DENVER– Tempers flared during a meeting of the Denver Citizen’s Oversight Board meeting last month, where community members were aghast that the city seemed to be circumventing processes meant to guarantee that diverse community perspectives inform review of police action.
Community leaders arrived at the downtown meeting prepared for a showdown. The office of Denver Mayor and gubernatorial candidate John Hickenlooper had asked the city’s Independent Monitor, Richard Rosenthal, to solicit six candidates to fill a position designed specifically to monitor Rosenthal’s performance. That set up seemed backwards to the community.
Rosenthal had found three candidates originally put forward by the Mayor’s selection committee unacceptable. He said they had not been properly vetted as to their ability to be fair and objective.
So at the request of the Selection Committee, Committee member and former Oversight Board Member David Montez chose three candidates from among Rosenthal’s picks and added those to the three original candidates. The Selection Committee then voted on finalists, choosing three for the mayor’s short list.
Ultimately Hickenlooper appointed Jeff Walsh, a man supported by the community, a fact that didn’t lesson community frustration with the process, which community members say only highlighted concerns that citizen input is often undervalued in a system where the mayor has so much power.
Activists charged that the selection process was a giant step backward for diversity in the city and that citizen input is fundamental in the matter of police oversight, and Hickenlooper’s office agreed that the process needed retooling.
The controversial vacancy on the Oversight Board came upon the death of member Samuel Freeman last September. The seven-member board is made up of Denver residents appointed by the mayor. It provides recommendations for “best practices” police should follow and takes up concerns of abuse.
David Edinger, Special Assistant to the Mayor handling Safety who was in charge of the appointment process, told the Colorado Independent that when Rosenthal determined three of the Oversight Board candidates had not been properly vetted, he turned to the Independent Monitor’s office to fill the roster. Edinger admitted that Selection Committee member David Montez had not been involved in the decision to ask the Independent Monitor to solicit candidates. He said that had he been involved it a different decision would have been made. Edinger said it’s clear the Selection committee should have waited for Montez before deciding how to proceed.
“That missing perspective was important. We did not intend for there to be no Citizen Oversight Board representation,” Edinger said.
Critics asked why the mayor’s office couldn’t simply have gone back to the original candidates and vet them on their ability to be fair and objective without adding candidates solicited by Rosenthal’s office. Edinger was at a loss.
“I don’t have a perfect answer for you. We could have gone back to the other group we just chose to do it that way,” Edinger told the crowd at the meeting.
Edinger told the Colorado Independent that the process was flawed. “My hope is that we learn from that and do better the next time,” he said.
Lisa Calderon, a community activist who sits on Denver’s Crime Prevention and Control Commission, agreed.
“There was no process prior to us pushing for a transparent process. We were concerned that people were being selected on the citizen oversight board who were not activists in the community, were not close to communities being impacted. There was not enough class diversity. There was not enough age diversity. We wanted to know how are these people getting selected. So it was through that process that this so-called transparent process was created. I think the original setting up of that process was noble.
“How does it look now, though, when a white a Independent Monitor comes in and selects three candidates for the position without input from the communities? We took a giant step back,” Calderon said.
The three Citizen’s Oversight Board finalists interviewed by the mayor were Ricardo Rodriguez, Cheyenne Hughes and Jeff Walsh. Edinger said Hughes and Walsh were from the original candidate pool and that Rodriguez was the one whop had been brought in by the Independent Monitor at the request of the mayor’s office.
“Perhaps nobody is going to be happy with [Walsh] but he was one of the original three,” Edinger said.
One of the the finalists not selected, Cheyenne Hughes, who is also racial justice and youth organizer for the Colorado Progressive Coalition, said the community was happy with the Mayor’s selection.
“Walsh is one of the original community members that we put forward and we have high hopes that he will represent us well. I am disappointed that I was not chosen but I am relieved that we got a community person on.”
Retiring Denver Manager of Safety Al LaCabe said that despite the obvious problems, overall he thought “it was an extremely fair process.”
The process may soon see another test. Citizens are anxious to see watchdog LaCabe replaced by an equal champion for the city’s minority communities.
Edinger said that he is keeping the candidate names private out of respect for the roughly 90 applicants who have so far applied. He added that he wasn’t sure he would be able to bring in the community to the process due to logistics and time constraints.
“I was going to reach out to community members and say What do you think makes sense [given the time constraints]…. I think that it would be helpful to both provide the community with a chance to be part of [the process] as well an opportunity to gather some addition information from that setting prior to the final interviews by the mayor.
“I guess what I am trying to say is that I am pretty uncertain as to how [citizen input] is going to look and if that is even going to happen. I am going to try to at least explore the possibilities.”