Chief Stalder presents citizen oversight research to Laramie City Council
City manager proposes working group, recommendations by April 2022
It’s been nearly eight months since the Laramie City Council took up the issue of police oversight, but it’s back at the forefront of council deliberation. The councilors met Tuesday to further discuss the issue.
The concept of civilian or citizen oversight was brought up by activists, who took to the streets earlier this year, demanding reform, transparency and accountability as they marched up and down Grand Avenue.
Activists, some organizing under the banner of the Laramie Human Rights Network, also showed up to council meetings, filling public comment periods with notice of their demands. That pressure resulted in Resolution 2020-38, committing the city to “identify and present options to the city council for the creation of a civilian oversight board,” to consider areas in which mental health professionals could replace police officers, to increase positive interactions between police and the community, and to identify funding for crisis intervention training.
Laramie Police Chief Dale Stalder and City Manager Janine Jordan presented the headway they have made on these goals in the nearly eight months since that resolution was passed.
That eight month gap could be viewed as either breakneck pace (if measured against the typically slow march of government) or interminably long (if measured in pandemic-time, or considered by the activists who have been championing the issue since then.)
Here are some key highlights and takeaways from the Laramie City Council’s Tuesday work session:
Establishing a citizen oversight board will not happen anytime soon. City staff said during the meeting that more time is needed to gain an understanding of the community’s needs when it comes to policing. City Manager Janine Jordan said those needs are evolving in Laramie and across the country. Jordan suggested that the council first designate a working group tasked with returning to the council with recommendations by April 2022. “In addition to the voices we heard this summer, the only other real data about how our Laramie residents feel about policing services — and what they need or want from those services — comes to us through our citizen survey that we do every 2-3 years,” Jordan said. “Most recently, we did that survey in 2019, and it told us that citizens who had had contact with police in the prior 12 months rated their services and the interaction they had with the officer highly, and it told us that our citizens have a high preference for spending taxpayer monies on policing services. But that’s literally two questions.” Jordan added that while the city has heard from those with “strong opinions” and “passionate voices,” it would be valuable to hear from those “in the middle.”
Laramie Police Chief Dale Stalder presented the results of his research into citizen oversight boards across the country. Stalder undertook this research during the past eight months. In his presentation to the council, Stalder pointed out that no two citizen oversight schemes are the same, but most come about because of a community crisis — typically a breakdown of trust between the community and their police following repeated use-of-force incidents, usually involving a racial component. Oversight boards attempt to “improve public trust, ensure accessible complaint processes, promote thorough investigations, increase transparency, and deter police misconduct,” according to the presentation. “My department is not afraid of any scrutiny that could be brought to us,” Stalder said. “I’m completely open to any ideas the council or the community might have about how we conduct our business. I want to make that clear. I’m excited for people to check our work because I think our work is exemplary.”
Several public commenters took issue with Stalder being the one to conduct this research. Some argued that the police chief should not have been the one tasked with researching or presenting on the possibilities, challenges and efficacy of citizen oversight proposals. “I have a lot of respect for Chief Stalder, and I don’t mean anything disrespectful to him,” said Linda Devine, a local defense attorney. “But we all have our biases. And I felt very much, listening to that presentation, that it was very one-sided. And I’m just really disappointed in the way that that’s been presented. I think there needs to be more people, more community involvement, in the research.” Amanda Pittman said she hopes the council will also balance perspectives when it forms the working group by including people who have been jailed or have been subject to a Title 25 hold. “The experience of someone who has been under a mental health hold or who has been in the criminal justice system is going to be wildly different from somebody who is on the other side of the criminal justice system,” she said.
Stalder resisted the idea of hiring mental health professionals instead of police officers, as both are stretched thin enough as it is. During the presentation, Stalder highlighted the collaboration his department has had with PEAK Wellness, responding to wellness checks in tandem. “This is very much a baby step into a non-police response to mental health calls for service,” Staler said. “Our challenge is capacity. I engaged some mental health professionals locally last year who said they don’t have that capacity right now. They’re very busy with their own professional endeavors.” Councilor Brian Harrington brought up the possibility of hiring mental health professionals when police officers retire, but Stalder said he needed all 47 of his officers. “In my opinion, we need different options for dealing with mental health calls for service, but it doesn’t take away my need for my minimal staffing that I have now,” he said. “If police did not have a responsibility for responding to mental health calls for services — and there were other non-police response modalities out there — I would still need every one of my people to handle criminal calls for service. And in fact, the mental health calls are often a distraction. It creates an inability for officers to pay attention to the more important, pressing policing needs within our community.”
Access to personnel records will likely be a point of contention as discussion and planning moves forward. City Attorney Bob Southard said Wyoming State Statute “forbids” the city or police department from sharing personnel records, despite the expectation police reformers might have about viewing those. Chief Stalder said use-of-force reviews can result in discipline or termination, automatically making them personnel records. He added that any citizen oversight board proposal would have to find a way around that issue. “I have extreme concerns about personnel records,” Stalder said. “From the minute a use-of-force review is entered into our process system, that’s a personnel matter and I don’t feel comfortable, at this juncture, exposing that personnel matter to members of the community.”