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The Laramie City Council unanimously approved a Police Advisory Board, but is everyone really happy?

A screenshot of the Laramie City Council meeting live stream.
City of Laramie
/
Wyoming Public Media
Councilor Sharon Cumbie, Mayor Brian Harrington, and Councilor Jayne Pearce at the Laramie City Council Meeting on July 5, 2023, shortly before voting on the Police Advisory Board.

Early last month, the Laramie City Council voted on whether or not they would create a Police Advisory Board. This vote was the culmination of years of debate — debate which saw thousands of Laramie residents taking to the streets, signing petitions, and giving hours of public comment at city council meetings. However, despite all that arguing, the councilors arrived at a unanimous decision. The Police Advisory Board was approved.

The discussion around policing in Laramie started in 2018, following the death of resident Robbie Ramirez. After the death of George Floyd in 2020, it reached a boiling point. At that point, the City Council created an ad-hoc working group, composed of more than 20 Laramie residents. That group brought multiple suggestions to the council, one of which was a Police Oversight Board. That board would have had direct power over the police department. However, at its first vote in March 2022, it was struck down. Councillor Sharon Cumbie said the board’s name was a big obstacle.

“The words ‘review’ and ‘oversight’ ignited many triggers among people. And when they heard [those words], it just motivated people to resist that. So we voted that down,” she said.

Later, in that same session, the idea of a Police-Community Relations Board was brought up. The motion to establish it was approved. While the Oversight Board would have had independent power, the Relations Board can only formulate suggestions, which the City Council would then either accept or reject.

After the motion to establish was approved in March of 2022, the City Council handed the task to the Laramie City Manager, who would be in charge of fleshing out the details of the board. During that same time, Laramie was getting a new Chief of Police, Brian Browne, who was immediately supportive of the board.

“I think for years we've done a phenomenal job serving our communities in large [part],” said Browne. “But we haven't done a great job of opening the curtain and showing people why we do things the way that we do.“

Browne worked with the City Manager to create a plan for the board. After three readings and a few tweaks, it was approved. It was also renamed from the “Police-Community Relations Board” to the “Police Advisory Board.”

Tracey Rosenlund is a Laramie resident and a member of Albany County for Proper Policing, a police reform advocacy group started after Ramirez’s death. She was also co-leader of the ad-hoc working group, which suggested the original oversight board. Rosenlund said she’s happy the board exists but is not completely satisfied.

“I, of course, wish it were something different. But again, if that's not what the community has said, then that's okay,” she said. “The biggest difference I see is that the review board proposed here in Laramie doesn't have a lot of teeth for effecting change.”

What Rosenlund means is that the originally proposed oversight board would have been able to directly terminate officers or review use-of-force incidents. The Police Advisory Board, on the other hand, acts more as a liaison between the police department, the City Council, and the community. For example, in an event where police activity ended up injuring a civilian, the Police Advisory Board would allow the community to get both sides of the story, said Chief Browne.

“That would be something similar to a PowerPoint presentation, where an administrative sergeant is able to give a synopsis of the incident — what occurred — show the video, play the dispatch recording to give the board a comprehensive understanding of exactly what happened in that incident and why we behave the way that we do,” he said.

The board's emphasis is on transparency rather than power. So some residents see the board’s main mission as improving the relationship between law enforcement and the community, rather than improving how policing is actually done. However, Browne said the board has the potential for both.

“I think it's telling our community what we're doing. And if they have ideas of how we can do it better. It's exploring those ideas and hopefully bringing those forward,” he said.

Rosenlund isn’t sure whether the board can live up to that expectation, but she said strengthening relationships is a plenty powerful mission on its own.

“If you have a better understanding of how you’re policed, you can understand the police, and there can be a relationship without some type of fear,” she said.

The end goal for everyone involved, it seems, is unity, which Councilor Cumbie sees as the board’s guiding principle.

“I do think that the approach that we have ended up with is going to be more inclusive of everybody,” she said. “I think if we had had a strong advocacy and an oversight piece, that we would have lost part of our community. And if we had watered it down, we could have lost part. So I really commend the people who have been involved, because it has taken compromise.”

Although, that’s not to say the board is a perfect compromise. For some, the board shouldn’t even exist. During its third reading, many residents, like Sandi Rees, expressed their disapproval.

“Quite honestly, we already have a citizen review board and it is called ‘The City Council.’ It’s you folks. You have a job to do. Do not abdicate it to a group of unelected bureaucrats who are not answerable to the public,” she said. “And it doesn’t matter what you change the name to — you can call it a ‘review board,’ you can call it an ‘oversight board’ — a turd by any other name still stinks.”

Former councilor Bryan Shuster also wasn’t happy. However, he said that if the board was going to be approved, then he hopes the entire community is involved in the conversation of how it functions.

“I hope that when the application process – I don’t know if it’s gonna be online or if we have to come pick up an application — I would sure like to do that because I hope that, no matter what happens, it has the whole spectrum of people and not just one side,” he said.

After Shuster finished speaking, and a few other residents gave comment, it was time to vote. Mayor Brian Harrington then addressed those gathered in the room.

“The only thing [the council] can count on is that [the board] will be representative of the public. I think that’s the best you can hope for in this process,” he said. “You know, I think I would just leave it with a little bit of optimism and the hope that things are gonna be okay in this space.”

The board’s bylaws were approved at a City Council meeting on July 18. Councilors Cumbie, Pat Gabriel, and Jayne Pearce are serving on a subcommittee that will decide the application process for the board. It is slated to be up and running in three to six months.

Editor’s Note: Councilor Pat Gabriel also works at Wyoming Public Media as an operations manager and host.

Suraj Singareddy is originally from Atlanta, GA, and is a rising junior at Yale University. He's currently an English major with a minor in computer science. He also helps run the Yale Daily News' podcast department, writes for a science-fiction magazine called Cortex, and likes to do different theatre-y stuff around campus. He also loves to read comics and graphic novels in his free time, and is always looking for book recommendations!

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