Opinion: Give the police accountability committee some teeth

Colorado Springs City Council gave its initial blessing June 16 to a Council-appointed Police Accountability Advisory Board. It’s an 11-member committee that, as designed, will meet monthly to “discuss policy, procedures, auditing and facilitating community engagement” with regards to policing. Details were discussed at a June 23 Council meeting that took place after the Indy’s press deadline.

On the surface, the idea sounds great. After all, residents have been calling for citizen oversight of the city PD since last August, when two white Springs police officers fatally shot 19-year-old De’Von Bailey, a Black man, as he fled with a pistol in his shorts. A grand jury didn’t charge the officers in his death.

The community’s cries for oversight, for the authority to police the police, resonated all the way to Denver. The governor eventually echoed the citizenry’s rallying call — that the state Attorney General’s Office initiate a third-party investigation of the Bailey case.

But then you dig into the details and it becomes clear the approved advisory board is … superficial. The committee emerged from a four-page proposal put forth by a group of 20- and 30-something Black leaders known locally as “The People.” The idealistic and fearless group met and united, in their words, “very organically” following the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, and it has emerged as a catalyst of the Black Lives Matter movement here in Colorado Springs.

Their plan, which is the foundation for the advisory board, offers a sweeping vision that includes everything from ride-alongs and barbecue meet-and-greets with police, to emergency review and advisement powers following extreme incidents. Those ideas could go a long way toward mending rifts between police and the community.

The problem is it lacks teeth. There is no oversight that would allow the committee to reprimand officers in cases of extreme force or for violations of civil rights. Members may make recommendations, sure, but they have no actual judicial authority, so it comes down to Council, the city administration and the police force itself to punish its own.

Compare that to a different proposal put before Council June 16. This one from Stephany Rose Spaulding, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs chair of women’s and ethnic studies and pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Pastor Promise Lee of Relevant Word Ministries in Hillside. It has a long list of supporters and was based on existing civilian oversight committees. It would have given its members quasi-judicial power.

That’s something the mayor and police chief have both argued against, saying there are mitigating circumstances and life-or-death, split-second decisions an officer must make that an untrained civilian simply wouldn’t understand.

And that’s fair, too. But civilian oversight boards with firing power already exist elsewhere in this country, and with members who are thoughtful and thorough in their adjudication. This idea isn’t without precedent.

Instead, Council spent an hour June 16 successfully manipulating one side against the other before reaching the inevitable conclusion that they would go with the meeker Council-appointed committee. They did so after a handful of meetings and bought, in near lock-step with the administration’s recommendation, a proposal cobbled together in a matter of weeks.

In rejecting the Lee/Spaulding proposal, Council turned its back on four months’ research that included a trip to Austin, Texas, for a national symposium on civilian oversight. It’s telling that Councilor Yolanda Avila, the sole Latina on the board and the representative of Southeast Colorado Spring’s hugely diverse 4th District, was the only board member to speak on behalf of this concept. Council’s decision was hasty. It was probably well-intended — many members spoke about the need for urgency, as the public demonstrated at their doorstep — but the snap decision for the weaker proposal means major roadblocks to any substantive change.

Council must readdress this issue. Go ahead and seat The People’s Police Accountability Advisory Board. People are demanding it, and even this committee is better than none. But don’t settle.

Councilors, take a long, hard look at a true citizens’ oversight and advisory council … and this time do so in a way that is thoughtful and intentional and one that empowers the committee. You’ve paid lip service to the citizens’ demands; this time put some teeth behind those lips.

Editorial board: Regan Foster, Bryan Grossman, Mary Jo Meade, Helen Robinson, Amy Gillentine Sweet