Boulder Residents Urge Police Reform Ahead of Juneteenth

This Friday is Juneteenth – a holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. Boulder City Council passed a resolution last night to acknowledge the importance of the day, but as KGNU’s Roz Brown reports, many who called into a virtual meeting want the city to do more as communities across the country reform police departments following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minnesota last month.

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At the start of last night’s meeting, Boulder City Councilmember Mary Young read a proclamation to honor the significance of Juneteenth, but not everyone was onboard.

“While I appreciate Mary Young’s conversation about Juneteenth, I think it’s time this council provides less performance art and proclamations and actually does something,” said Mark Gelbrand.

Gelbrand noted that in the past 20 years, Boulder has initiated three police oversight efforts. He asked rhetorically, “Why then do Boulder police still need military weapons such as automatic rifles, gas canisters, chemical weapons and pepper ball sprays such as those used on protestors across the country during demonstrations over the death of George Floyd?”

“Why in the world are we funding any of these weapons of war, especially at a time when talk is cheap and the lives of brown and black people are at stake,” Gelbrand implored.

It’s hard to remember anything less than a 24 hour news cycle, but when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, news of the end of slavery did not reach the frontier areas of the U-S and in particular the Southwestern states, for more than two and a half years – on June 19th 1865. That’s why Juneteenth is observed as the official Independence Day for Black Americans. Jake Brady suggested the current civil unrest should be an awakening for many Americans.

“Last Sunday I participated in a group privilege walk on Pearl Street,” began Brady. “We were asked to take a step back every time we had faced a disadvantage in life, and a step forward for the opposite. It was painful to watch as dozens of participants were forced to take those metaphorical steps backward. At the end of the exercise, those of us near the front of the pack were told that in order to create a more just and equitable world we must make a concerted effort to walk hand-in-hand with those at the back of the line.”

The movement to defund, or at least reform police departments has gained significant traction since the death of George Floyd. On Saturday the Colorado Legislature approved sweeping changes to policing in the state. But some who spoke at council, including John Henry Vansant don’t think Boulder is doing enough, fast enough.

“Listening to the last few meetings I’ve been disappointed in the dismissal by many members to defund the police,” said Vansant. “My partner and I live in an affordable housing complex in south Boulder, and there’s a consistent police presence here that we did not see when we lived in north Boulder. We’ve had armed officers come to our apartment at 11 p.m. looking for someone in a completely different building.”

He argued that over-policing needs to be replaced with a more humane approach.

“Imagine if we had a steady presence of social workers in this building – rather than armed officers – trained to help people with health care, mental health and financial struggles – this is all possible,” said Vansant. “If we’re going to model policing after European cities as suggested by Chief Herold, than the first thing to do is model the same safety net provided in those democratic societies.”

Vansant’s reference to a European policing model was brought up by Boulder’s new police chief Maris Herold. She acknowledged that tactics used by U.S. police officers have become militarized and said the United Kingdom has a better model because it revolves around the sanctity of all human life.

“In the UK police have a lot armed encounters, but they rarely end up using deadly force because they rely on the philosophy that we will not allow anyone to die,” said Herold.

Boulder has overhauled its police oversight policies in the past year. That began after a black student who was picking up trash in his front yard was confronted by armed police officers and asked to prove he lived at the location. Boulder is now in the process of hiring a full-time Independent Police Monitor to review investigations of misconduct and research policies that need reform. Boulder City Manager Jane Brautigam said an updated ordinance on policing in Boulder and its implementation is in the works and should be ready for adoption by early November. She added that Boulder residents have an opportunity to meet independent monitor candidates during an upcoming meeting.

“Next Thursday, June 25, Boulder will host a virtual town hall to allow Boulder residents to meet the candidates for the Independent Police Monitor and ask them questions,” said Brautigam.

The city expects to issue a press release with details on how to register for the virtual event later this week.