Councilors nixed civilian oversight board for fear of police resignations
Private communications between councilors during their public meeting in March show Schmechel asked Gabriel to change his vote – a request that ultimately flipped the council’s decision.
Laramie City Councilors opposed to the creation of a civilian oversight board talked privately via phone calls and texts after the vote didn’t go their way. These conversations occurred during the public meeting itself, but were shielded from the eyes of the public, and they convinced Councilor Pat Gabriel to change his vote and nix any possibility of a civilian oversight board in Laramie.
At around 8:30 p.m. on March 23, the councilors voted in support of a measure that would advance the idea of a civilian oversight board. The measure would not have established an oversight board. Rather, it would have kept the oversight board idea alive, and directed city staff to start designing a proposal for such a board.
The councilors voted 5-4 to approve the measure. Gabriel was one of the five who voted in favor.
There was then a brief recess, during which time, Councilor Fred Schmechel called Gabriel, asking what it would take for him to change his vote. During that private conversation, Schmechel raised an argument against the oversight board he had not raised publicly.
“We had reason to believe that there might be some resignations from the police department,” Schmechel said later, explaining the phone call during an interview. “This is a larger, non-specific concern, but when the chief of police says in a meeting, ‘I don’t know how to explain this to my people,’ that’s a pretty significant red flag.”
Schmechel added that he had not talked to Laramie Police Department Chief Dale Stalder about the oversight board.
“I had not spoken to anyone at the Laramie Police Department about the oversight board prior to it,” he said. “But in my own investigations, I knew that other police departments had voiced concerns about having oversight boards put on them. So, it wouldn’t have shocked me to have police react negatively to a council action like that.”
Publicly, Schmechel raised concerns about an oversight board being “duplicative” because the council already provides oversight over the police department, and about the erosion of trust between the police department and the city that might ensue if an oversight board was established. But he did not mention the possibility of police resignations as the council debated the matter publicly.
Schmechel said when he called Gabriel, Gabriel “immediately” agreed to bring the vote for reconsideration and switch sides.
Gabriel said he pushed back initially, pointing out that the measure did not, itself, establish an oversight board — and any proposal for such a board would still have to be approved, and could be modified, by council.
But Gabriel was already on the fence about his vote, and he said Schmechel told him there would be ‘upheaval’ in the police department.
“I don’t remember the exact wording, but he said they were kind of up in arms about it,” Gabriel said.
That line of argument convinced Gabriel to flip his vote. Gabriel then got in touch with Councilor Andi Summerville, who helped Gabriel word his motion to reconsider.
When the council reconvened — and after it had worked through some other recommendations — Gabriel brought the item up for reconsideration.
“I don’t want to muddle things up, but I feel I need to,” he said around 9:20 p.m., less than an hour after the first vote. “Having voted in favor of Councilor Harrington’s amendment concerning civilian oversight boards, I would move to reconsider that vote. I’ve had some different thoughts about my vote and would like to reconsider.”
As one of the ‘Yes’ votes, Gabriel was allowed to bring a motion to reconsider. The council then voted unanimously to allow that reconsideration. At the time, Gabriel did not say much about his reason for reconsidering.
“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. “And so that’s why I wanted the council to reconsider.”
During the meeting, Gabriel said nothing about concerns from or about the police. Nor did he mention the private conversations he had had with Schmechel about changing his vote and with Councilor Andi Summerville about how to do so.
On the second vote, Gabriel joined Vice Mayor Jayne Pearce and Councilors Schmechel, Summerville and Bryan Shuster in opposing the measure. Mayor Paul Weaver and Councilors Erin O’Doherty, Brian Harrington and Sharon Cumbie voted in support of the measure as they had during the first vote.
Presented with the details of these behind-the-scenes communications, Mayor Paul Weaver condemned the behavior.
“For me, lobbying other council members on policy questions privately during the meeting is problematic — especially when there are obviously opportunities to communicate before,” Weaver said. “Procedure questions are fine. Questions about why someone voted the way they did are fine. Actively lobbying for vote changes is problematic in my opinion.”
The long road’s dead end
In the early summer of 2020, Laramie residents marched in the streets by the hundreds, demanding accountability and transparency from local police agencies.
The marches took place in tandem with similar Black Lives Matter marches occurring across the country, but the Laramie demonstrations were informed by local tragedies, concerns and movements that had been bubbling to the surface for years.
The demonstrators made several demands and did not always speak with one voice, but one clearly articulated demand was the call for a civilian oversight board.
In a heated city council meeting that summer, the demonstrators got council to pass a resolution promising to “identify and present options to the city council for the creation of a civilian oversight board.”
Following nearly two years of committees, forums, petitions, protests and meetings, the struggle to establish an oversight board came to an end when Gabriel flipped his vote in March.
Almost everyone was frustrated and disappointed by the process.
