An emotional debate about the toll of systemic racism on African Americans and the increasing burdens placed on police officers culminated in a vote to advance a police accountability bill one step closer to passage.
“I ask you to just take a look at me,” said Rep. James Coleman, D-Denver, staring down the Republicans in the House of Representatives on Thursday. “Take a look at me and tell me that if something as egregious as what happens to black men in this country — and not just George Floyd — had happened to me, would you be making a decision on this bill because you were afraid of an election?”
Senate Bill 217 would enact a range of reforms from eliminating chokeholds and allowing officers to be sued for liability to creating new body-worn camera standards. While proponents argued that the ideas in the bill were not new — just as police violence against communities of color was not new — critics deemed the bill too “emotional” and fast-moving.
“Rushed legislation based on emotion doesn’t make good law,” said Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, R-Watkins, describing the burden that the law enforcement profession placed on officers’ spouses. “They turn on the TV and what do they get? They get nothing but law enforcement being bashed, called names, spit on, things thrown at them. And these spouses are starting to ask the question: ‘I know you love your job. But isn’t the risk a little too much? Can’t we do something different?’ ”
Bockenfed slammed the exclusion of “street officers” from the bill-drafting process, saying that their perspective was removed from the debate.
“The reason you have no opposition to this bill is because the officers are afraid they’re gonna be called racist,” he said one officer’s wife emailed to him.
“Let’s also talk about the wives who have lost their husbands and their kids to police brutality,” countered Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, D-Denver. A House Finance Committee hearing the day prior featured testimony from multiple family members whose husbands, uncles and fathers had died at the hands of police.
Bockenfeld’s comments prompted a dust-up on the floor after he spoke. Rep. Kerry Tipper, D-Lakewood, told Bockenfeld that Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Shrader emailed the county’s legislative delegation to thank them for amending SB217 in consultation with law enforcement.
“That’s because you blackmailed him,” Bockenfeld said, according to Tipper.
One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, glared silently at Bockenfeld when it was her turn to speak. “There’s no blackmail that happened in the lobby. This is a good bill,” she said. “And shame on you for implying that in the well.”
Bockenfeld responded in an email that Herod tried to "exploit" the remark as a tactic to "silence the opposition."
Through text message, Shrader said afterward that “I in no way have been blackmailed.”
The word surfaced again, though, when Rep. Dave Williams, R-Colorado Springs, described the choice that Republican members felt they had.
“There were a lot of Republicans who jumped on this bill because they felt like there was no choice. We either take the deal that’s in front of us or it can be much worse,” he said. “This whole week in our House caucus, we’ve been told that it can be much worse. And that if we simply go along with some of the amendments that are being put in place to pare this down to a level that’s survivable for those front-line cops, then we should just take it.”
Another Republican lawmaker confirmed Williams’s version of events, saying that the message came from Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock.
“I won’t say blackmail, but we’re certainly walking that fine line,” Williams concluded.
Neville, for his part, said that he was “leaning 51% yes, and 49% no” on the bill. His comments mirrored those of Rep. Shane Sandridge, R-Colorado Springs, who said he was 51% against and 49% for.
“I’m a staunch, pro-police person. And I stand behind the police firmly,” Sandridge said. “However, what I’m more staunch in is preserving the liberty of the citizens of the United States.”
Sandridge equated harsh judgments of police officers to racism, asking, "What if a minority robs a bank? Or a couple of minorities rob a bank? Are those actions of those few people indicative of the population of the whole? So let me restate that: should we judge a few minorities who conduct a criminal act, should we label the population as a whole for their bad activities? That‘s a classic sense of labeling and racism."
Rep. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, argued that Americans have turned cops into “bad guys,” while rioters who have burned police cars and precincts are “the new heroes of our society.” Liston then disparaged George Floyd, the man whose death in Minneapolis police custody on May 25 prompted an international wave of protests.
“I’m not justifying anything that that officer or the other three did at all. I want to be very clear about that. But George Floyd was no angel either. In and out of prison.” Liston added, “irrespective of that, he didn’t deserve any of that.”
This prompted Herod to explain one fact of life for African Americans who worry about ending up in police custody.
“As a black person, I worry and wonder what would happen if I was shot and killed by law enforcement — and even as an elected official, what photo they would use to paint me as a criminal or a thug. And what parts of my history would they drag through the mud to justify an unjust killing that happens every time a black person dies at the hands of law enforcement?”
Looking directly at the Republican members, she dared them to come up with ideas to advance justice. “Do something about it. Do something about it,” she told them.
Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, made his final speech on the House floor, as he reaches his term limit this year. He reflected that SB217 is finally putting action behind words.
“Every year we do the Martin Luther King resolution. Every single year. And it passes unanimously every single year,” he said. “But now what? This is the what. It’s this bill.”
Melton felt “like I've been screaming at the top of my lungs for eight years and I know every African American legislator that has served in this chamber felt the same way … . What’s new is your willingness to pass it. What’s new is your willingness to listen.”
The House amended the bill to define physical force as the application of physical techniques or tactics, as well as chemical weapons. Another amendment would ensure that the personal information of law enforcement officers who are at a scene where there is use of force — but not involved in it — will not be publicly reported.
SB217 passed the Senate by a vote of 32-1 on Tuesday. Every Democratic member is a co-sponsor. It awaits a final vote in the House, and must return to the Senate in its amended form for concurrence.