from other advisory committees, Avila pointed out, mentioning affordable housing proposals from the Human Relations Commission that weren't implemented.

"I applaud our young people, but they have not been betrayed over and over," Avila said.

Neither group's proposal for the committee was presented in full to City Council on June 11. Council President Richard Skorman suggested scheduling another meeting for June 16 to hear the two groups' plans, which Alyn and Alexander said they wanted to discuss and hopefully merge.

"If we give the community something that not only they can trust, but they can put their belief in, this will bridge the gap between government and community, which is something that is very, very difficult to do," Alexander said. "...We could work better as a unit than separated."

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