'Reimagining How We Deliver Public Safety': A Conversation With Boulder's Independent Police Monitor
In 2019, video of an incident between Boulder police and a young Black Naropa University student outside his apartment went viral. The incident sparked national outrage and calls for more oversight of law enforcement and how complaints against them are handled. In response, Boulder created a position for its first-ever independent police monitor. Joseph Lipari stepped into that role last July.
Lipari spoke with KUNC’s Colorado Edition to highlight his work so far, and where law enforcement may go from here.
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Erin O’Toole: This role was created as a direct response to an incident with Zayd Atkinson, a young man in Boulder. Give us some background on how it led to the creation of this position.
Joseph Lipari: On March 1, 2019 an officer stopped a young man who was outside of an apartment that he lived at while he was picking up trash. The officer questioned whether he actually lived there or not; the individual told him that he did. There was some disagreement or some confusion of whether he lived there or not. At a certain point during the interaction, the officer briefly pulled his gun on the individual. The video was released of that, and there was a significant degree of public outrage.
In response, the city council held a meeting within a few days to gather input from the public on what should be done to improve and strengthen accountability and transparency in the disciplinary process in Boulder for the police. Out of that meeting, a decision was made to form a task force made up of some city councilors, and some members of the community. They met for several months and then ultimately made some recommendations to the city council on what the oversight structure should look like here in Boulder. They came up with sort of a hybrid model, which would be having a professional monitor, combined with a civilian oversight panel. And both of those entities would have the authority to review investigations of the complaints against police officers and make disciplinary recommendations to the department.
So that's how it all came about. And since the summer of 2020, when I arrived at the end of July, since then we've been working with an implementation team to, first, pass the final version of Ordinance 8430 — that both formalized my role as the monitor and then created the oversight panel. Then at the end of 2020, we began actually the selection process for those panel members. And then in February the newly selected panel members were seated.
For people who don't know what an independent police monitor does, tell us a little more about how it works. Your office receives a civilian complaint. Then what happens?
Individuals can file complaints either directly with me, with the Office of the Independent Monitor, or they can file their complaints with the police department. Either way, the complaint will first come to me. I will classify it as either use of force, a truthfulness issue, failure to follow policies and procedures, general orders. Then, I send it over to the police department and their professional standards unit or the officer’s supervisor will actually conduct the investigation. Throughout their investigation, though, I observe that investigation in real-time. I have access to all of the documents, the records from the case, the videos I sit in on, all of the interviews with the officers, with the complainants, with the witnesses, and I can make recommendations throughout the process to the department.
So, my role is one really of ensuring that the accountability process within the department is functioning as it should, and that the investigations are thorough, complete and fair, and that nothing is being missed in the course of those investigations. And if I find something like that, I can point it out to the department and then they can take that corrective action.
Just to clarify, your recommendations are just that, right? They're not automatically implemented?
That's right. And that's the case in just about all civilian oversight of law enforcement around the country, is that it’s recommendation-based. And there's usually some sort of mechanism where the deciding party has to respond in public or in writing to those recommendations. To make those recommendations effective, you have to provide some analysis and data to make the case that there is currently a problem. And then, that this is the solution based on best practices from around the country and data reviews from the implementation of new policies in other places.
You've done similar work in other cities, I understand. How might that inform your work in Boulder?
I've done this work in three other cities prior to coming to Boulder. And it's been really interesting for me to see the differences in police departments and police cultures across the country as I've sort of moved from the East Coast to closer to the West Coast. I've done this work in Syracuse, where it was a similar model to what we have here in Boulder, a panel of community members. From there, I went to the inspector general's office for the NYPD in New York City. Instead of looking at individual complaints, that office looks at patterns and practices, and policies and training. So there, I worked on use-of-force issues and crisis intervention, on complaint intake mechanisms and systems.
The city of Chicago created an inspector general's office, very similar to the inspector general's office for the NYPD, and it made sense to take someone from the New York office to help get the Chicago office set up. So, I did that for a few years; again, mostly focused on things like use of force and response to individuals in crisis. But we also looked at officer wellness issues; how are officers dealing with the stresses and the pressures and all of the horrible experiences that they see and are part of in their job?
