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Colorado lawmakers try to find balance in police accountability bill

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Posted at 2:30 AM, Jun 06, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-08 13:14:14-04

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DENVER -- It could be the defining bill of the 2020 legislative session in Colorado: A police accountability bill that is quickly working its way through the state legislature after being introduced late in the session.

The bill comes in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

The bill covers a wide array of protocols within the law enforcement community, including body-worn cameras, to the timeliness of releasing footage of incidents, qualified immunity for officers (i.e. their ability to be individually sued), data collection and more.

Supporters of the bill say this type of reform is long overdue. Critics of the bill agree change is necessary but are worried about the cost and how quickly the bill is moving forward.

Denver7 is taking a 360 look at Senate Bill 217 to consider multiple perspectives on the topic of police reform.

Pushing reform forward

Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, had been working on a police accountability bill for months before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the legislature into a recess. The bill was never introduced.

The pandemic caused a massive budget shortfall and fundamentally shifted the focus of state lawmakers. When they returned, both Democrats and Republicans were focused on introducing pandemic response bills to help hurting communities and balancing the budget.

But on May 25, George Floyd’s death prompted nationwide demand for more accountability among law enforcement officers.

After days of protests, Democrats quickly resurrected drafts of the bill and began working with groups like the American Civil Liberties Union to unveil a comprehensive piece of legislation.

“Everything in this bill is a concept that has been debated for a while, but no one wanted to move forward,” Rep. Herod said. “If a law enforcement officer acts criminally, they should be held to criminal standards.”

Every single Democratic lawmaker in the Colorado House and Senate have signed on as co-sponsors for the bill.

“I want to make sure that we’re helping build the trust between law enforcement and communities,” said Sen. Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo. “We’re faced with this challenge because for far too long we’ve done nothing.”

Sen. Garcia says he believes the majority of law enforcement officers are good and are trying to do the right thing. However, he believes more statewide guidance could help offer consistency and clarity to law enforcement agencies.

“There are many departments that are doing the right things that are approaching this in a manner that they are already ahead of the curve. There are others who aren’t,” Sen. Garcia said.

He believes agencies spend quite a bit of time finding officers and deputies with the right types of qualities to serve the community and do a good job training them.

However, he believes making sure that training stays up to date and that veteran officers continue good practices should be a focus.

“We need to have departments not have lax policies where issue after issue gets swept under the rug,” Sen. Garcia said.

The challenge of change

Colorado Republicans agree that some change is necessary when it comes to law enforcement and there are several parts of the bill they agree with.

However, Sage Naumann, a spokesperson for Senate Republicans, worries about the breadth of issues the bill is trying to cover and how quickly it is moving through the legislative process.

“Currently the bill is so big if this was a normal session, it would have been divided up into five or six or seven bills and debated over months of time. And so, right now the hard thing is trying to get a grasp on what affect are these different reforms of the bill,” Naumann said.

Naumann said ending chokeholds as a restraining method is something Republicans are eager to discuss.

Part of Senate Bill 217 requires officers to collect certain data about the people they stop and search and to give that data to the state’s Attorney General’s office to be compiled into a searchable format. Supporters of the idea say it will help them look for patterns of discrimination.

Data collection and transparency is something Naumann says Republicans want, but there are questions around who collects the data, how it is aggregated, where it is stored, who will be tasked with combing through it, and more.

“When we’re pushing a bill through very quickly those are the questions we have to ask. We’re a deliberative body. We don’t want emotional lawmaking. We don’t want to have unintended consequences down the road,” he said.

Naumann says he understands why the bill is moving so quickly and the push to get something passed this legislative session. However, Republicans want to make sure that the changes that are being passed won’t have negative effects later on.

“Let’s not rush an entire omnibus bill just for the sake of saying we did something to reform and we could have unintended consequences down the road,” Naumann said.

Grief and purpose

During the bill's unveiling on Thursday, one by one Colorado families who have lost loved ones told their stories and showed their support for the bill.

The mother of Elijah McClain told the crowd she was disappointed that there were not widespread rallies when her son died in Aurora last year.

“Can I tell you how much it hurt me to see you rallying for somebody in another state but not for my son last August?” she said. “I’m appreciative that you’re out here now, maybe you guys were a little too busy in August last year, but he needs you now still. They got away with murder.”

The girlfriend of De’Von Bailey, who was fatally shot by officers in Colorado Springs, also attended and said she found out the gender of the couple’s baby just days after Bailey died.

The family’s lawyer, Mari Newman says parts of this bill deal directly with incidents that have happened in Colorado, like in Bailey’s case.

During the incident, the officers that shot Bailey had been notified from dispatch that he had a gun on him, and they said they saw him holding his waistband while he was running away from them. The officers were found to be justified in Bailey’s shooting death under Colorado’s fleeing felon law.

“This bill makes it very clear that officers need to follow the Constitution of the United States of America and they’re not permitted to shoot somebody in the back and execute them for running away,” Newman said.

However, Natalia Marshall, the niece of Michael Marshall, believes this bill is only the first step to the types of reforms she would like to see. Michael Marshall died after an altercation with Denver deputies in the downtown jail in 2015.

