Opinion: Proposed advisory council a ‘window dressing’

After months of effort, Austin group members got exactly what they didn’t want.

By the Justice for De'Von Editorial Board

On March 6 of this year, 10 community leaders from Colorado Springs sat together in Austin at the University of Texas (UT) Law School to hear about national research from the Policing Project of the New York University School of Law. This research evaluated the effectiveness of community advisory boards (CABs). At best, we were told, these CABs are ineffective — they allow the police to police themselves. At their worst? The boards can lead to results that are worse than what you started with.

This local delegation, known now as the Austin group, was formed as part of a community response to the 2019 killing of local Black teenager De’Von Bailey, and as a way to address the deep community trauma that was expressed in its aftermath amidst policing and leadership failures. Its members represented neighborhoods most impacted by police violence, the business community, the Colorado Springs Police Department (CSPD), City Council, clergy, academia, the NAACP and others. Attending this symposium was a small step toward building a tenuous trust.

The group returned with plans to present the information it gathered at a public community forum, but the COVID-19 pandemic made a forum impossible. Nonetheless, this working group issued a public report and continued its work, joined by the Concerned Clergy Coalition, a group of faith leaders representing those most impacted by police violence.

With the full participation of Wayne Williams, the City Councilmember who attended the symposium, the group agreed to form the independent Exploratory Panel on Police Transparency and Accountability (EPPTA). Its purpose was to limit harm by and advance public safety and community trust in law enforcement. This panel would consist of representatives from the most impacted constituencies and those with relevant knowledge and experience. Following the recommendations of symposium experts, the EPPTA would bring the public’s voice to the table to prevent harm, to engage a broad coalition and tailor an accountability solution for our community.

The group moved forward in good faith. Late on the night prior to a hastily called City Council special meeting on June 11, it was discovered that Councilor Williams intended to personally present the work of the group without consultation or input from other group members. His iteration changed the panel name and altered the recommended structure from independent to advisory, thus relegating the group’s formation to City Council and the very people responsible for the abysmal response to Bailey’s death.

[pullquote-1] The selection process had been changed to include only four people, three of whom were Williams himself, City Council President Richard Skorman and the head of the Colorado Springs Police Protective Association (PPA) Sherryl Dillon — the PPA is the most aggressive defender of excessive force and police extrajudicial killings nationwide. The fourth person, Rev. Promise Lee, had not been consulted about inclusion of his name in the bastardized proposal. Group composition had also been changed to include representatives from the police union and the district attorney’s office, in addition to CSPD. Thus, three months of community collaboration was appropriated and used to promote an accountability model directly in opposition to the work that was done and agreed upon.

Moments before that same Council session, the Austin working group learned of yet another proposal before Council. A newly formed group of protesters called “We the People” was proposing a solution that was conspicuously aligned with the desires of Williams, the mayor and the police chief. Blindsided, the two groups requested additional time for collaboration and were granted four more days.

During this period, President Skorman approached members of the Austin workgroup about forming a “President’s Commission,” an obscure option that allows formation of an independent body. This appeared to be the only remaining option. After days of negotiations, “We the People” rejected working alongside those who had been invested in police accountability and transparency for the better part of a year. On June 14, our group presented seven pages of signatures, demonstrating broad community support for our work and the President’s Commission. After initiating the action, Skorman bailed.

From the UT symposium and continuing research, the Austin group had learned about different models, components and core principles that can be applied to effectively maximize police accountability and transparency. Advisory boards are anathema to them all. Beyond CABs being a weak and easily manipulated “window dressing,” there is an even more profound flaw in the Colorado Springs City Council process: the betrayal of trust.

“Olympic City USA” has had more than enough strong-arming and posturing by those whose eyes are on their next political prize, as opposed to the needs of their community. Colorado Springs needs an unwavering commitment to those most harmed by police violence, for those closest to the pain. We need solutions that can only come from full, independent community participation and broad-based support. That is what was denied, yet again.

In light of the process that has led us to where we are now, it seems we may already be worse off than where we started.

The Justice for De’Von Editorial Board is a group of diverse community leaders and professionals who have been working to counter misinformation since the police killing of Black teenager De’Von Bailey. All actions are taken under the leadership of Rev. Promise Lee.