After three months of fighting with law enforcement over a bill that would limit their ability to arrest those accused of low-level offenses, Sen. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, is trying a do-over that he hopes will tone down the heat.
Senate Bill 62 got its one and only hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 4 after its Feb. 16 introduction. It was the successor to a 2020 effort that had bipartisan support, but the 2021 version had so far found support only among Democrats, and apparently, not enough of them.
The bill was sent to Senate Appropriations, where it had remained since.
According to a May 4 email from the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, County Sheriffs of Colorado and the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police, a proposed amendment would have barred arrests for such offenses as harassment, cruelty to animals, providing false ID for the transfer of a firearm, assault, inciting a riot and recruiting a juvenile to a gang.
“The bill excludes all crimes of violence but not all 'Victims Rights Act' crimes,” according to the email.
Opponents pointed out that one year in a pandemic, when police officers issued summons to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks in jails, is not sufficient evidence to justify such sweeping reforms. "Rarely do you see such united opposition" to a bill, said Steamboat Springs Police Chief Cory Christensen in the March 4 hearing.
Lee told Colorado Politics Monday that the two bills — Senate Bill 273, the do-over, was introduced on Friday — are significantly different.
In SB 62, he said, “we were following the leads of the sheriffs, who were responding to jail population/congregate care requirements tied to the pandemic. If you look at the policies of local sheriffs that they adopted on their own a year ago, those were reflected very closely in SB 62. For them to turn against a bill modeled after their policies was perplexing and disappointing.”
Lee said he had worked with the sheriffs on compromises, and instead, they went from a neutral position to opposition.
Lee called that a betrayal of the process by the sheriffs he engaged with. The disappointment was compounded by the mischaracterizations and misstatements on the bill by local police, “who I assume didn’t read the bill.”
It became clear that the climate had changed so that it would have been extremely difficult to get that bill through the process, he explained.
Part of the dispute around SB 62 is also tied to misinformation about increased crime during the pandemic, which was more connected to people being cramped in their homes for months on end, the vacant buildings or social dislocation because of layoffs, Lee said. But police used that to attack SB 62.
Lee’s a big believer in collaboration, rather than when people are grudgingly in support of something because the legislature tells them they have to. That motivated him to change directions.
A second motivator was a speech by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, on the day that former police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of the murder of George Floyd.
What Ellison said, according to Lee, was that "the work of our generation will be to change the relationship between police and the community," driving toward a more collaborative relationship. Ellison also spoke about that moment of confrontation, Lee said.
"If they’re thinking ‘arrest, subdue and incarcerate,’ they come into the encounter with a different mindset than if they were thinking of issuing a ticket,” Lee said Monday.
Lee recounted a story he heard in a conference on restorative justice about two years ago. A young Black man asked a white man what he thinks of when he’s stopped by the police; the response was, “I hope I don’t get a ticket.” The Black man’s response was “I hope I don’t get shot and killed.”
Lee said that’s the reset he’s looking for with SB 273, to change the mindset of law enforcement when they’re making that contact.
SB 273 now omits class 4, 5, and 6 felonies — the lowest-level felonies in Colorado law — and Lee hopes that will move people to support the bill.
The other issue is just what’s included in those low-level felonies and misdemeanors. Lee said the legislature has added felonies and misdemeanors to state law that may not be correctly classified. A bill being heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee later this week would address that; some felonies are benign and some misdemeanors are scary, he said.
The bail provisions are much the same in SB 62 and SB 273, to encourage the use of personal recognizance bonds rather than cash bonds, which allow those with means to get out of jail and which results in low-income people being stuck in jail for long periods of time.
The new bill prohibits law enforcement officers from arresting someone for a traffic offense, petty offense, drug petty offense, municipal offense, drug misdemeanor offense, or misdemeanor offense, unless the offense is a victims’ rights crime or a custodial arrest is required by state law.
In those situations, the court can issue a personal recognizance bond, except when the defendant fails to appear in the same case and under certain circumstances.
The biggest change in SB 273 is its call for a study that will look at policies to “safely increase community response in lieu of law enforcement engagement for lower-level offenses and calls for service when there is no criminal conduct.”
Lee said that should examine models where calls for service include a police officer and a mental health worker. In Denver’s STAR program, for example, out of 800 encounters, not one resulted in violence, Lee said. He also did a ride-along in El Paso County with an officer and a behavioral health specialist, and “they had a whole different attitude toward things that happen in the community.”
In a statement Monday, the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, the County Sheriffs of Colorado and the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police, said they are reviewing SB 273 “and are assessing it through the lens of ensuring it doesn’t further harm community safety. Instead of a one-sided approach ... , we’d prefer to focus on evidenced-based solutions to prevent these crimes altogether by connecting people with the services they need.”