Civilian oversight amendment dies, ending a two-year struggle
Councilor Gabriel flipped his vote, tipping the balance against an amendment to further consider a civilian oversight board. An oversight board was one of demonstrators’ main demands in 2020.
Dreams of a civilian oversight board in Laramie are dead following action by the Laramie City Council Wednesday.
Councilors originally voted to include the further consideration of a civilian oversight board in a much anticipated resolution. But the vote was a tight 5-4, and following a short recess of the council, Councilor Pat Gabriel flipped his vote and in doing so doomed the measure. He requested to reopen debate on the relevant amendment less than an hour after voting for it.
“I’ve changed my stance on this and I just don’t feel real comfortable about the oversight board position that I took earlier,” he said.
Two years ago, demonstrators took over Laramie streets, demanding more transparency and accountability from local police agencies. The Laramie City Council agreed to take up the issue of oversight, investigating the possibility of a civilian board to review either police policies or conduct.
“If the Laramie community as a whole comes away from this sequence of meetings without having any kind of oversight on the police, all of this time and effort will have gone to waste,” said public commenter Taylor Norton. “Many people in this community have asked specifically for this kind of oversight to be implemented.”
Councilors debate law, advance recommendations
Following the protests of summer 2020, councilors first tasked City Manager Janine Jordan and Laramie Police Chief Dale Stalder with investigating civilian oversight boards. They reported back to the council six months later with their findings.
In the tense series of meetings that followed, the council formed a nominating committee to form a working group to investigate issues surrounding transparency and oversight. The working group met, mainly behind closed doors, for half a year following their first meeting in summer 2021.
The group presented six recommendations to the city council in February, and the special meeting Wednesday was called to place those recommendations into a resolution.
The resolution was left largely blank prior to the meeting and councilors added provisions by amendment, taking up each of the six recommendations in turn.
The recommendations called for a reexamination of the city’s mental health response model, the formation of a committee to foster police-community engagement, and the implementation of a new anonymous complaint system. Each of these were added to the resolution with varying degrees of support from councilors.
But the possibility of an oversight board was, by far, the recommendation garnering the most interest and debate — on council and among the community. The recommendation only barely made it to council, receiving a 10-8 vote from the working group’s members, which allegedly included ‘obstructionists’ intent on stalling an oversight board.
To be clear, the recommendation was not to establish a civilian oversight board, but to “investigate the creation of” an oversight board, in collaboration with the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.
But the word “oversight” and the various definitions the word has accumulated in the past two years were a sticking point for many.
“It’s a very pointed word,” Jordan said. “The way the amendment is on the floor right now, to me, is not assigning a committee to exercise oversight, authority or give direction to the police department because we recognize those legal limits. So, if we were to come back to you with an ordinance that would create a committee like this, it would be critical that the scope of work you assign to that committee would have to be very clearly articulated to not infringe on Wyoming law.”
From the beginning, Chief Stalder and City Attorney Bob Southard have said that Wyoming law allows only limited access to personnel records for law enforcement officers. That could be a problem for an oversight board. Use-of-force incidents, Stalder has explained in the past, carry the possibility of disciplinary action or even termination for the officer involved and are therefore personnel records.
There was no proposal for the explicit creation of an oversight board, and no details on the shape that board would take. The amendment was to “investigate the creation of” an oversight board, without defining that board.
But uncertainty surrounding such a board’s scope stopped some councilors from supporting the measure altogether. Councilor Andi Summerville said that civilian oversight boards have become part of the national conversation – and might be possible and admirable in other jurisdictions.
“In Wyoming, we have a significantly different landscape,” she said. “While I hear the comments from the citizens and I hear the request, unfortunately, I want to convey to the public, it does not at all seem possible legally for the city to implement what they’re asking. It would require state statutory changes and that is obviously out of our purview.”
But others stressed that the amendment on the table included language specifically requiring that any civilian oversight board conform to state statute. With that language in place, Councilor Brian Harrington argued, the city would be forced to design its oversight board to be in line with state law.
“The intention here is to continue pursuing what we have been asked by the working group to give more time to,” Harrington said. “It very clearly, in the amendment, states that this council would like this board to function under state statute, so concerns that this would not function under state statute are addressed already.”
Several public commenters echoed this point and encouraged the council to stay the course.
“I’m disappointed in those city councilors who seem to be approaching this with the defeatist attitude of ‘we can’t do this, so we shouldn’t try,’” Norton said. “I personally subscribe to the school of thought that elected officials should do everything that they can and try to find work-arounds if possible to meet the needs and desires of their constituents.”
Harrington’s defense of advancing the civilian oversight concept initially persuaded Councilor Gabriel, who voted with the five-member majority to include the civilian oversight board amendment in the council’s resolution.
“I think the final sentence or two — ‘shall investigate the creation of a civilian oversight board that could function under Wyoming state statute’ — says quite a bit,” Gabriel said. “I think at this point in the discussion, I’m going to lean toward voting in favor.”
Gabriel flips vote, kills oversight board amendment
Gabriel’s support was short-lived. Less than an hour later, he asked to reconsider the vote.
“I don’t want to muddle things up, but I feel I need to,” Gabriel said. “I’ve had some different thoughts about my vote and would like to reconsider.”
The council agreed to reopen the amendment for another vote.
Gabriel did not expand much on his change of heart, but others who had voted against the measure before took the opportunity to register their opposition once again.
Councilor Fred Schmechel advocated completely removing the paragraph about investigating an oversight board.
“The word ‘oversight’ is charged and full of meaning and at the same time meaningless,” Schmechel said. “Why are we handing this off to our city manager? I don’t feel it’s responsible of us, in giving guidance for what we want to our city manager, to have this kind of unspecificity for boundaries. I think that we can do better.”
Schmechel said removing the paragraph would “deescalate” the conversation.
“That doesn’t deescalate the conversation,” Harrington said. “It entirely changes the conversation. That’s not a compromise. It’s not about one word anymore. If the issue is the word ‘oversight,’ the conversation should be about changing the word oversight, not removing the entire idea of this variety of oversight.”
But with Gabriel joining the ‘no’ votes, the oversight board’s fate was sealed. Councilors Harrington, Sharon Cumbie, Erin O’Doherty and Mayor Paul Weaver voted to continue the consideration of oversight boards in Laramie.
Councilors Gabriel, Schmechel, Summerville, Bryan Shuster, and Vice-Mayor Jayne Pearce voted to kill the amendment.
The council passed the resolution with the other elements intact – such as support for reexamining the city’s mental health response model and establishing a new anonymous complaint system.
But consideration of a civilian oversight board died with the amendment.