Two decades ago, in a basement hearing room at the state Capitol, a rookie lawmaker struggled to compose himself as he fought to keep a House committee from watering down and delaying his bill on racial profiling.
Rep. Peter Groff of Denver had already agreed to one compromise, but he balked at the idea of another delay on his proposal requiring officers to collect data on all traffic stops.
“We have a chance to say tonight that there is a cancer in the system,'' Groff said at the time. “Is it localized? We don't know. Is it throughout the body? We don't know. That's why we need to move this bill forward.''
From the Rocky Mountain News in 2001:
“The freshman lawmaker, who is black, paused several times to compose himself and then wiped away a tear. He said he wasn't interested in changing the bill dramatically just so it could pass if the legislation that survived didn't have any teeth.”
I wrote those words.
That’s why when a Minneapolis jury convicted former Officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd, I thought of Groff.
Groff served in the House and the Senate from 2001 until President Obama tapped him in 2009 to serve in his administration. Unlike some of the lawmakers who followed Groff into the Colorado Legislature, he wasn’t a showboater who sent out a “Look at me!” news release every time he sneezed.
But Groff got plenty of press, mostly because of his manner and his style. And he made history by becoming the first African American to serve as Senate president.
His father, Regis Groff, had also served in the legislature and was among those who, along with Rep. Wilma Webb, fought to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a state holiday.
Groff, now a consultant, said he watched about 90% of Chauvin’s trial and thought the evidence against the fired officer was overwhelming and the prosecution did a spectacular job. And yet …
“Right before the judge announced the verdict, for a split second you wondered if he was going to say ‘Not guilty’ because we’ve seen that so often,” Groff said.
Floyd’s death led to protests nationwide, including in Denver, and helped to rekindle interest in the death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man detained by Aurora police in 2019. An independent investigation later determined Aurora police and paramedics made a number of mistakes.
We all know by now that Chauvin violated numerous departmental policies and tenets of basic decency after he arrested Floyd on May 20, 2020, on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill. Three other officers involved also face charges.
Yes, Floyd had a police record and he had drugs in his system. But the cop had his knee on his neck for nearly 10 minutes and ignored Floyd’s continued cry that he could not breathe.
What is fascinating is the news release the Minneapolis Police Department released after Floyd’s death:
“Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car. He was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.”
The headline in The Washington Post’s analysis of the news release reads: “How the first statement from Minneapolis police made George Floyd’s murder seem like George Floyd’s fault.”
But bystanders at the scene, including a Minneapolis firefighter and a 17-year-old girl who recorded the arrest on her phone, saw something very, very different.
The recording was made by Darnella Frazier, who is now 18. She testified that she saw "a man terrified, scared, begging for his life." And she said as the crowd urged the officer to check Floyd’s pulse, Chavuin “actually was kneeling harder.”
Studies show that convictions of police officers charged in shootings are rare because juries often give them the benefit of the doubt when they claim they had to make split-second, life-or-death decisions. That wasn’t the case in Floyd’s death.
Criminal charges against Colorado law enforcement officers who kill people while on-duty remain rare and convictions are even rarer, The Denver Post reported the day after the Floyd verdict.
The most recent Colorado police officer to be convicted of killing someone was James Ashby. He was working as an officer in Rocky Ford when he fatally shot unarmed Jack Jacquez in the back in 2014. An Otero County jury convicted Ashby of second-degree murder in 2016 and he was sentenced to 16 years in prison. At the time, The Post reported, Ashby was the first Colorado officer to face murder charges since 1992.
Groff said his racial-profiling bill was the first he introduced after taking office, and it was because of what he heard on the campaign trail.
He said when he talked to a number of young black men he asked them the first thing they wanted him to do when he took office.
“Have the police leave us alone,” was their answer.
Groff asked them to elaborate.
“Whether it was driving along Colorado Boulevard or Montview or standing outside a neighborhood store, they believed police were harassing them simply because they were were ‘Fill- In- The- Blank While Black.’ ”
Among those who testified in favor of the bill was then-minister Terrance Carroll, a former police officer, who went on to become a lawmaker and the first Black speaker of the House.
Carroll said he believed most racial profiling was unintentional and that some victims are so used to it they don't bother to complain. That may explain, he said, why some departments said they don't have a problem with racial profiling.
The measure, which was signed into law by Republican Gov. Bill Owens, required Denver police and Colorado State Patrol officers to hand out business cards to drivers they stop but don't cite or arrest as part of a racial-profiling compromise. An effort in the Senate, where the bill was sponsored by Sen. Penfield Tate, who also is Black, would have required more jurisdictions to participate but it failed.
The passage of the bill, especially through the Republican-controlled House, was bittersweet.
“It's extremely rare for the legislature to take up any kind of racial justice or civil rights legislation, so to pass something through the House, which is a very conservative body, is a huge victory,'' Bill Vandenberg, director of the Colorado Progressive Coalition, said at the time.
“Representative Groff did an amazing job, but we would have liked to have seen a bit more meat.”
There’s plenty of meat on the police reform bills introduced in Colorado and elsewhere after Floyd’s killing.
And for that — and for brave girls with cellphone cameras — Groff is eternally grateful.