‘Obstructionists’ hindered oversight board discussion, working group co-chair says
Mental health calls, complaint systems and citizen academies were among the reforms recommended to the Laramie City Council. A civilian oversight board was recommended too, but only just.
The Laramie City Council heard recommendations for police reform during its meeting Tuesday, continuing what has been a lengthy conversation about police practices, transparency and oversight.
The recommendations call for an anonymous complaint system and the establishment of a citizen academy; they also open the door for a co-response model that would see mental health professionals responding alongside police to certain 9-1-1 calls.
The group also recommends investigating the creation of a civilian oversight board. This recommendation received a split vote from the working group’s members, with just a narrow majority supporting it. And critics say it has not advanced the conversation very much, given that the council has been considering civilian oversight since the George Floyd protests of summer 2020.
Still, working group co-chair Mitchell Cushman said he’s proud of what the group accomplished in the six months it was given. The working group was appointed by the city council and met throughout the latter half of 2021.
”A lot of us have dedicated a lot of our professional lives and our personal time to make sure Laramie is as best as it can be,” said Cushman, who is a former Laramie Police Department Commander. “And I think this is a good example of how citizens came together to make these recommendations.”
Mayor Paul Weaver also praised the process and the diverse voices that made up the group.
“Folks did a good job of agreeing and disagreeing throughout,” he said. “It certainly wasn’t a process where on every single discussion there was consensus. But we managed to have those discussions on a regular basis and still come back to the next meeting and keep working on it.”
But Cushman’s co-chair Tracey Rosenlund disagreed. While Rosenlund is still hopeful the recommendations will lead to positive changes, she said the process’ timeframe and the group’s makeup hindered its ability to make more decisive recommendations.
Rosenlund waited until the end of the meeting to speak as a private citizen rather than as an official representative of the working group.
“We were recognized for the effort that we put in and the time that we put in, but there were certainly a number of members who didn’t show up regularly and who did not do the preparation work for it. And so that inhibited our progress,” Rosenlund said. “But it also made it difficult to move through meaningful discussion because in my personal view, it seemed that some of our members were there just to be obstructionists to the civilian oversight board specifically.”
There were other issues, she said.
“We were (told) to avoid any semblance of a conflict of interest,” Rosenlund said. “I found that a number of members on the board did present a conflict of interest. If this is supposed to be about the community and getting feedback from the community, I was left wondering why we had the chief of police voting on whether there should be oversight, why we had multiple city council members on, why we had the city manager and some of these other people in their official roles instead of community members only?”
But Rosenlund added she is still hopeful that the recommendations will lead to meaningful reform.
“Even though there was limited time, and it was difficult to come to a consensus on some things, I think this does give us the opportunity to move forward with a lot of these discussions while gathering more public feedback and input,” she said. “Our community is engaged and eager to see reforms that maybe the working group was not able to address because of those time constraints.”
Rosenlund praised, in particular, the public input the working group received during three forums hosted near the end of 2021. Earlier in the meeting, LPD Chief Dale Stalder had offered to pass on some of that public input to councilors.
“I attended all three community forums and then tracked attendees and those who made comments,” he said. “If council’s interested in that, I can certainly provide that information. There were a total of 11 people in three community forums who spoke. Some of those were repeat speakers.”
Working group member Charles Ksir said he, too, was frustrated by the time constraints and the “cumbersome” 22-member group.
“It seemed like it took a long, long time to actually get into the meat of the discussion and then we had to hurry at the end to come up with recommendations,” Ksir said. “But I also feel that with such a large and varied group of people, getting this amount of work done in this short of time is hard. And especially over Zoom.”
City staff will likely bring back the recommendations as resolutions in three weeks’ time — at which point councilors will be able to start amending and voting on the specific, individual recommendations.
Vice-Mayor Jayne Pearce reiterated a point made by Chief Stalder and City Attorney Bob Southard last year when the topic came before council — that personnel records are likely to be a sticking point.
Last year, the city attorney said personnel records cannot be shared freely with an oversight board and the police chief said that because use-of-force incidents can result in suspensions or terminations, documents related to those incidents count as personnel records.
Pearce said councilors should be forearmed with this knowledge when they meet again to consider oversight possibilities.
“All council members need to have a real, full and clear understanding of state statute in terms of what we can and cannot do relative to the police department,” she said. “As most of us should know, anything related to human resources and our police department is absolutely off the table. We need to know that and understand that very clearly.”
Civilian oversight board still up for debate
Councilor Sharon Cumbie echoed some of her fellow working group members, highlighting the shortened time frame and its impact on the depth of conversation surrounding civilian oversight. Councilor Brian Harrington asked if granting more time for conversation and investigation was possible.
“We had set a timeframe with the idea that it would be helpful for the community to have this time-bound,” Harrington said. “But I’m curious if, on recommendation three (establishing a civilian oversight board), there would be a component of that working group that would want to continue on with the city manager?”
Weaver said that would indeed have to occur if and when the council approved the recommendation.
Chief Stalder, who was tasked with researching civilian oversight options in 2020, said the council should widen the scope of the working group’s recommendation. As written, the recommendation asks the council to work with NACOLE (National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement) specifically.
