Conflicts between Boulder street people and police on the Pearl Street Mall are sparking attempts to set up a watchdog panel to review allegations of police misconduct.
The Boulder chapter of the ACLU and the Colorado Legal Eagles, a Nederland group affiliated with the modern-day-hippie Rainbow Family, plan to bring the matter up at a December 6 city council meeting. However, bad blood already has boiled over. Several people at an ACLU-sponsored meeting last month bitterly complained to Commander Mark Beckner of being roughed up or hassled by police.
"It turned out to be a barbecue, and we were the main course," says police chief Tom Koby. "It was a setup."
ACLU chairwoman Carla Selby "absolutely denies" that she intended the meeting to get rough, but she acknowledges that it "turned out to be police-bashing."
The October 4 meeting was spurred by several well-publicized skirmishes between police and street people, including members of the Rainbow group of itinerants, that erupted on the mall last July. The street people claim the police were trying to hound them out of town. The police say they increased their presence and enforcement of the law in response to complaints from mall business owners and city residents.
The street people accuse the cops of practicing selective law enforcement, issuing tickets for infractions like littering while ignoring college students and tourists who commit the same offenses.
Now the Boulder ACLU and the Legal Eagles say they will push for an independent civilian review board to pursue any future complaints of police misconduct.
"We're not making excessive demands," says Joe Vigarito, a paralegal with the Legal Eagles. "We're just asking for civilian review of people that we authorize to carry weapons and give substantial authority to. We have to have a review of that procedure when it seems to be failing."
The two groups also plan to point out their objections concerning the police department's Internal Affairs Review Panel, which the police use to review their own actions. They warn that they will try a ballot initiative if the council refuses their request. Vigarito says the threat is "a way to hold their feet to the fire."
The police department's Beckner found his feet burning at last month's three-hour discussion at the Boulder Public Library when the transients and Rainbows who packed the meeting room compared the mall to a war zone and accused the police of a "siege mentality." Others said they were pursued like dogs and treated roughly.
At one point Vigarito passed around photographs of a police officer putting a chokehold on a transient.
"I was misled," recalls Beckner. "I thought it was going to be a roundtable and a discussion. I didn't expect that kind of confrontation."
Between outraged rants, a call for independent civilian review emerged from members of the audience, and Selby agreed to hear the Legal Eagles' request for support. "There's not this much smoke without some kind of fire," says Selby. "I've heard too many people say really awful things about those officers down on the mall."
Much of that smoke came from the Rainbows involved in a July 24 scuffle that started when a small group of transients handed out free pizza and doughnuts to passersby on the mall. The police moved in, and Rainbow member Andrew Rogers was arrested and charged with obstructing a public street and resisting arrest when he refused to pick up a sleeping bag that he said did not belong to him. Another family member, Sierra Tarinelli, was arrested and charged with obstructing government operations and resisting arrest when she tried to stop police from arresting Rogers.
Several Rainbows then blocked traffic on Broadway for about an hour, complaining of police mistreatment and excessive force. Several of the group's members were ticketed in the protest.
Vigarito began collecting information and depositions and pleaded his case at a July board meeting of the ACLU. He found an ally in Selby. In addition, the ACLU's vice chair, Barry Satlow, volunteered to represent Tarinelli and a man who goes by the name of Morningstar in their cases. Morningstar's case was dropped by prosecutors, but Tarinelli's case is unresolved.
A few weeks after the ACLU-sponsored discussion at the library, Vigarito asked the ACLU board to support his call for a civilian review board. The board agreed, but Selby acknowledges that setting up such a panel will be difficult. She and ACLU boardmember Bill Benjamin asked Chief Koby more than three years ago to set one up. Selby maintains that Koby told her it "would never happen in Boulder."
Koby insists that he meant an independent review panel would not work because Boulder residents don't have an adversarial relationship with the police. The chief defends his department's Internal Affairs Review Panel, which last February began reviewing allegations of police misconduct. The panel, which is made up of four civilians appointed by City Manager Tim Honey, three police officers and one civilian police employee, advises Koby on how to act on official complaints.
Vigarito and Selby don't think much of that panel. "There is no incentive to investigate themselves," says Vigarito. "In fact, the present setup has just the opposite effect. It protects the police and city as opposed to the citizens."
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"It's a patsy review board," agrees Selby. "If Koby sets up his own group and chooses to call it a civilian review panel, he can set it up any way he wants. But it's not independent."
Beckner, who helped set up the department's review panel, contends that critics already have made up their minds about it.
"It's only been in place ten months," he says. "Anyone who says it is failing loses credibility with me, because they haven't even given it a chance. From my perspective, it works quite well."
How well it works can't be determined. Police won't reveal what advice the review panel has offered to Chief Koby.