Coming to Boulder was sort of returning to the earlier part of my career, working with a community group to help oversee the police department. And moving from New York to Chicago to Boulder has given me an opportunity to really see the differences in police cultures across the country, which was sort of an important realization for me. And, you know, we're lucky in Boulder to have a department that has a pretty strong sense of internal ethics and values. They hire good officers.
And so one of the opportunities we have here in Boulder, even though there are some issues to address, since we don't have the crisis of violence that we have in some of the other cities that I've worked in, we actually have the space here to build new things and to actually do what you hear a lot of people talk about — sort of reimagining how we deliver public safety services. When you don't have that pressure of all that violence, it allows you to have the space to experiment, to do pilot programs that you may otherwise not have the opportunity to do.
You mentioned stresses on police officers, and Boulder in particular has been through some trauma this year. I'm wondering what you're seeing; if there's anything you can share.
It's certainly been a tough year across the board for police officers, but particularly here in Boulder with the active shooter at King Soopers. That was definitely the toughest thing that a police department can go through, losing one of their own in something like that. I guess the thing I could say about that is that I've just been really impressed with the resilience of the Boulder police officers.
It was hard, but I think the support that they received from a lot of the community — in terms of food being delivered to the department, care packages — that was really appreciated, and I think that really meant a lot to the officers. And in a way, it's hard to say, you know, when something so, so tragic happens. But I do think that the outpouring of support helped balance out the perspective of some officers who may have felt like ‘everyone is against us, the world hates police officers right now.’
To have folks come out after that tragedy and say, “Hey, you know, we're thinking about you,” it was important for officers to hear that and to know that. So, the tragedy, as tragic as it was, may have actually opened up the public's perspective of law enforcement and realize, hey, these folks are actually putting their lives on the line for us. And on the other side, helped the officers realize, actually, yes, some folks really do appreciate what we do. And we need moments like that to help heal the divide that has developed over the past few years.
Which brings me to something else I wanted to ask, which is that there is a pretty vocal group of people out there who would like to see police abolished altogether. How do you feel about that and how does it impact the work that you're doing?
Yeah, that's been a sort of growing call over the past few years, to abolish the police. And you know, my background is in history. I used to study and teach African American history. That's how I got interested in this work, looking at the historical relationship between police and Black communities, particularly in Chicago. I have sort of a long view of the role of police. And it's certainly true that throughout American history, policing has been problematic, to say the least, for communities of color, specifically Black communities. But there have been times in our history where police actually stepped into the gap in our society, when. Black people in particular were being targeted in lynch mobs or in other types of violent mobs that were attacking Black communities. Sometimes the police did not step up and help those communities and sometimes even facilitated or took part in those types of instances, but in other cases, police actually stepped up and stopped those things from happening.
It's a complicated history, and it's one that, as I have traveled across the country, I’ve seen how policing is done when you don't have a large, highly geographically segregated population of people of color like you have in big cities like Chicago, New York. Policing can be very different outside of those contexts, like here in Boulder, and it can actually be about genuine public safety. We need to be able to see all that. We need to be able to see that long, painful history, but also have some nuance and understand that, if trained properly and given proper direction by elected officials, police can actually be sort of the guardians of a multiracial democracy by stepping into that gap and not allowing hate crimes, not allowing attacks on communities of color, and by making communities of color safe in their own neighborhoods and helping in terms of gun violence and victimization.
By focusing on and asking the question of our community and our cities, "What is it that we want the police to do? What are the appropriate roles for them?" That's a part of the discussion we need to have to try to right-size our police departments to make sure that they are able to focus on the things that they can affect, but that we identify those things that we've been sending police to that maybe they weren't the best send to, or to send to alone. And then we provide other resources and other supports to do that. In some cases, you may not need the police to be dispatched to an incident if there's no threat of violence.
That is a conversation that is ongoing within police departments, within communities. And we are in the process in Boulder of implementing various examples of that. So there's a new CIRT team — crisis intervention team — that goes out with police officers. They're not police officers; they're mental health practitioners. They go out with police officers to certain calls and help mediate and help make sure the individual gets whatever services or treatment that they need. And the officers want more of that. So, it's incumbent upon us either in oversight, city government, or just in the community to help provide those resources so that police officers aren't the only tools that we have to send to a crisis.
This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for July 13. You can find the full episode here.