He was battling chronic psychotic episodes and claimed to hear voices at the time of his death. An altercation was several deputies was captured on the jail’s surveillance video.

“Could you imagine losing a loved one like that? Because I can,” said Natalia Marshall.

The city of Denver agreed to pay his family $4.6 million for his death.

Natalia Marshall said she was happy to see so many people turn out in recent weeks to demand change; she wishes it would have happened sooner.

“I really feel like the officers are being paid to kill our family members. No one is held accountable. The suspensions are overturned,” she said. “I thank God for that bill, honestly, I truly hope when this bill comes into place. I hope police officers are held accountable.”

Implication of quick change

During a committee hearing Thursday, the police accountability bill faced its first big test. The senate’s State, Veterans and Military Affairs committee hosted a more than six-hour discussion on the merits of the bill.

Numerous law enforcement officers and police groups showed up to testify to express their concerns with the bill, including Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock.

“I would ask you to spend a lot of time asking lots of questions because the ramifications of not getting everything out in the public could be catastrophic,” Sheriff Spurlock said during his testimony.

Like others, there are parts of the bill he said he agrees with that could use some amendments and other parts he opposes.

He raised concerns with the fleeing felon changes, using the STEM Highlands Ranch School shooting as an example of a time when deputies needed to act quickly to stop the threat. In that instance, he didn’t want his deputies to have to wait for the threat to be imminent to act.

“There are people who are violent and who continue to be violent until they’re stopped,” Sheriff Spurlock said.

He is also concerned with getting rid of qualified immunity, which protects individual law enforcement officers from lawsuits. The bill bans officers from obtaining insurance to protect themselves from lawsuits.

“It seems to me as if people want to punish police officers in the state of Colorado for four bad cops in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and I beg you not to do that; I beg you to do what’s right for the state,” he said.

George Brauchler, meanwhile, the District Attorney for the 18th Judicial District, expressed concerns with getting rid of the good faith defense that also protects officers from being sued.

In good faith instances, the officer might have had good intentions but was found to have acted in the wrong.

“if you try to do the right thing and you do it the way you’re trained and at the time you think it’s lawful, if you guess wrong, that’s it man, you lose your house,” Brauchler said during his testimony.

He believes that part of the bill alone has the potential to affect recruitment rates for agencies across the state.

He also raised major concerns with the fact that the introduced version of the bill only applies to local law enforcement agencies.

Earlier, drafts of the bill required the body camera and other rules to apply to all law enforcement within the state. The word “local” was added to the introduced version of the bill.

“That is outrageous. That makes it seem a lot less than a matter of principle and a lot more like a matter of politics,” Brauchler said. “It makes zero sense to see this only applies to the people who are going to pay, the cities and the counties, but it shouldn’t apply to the state of Colorado.”

Parts of the bill have since been amended to take out the word “local."

Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith knows how expensive body cameras can be. For the past couple of years, his office has been working on rolling out body cameras for his deputies.

He says it’s not the body cameras themselves that are expensive, it’s storing all of the footage they collect.

“My estimate for implementation is about $4,500 per officer per year,” Sheriff Smith said.

He believes that if the legislature is going to impose these requirements, they should be required to also come up with a funding source for the agencies that do not currently have this equipment and storage capacity.

“It actually tells the agencies that can’t afford to do it that they get a year waiver and then after that, their town or city or county is to take money away from them,” Sheriff Smith said.

Beyond that, Sheriff Smith has raised concerns with the data collection portion of the bill, which he and Senator John Cooke, R-CO, say encourages law enforcement officers to profile people in order to collect their information.

They also worried about the part of the bill calling for unedited videos to be released to the public, saying that would include the faces of victims and witnesses and could hurt investigations.

An amendment was also added for those sections of the bill on Thursday.

More than anything, Sheriff Smith says law enforcement was not consulted enough in the creation of this bill and he believes it is moving too quickly for the sake of progress.

There are also things law enforcement say they would like to see added to the bill, like a requirement for officers to intervene if they see someone using excessive force.

Current Colorado law requires law enforcement to report instances of excessive use of force but not necessarily to intervene.

“We are recommending to the legislature a provision which would require intervention — mandatory intervention — if it all possible and unreasonable force is observed,” said Ron Sloan, a contracted legislative spokesperson for the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police.

He would like to see a lack of intervention be considered a Class 1 misdemeanor crime.

Several agencies, including Denver police, have made it standard practice to intervene.

“I do believe that we need a time. We do need time to sit down and work through particulars,” Sloan said.

He’d like to see an interim committee formed to discuss some of the more challenging issues of the bill.

How to move forward

All across the country, demonstrators are demanding change. Colorado Democrats have promised to make their pleas a reality in the state.

“This is a defining moment for our nation. Nobody should have to die in the custody or the hands of police,” Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-CO, said.

There are no easy answers to how those reforms should look. The bill still has several major hurdles to overcome in the Colorado legislature before becoming a reality.

It will take collaboration from lawmakers, law enforcement and more, however, to make true reform a reality.