Protesters criticized the decision to have Chief Stalder research the feasibility of oversight boards. Commenters were demoralized by a process so lengthy it saw demands from 2020 go before council in 2022. Hundreds of those opposed to the demonstrators of 2020 signed an anti-oversight petition. And Tracey Rosenlund, who co-chaired the working group behind the final recommendations said “obstructionists” in the group intentionally impeded progress and contributed to the group’s often vague recommendations.
And, of course, civilian oversight advocates were crushed when the two-year slog for an oversight board ended with a flipped vote in March.
Rosenlund vocally supported the oversight board measure, but even those opposed — like Councilor Schmechel — were frustrated by the lack of concrete recommendations brought to council. He said the process had been overly complicated from the start, long before he joined the council last summer.
“The community requested that the city council do something. Council requested that the city manager look into it. City manager said let’s form a committee to create a committee. That committee said, ‘Let’s create a committee and send it back to the city manager to find out how to do it,’” Schmechel said. “That’s a self-licking ice cream cone.”
The council did approve some other measures. The councilors supported reexamining the city’s mental health response model, establishing a new anonymous complaint system, and forming a police-community relations group.
Those measures are still vague, but city staff can now take those individual recommendations and return to the council with specific ordinances or resolutions for each.
Schmechel: Oversight board ‘not fair’ to police
Schmechel would have liked to see more detailed recommendations
“I really wish we’d get some specific actions to take rather than ‘let’s create a (board),’” he said. “I think if we brought things like: ‘Can we get body cam video footage treated so it’s not an HR record’ – I think that’s a conversation that we should have had. I wish that we would have had more specific direction for actions to take than what we had.”
Schmechel said he would support a use-of-force review board, but he said this would be different from a “civilian oversight board,” which he felt demonstrators were defining as “a panel of citizens that has the ability to do disciplinary action against the police officers.”
“We can do a use-of-force board; we cannot do an oversight board under Wyoming guidelines,” Schmechel said. “From my understanding from the consultation we had in the work session, from the discussions we had with the city attorney and others, we cannot have an oversight board as it was requested.”
But with the police-community relations group — which the council did approve — there’s potential for a use-of-force review process. Schmechel said he would be supportive of that — especially if it applied to agencies beyond the Laramie Police Department.
“When we have a use of force, it should be investigated in a predictable manner,” he said. “With the number of law enforcement agencies in Albany County, I would be interested in having a board that oversees more departments than just the LPD.”
In Chief Stalder’s public comments to council, he has said that his department is not afraid of scrutiny, but also that an oversight board is not necessary. He has also stated, alongside City Attorney Bob Southard, that the state laws governing the release of police personnel records would make it impossible for an oversight board to operate in the ways suggested.
“I have extreme concerns about personnel records,” Stalder said during a 2021 council meeting. “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.”
It was an argument Stalder, Southard and others raised repeatedly.
But the oversight board measure that Councilor Gabriel first supported and then rejected included specific language saying that any oversight board considered by council needed to “function under Wyoming state statute.”
The inclusion of that caveat failed to sway Schmechel.
“It’s kind of like saying ‘I’m going to rob banks within the confines of the law.’” he said. “It’s still not something we could do.”
Beyond the legality of such a board, Schmechel said establishing an oversight board would be unfair to police officers.
“That is outsourcing a (human resources) processes to a third party,” he said. “I’m an employee of the university. If the university were to do that, I would want to leave. Because that creates a separate class of employee for police officers, as opposed to the rest of the city employees. And that’s not fair.”
Other city employees, however, do not routinely carry guns. Nor do they typically have the power to arrest or physically harm individuals in the course of performing their official duties.
But Schmechel said these arguments for treating police officers differently do not change the underlying legal realities.
“I would suggest that they (anyone arguing that) lobby their legislators to change Wyoming state statutes so that communities could do that,” Schmechel said.
Public meeting, private chats
The phone calls and texts took place during the council’s public meeting – beginning during a seven-minute recess but continuing as councilors and staff discussed establishing an anonymous citizen complaint process.
During that time, Councilor Gabriel — though muted on Zoom — can be seen talking on his phone in the Youtube recording of the council’s March 23 meeting.
A public records request filed by the Laramie Reporter returned texts and emails establishing some of the communications. The Laramie Reporter also requested phone call logs, but was first told that there were no phone call records fitting within the scope of the request. After providing a screenshot that shows Gabriel talking on the phone, the Laramie Reporter was then informed that the city “does not maintain private cell phone call records.”
On the night of the vote, Gabriel’s initial support for a civilian oversight board came as a surprise to Councilor Fred Schmechel and others opposed to the civilian oversight board, who had previously viewed Gabriel as a lock for their side.
Private communications between councilors during public meetings are rare, both Gabriel and Schmechel said. They both said they have never asked or been asked to vote a certain way, or to change a vote, outside of this one meeting.
“I’ve never seen any of those communications,” Schmechel said. “I’ve never sent any of those communications. We felt like this was a very special case and when Pat surprised us, it was a little shocking to me so I picked up the phone.”