“In the last two years, the research I’ve done on citizen oversight has been extensive,” Stalder said. “I think council would be remiss if they limited their research or their inquiries into NACOLE, versus NIJ (National Institute of Justice) and IACP (International Association of Chiefs of Police), because there are a lot of people out there in the public safety community that have done extensive research on community oversight and the different concepts of community oversight.”
Local defense attorney Linda Devine objected to this suggestion. She said the council should not consult with an association of police chiefs when deciding what to do about oversight.
“It’s concerning to me that there’s such a large voice coming from law enforcement and recommending things to city council,” Devine said. “I would respectfully ask you to go with what the ad-hoc committee voted on, which was for you all to use (NACOLE).”
Rosenlund, in her concluding remarks, urged the council to go beyond the open-ended recommendation and “really outline the structure of what an oversight entity in Laramie would look like.”
She said her ideal oversight board would manage a citizen complaint process, review policies and training, and offer advice to the police department. It would be staffed by a diverse group of citizens that included formerly incarcerated individuals and excluded law enforcement.
Anonymous complaints, abundant agencies
An oversight board was just one of the recommendations presented Tuesday. The working group also called for a new anonymous complaint system, through which citizens could record their dissatisfaction with the LPD or with a specific officer and their actions.
Cushman said something like this already exists, but it’s not well publicized.
“If you’re going to do anything, I think you’d have to make sure it’s advertised and that people know where it is,” he said. “And it shouldn’t have anything to do with the police department until it goes through another source first — whether it’s the city manager, whether it’s a city council member.”
Councilor Erin O’Doherty agreed.
“I want the public to know that they have nine city councilors they could tell about a problem if they’re trying to stay anonymous,” she said.
Public commenter Melinda Reyes said she would like to see something similar for other law enforcement agencies, such as the Albany County Sheriff’s Office and DCI.
“Even small steps forward are forward,” she said.
Councilor Bryan Shuster said the city is unlikely to make headway with DCI, since it’s a state agency, but he would like to see other local agencies follow the city’s lead.
“I’d like to see the university and sheriff’s office get copies of this,” he said. “There are five different law enforcement agencies here.”
Those agencies include, in addition to LPD, the University of Wyoming Police Department, the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, Wyoming Highway Patrol and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Cushman added most people don’t look too closely at the specific uniform and can mistake one agency for another. Shuster said he would like more residents and visitors to be aware of the various and distinct agencies.
Councilor Erin O’Doherty added that the confusion can complicate complaints.
“Without that specificity, it’s hard for the police chief to understand if it’s actually his officer that did something or if it’s one of those other five agencies,” she said.
Mental health: Co-response and cooperation
The working group also called on the city to work with the county in developing a mental health response model. That could mean a “co-response” model, or a number of other possibilities.
The working group further recommended that the city council partner with the University of Wyoming to collect data on whatever mental health response model it implements. This would allow the city to evaluate the model’s effectiveness and course correct if the chosen model is not working.
Weaver said the city’s efforts should dovetail with other efforts already in motion, such as the 988 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline going live this July.
“There is already so much taking place,” the mayor said.
The Albany County Mental Health Board, for example, is already digging into the issue of mental health responses.
“We have to start where we’re at,” said Clair White, a UW criminal justice researcher and member of the Albany County Mental Health Board. “What we want to look at is what the scope of the problem is — how many people are coming into contact with police that have a mental health problem, and are there better response options available in the community? We’re really trying to take a data-driven approach and see what the police data, the hospital data tells us.”
Chief Stalder said five of his department’s 10 dispatchers have taken crisis intervention team training.
Channels for police-community communication
Finally, the working group recommended the establishment of a citizen academy and the formation of a police-community committee. The academy would give civilians a taste of police training, while the committee would facilitate communication between police and civilians.
Both recommendations aim to communicate what law enforcement already does, rather than change its practices in any way or provide oversight.
Mayor Weaver said he thought the citizen academy was a good idea, but voted against the recommendation because he worried it would eat up police time and resources.
Chief Stalder said there might be more cost-effective ways to achieve the same end.
“Another option would be the ability for citizens to come in and observe different trainings that we do — whether it would be custody control or firearms or taser or sexual assault investigation — people could audit those classes,” he said. “It would reduce the amount of overhead involved in setting up an entirely different protocol for citizens.”
City Manager Janine Jordan said the city could also ease into offering those opportunities, rather than implementing a full-blown citizen academy in one go.
“We could take the chief’s direction and phase in topics of interest,” she said. “There tend to be certain topics that rise to the top, that we hear there’s a lot of community interest in.”
The volunteer police and community committee recommended by the working group is loosely defined. The recommendation calls for inclusion of formerly incarcerated individuals and others from disadvantaged groups, but it’s not clear if the committee would focus more on boosting police messaging or on providing feedback to LPD.
“It really is going to be up to you as city council people to see which one works best for Laramie and what you want to do with it,” Cushman said.
Whatever the final committee looks like, Councilor Sharon Cumbie said it would be important for fostering and improving police-community relations — one of the council’s stated aims.
“Transparency goes both ways,” Cumbie said. “We want transparency with the police department, but then the department also needs transparency with the community. It needs to know what the community’s thinking.”
“There needs to be a good, constructive channel for that so it can meaningfully impact policy and procedure,” he said.