Republican senators joined their Democratic colleagues on Monday in supporting an array of reforms to police accountability and use of force in Colorado, including two members who voted against the proposal last week in committee.
“When I first looked at the bill, I have to admit, I was pretty upset,” said Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley. “I was pretty mad. Because it looked like to me it was a revenge or punishment bill.”
He added that law enforcement representatives raised legitimate concerns at the time, but “I believe we dealt with those.”
Cooke and Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, after opposing Senate Bill 217 in the State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, were the first Republicans to state their support after a rapid series of amendments during the bill’s second reading. Every Democrat in the legislature is a cosponsor of the measure.
“I believe that this bill, if passed in its current form, will cause great uproar in some sectors until everyone takes a deep breath and looks at what is here,” Gardner said.
SB217 debuted less than one week ago, following the racial justice protests in Denver and nationwide against the police slayings of African Americans. The Senate’s initial approval comes two weeks to the day after George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody, with an officer’s knee pressing into his neck for close to nine minutes.
The bill as amended would outlaw the use of chokeholds, end the qualified immunity defense that generally protects government employees from lawsuits, and permits the use of force on people who pose a threat “only when all other means of apprehension are impractical given the circumstances.”
Sen. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, said that there are multiple reasons why so few prosecutions of officers occur for excessive use of force. “The way the law is currently written, it allows for the ‘reasonable officer defense’ to be used in criminal prosecution,” he said, referring to existing law’s allowance of deadly force to reasonably defend against imminent death or serious injury.
“I’ve heard more than one district attorney that has investigated excessive force or police shootings and not prosecuted those, say, ‘Look, if you want to make sure that officers can be prosecuted for excessive force, you need to change the law,’” Foote said.
The bill contains provisions that have long been topics of conversation, as well as relatively new developments. Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, offered an amendment to prohibit law enforcement from discharging less-than-lethal bullets that target the head, pelvis or backs of demonstrators. The provision would also bar the firing of such weapons “indiscriminately” and prevent the discharge of chemical agents such as tear gas into a crowd without issuing an order to disperse.
The Gonzales amendment was in response to a temporary restraining order that a federal judge issued last week after numerous photographs and videos emerged showing injuries sustained in the Denver Police Department’s response to the protests. While graffiti and property damage occurred separately from the organized protests, the department received heavy criticism for its vigorous pushback.
“I think that’s difficult to police, but I recognize the reason that that ought to be the policy,” said Gardner in endorsing the change.
Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, one of the bill’s sponsors, reported that the price tag will drop by $8 million after an amendment got rid of the requirement for personnel in some state agencies to use body-worn cameras. The original legislation included revenue enforcement and investigations officers, human services personnel, and natural resources employees in its mandate, costing $7.1 million in the upcoming fiscal year for camera purchases.
“Sometimes you can’t believe what the police tell you,” Fields said, referencing the recent case of a 75-year-old Buffalo man who police pushed to the ground and injured. While the video showed the use of force, the city initially reported that the man tripped.
The bill would require local law enforcement agencies and the Colorado State Patrol to provide cameras to each officer who interacts with the public by July 1, 2023. The requirement to wear a camera is “just based on actions, and not the type of officer or where they are. It’s just what they’re doing,” said Foote.
Another change would slightly alter the standard for showing misconduct for not activating a body camera. Initially, the bill created a rebuttable presumption that tampering with or failing to activate a camera would constitute misconduct unless proven otherwise. Now, there would be a “permissible inference,” meaning that a jury could justifiably assume there was misconduct, but would not be required to.
If a failure to activate the body-worn or dashboard camera was intentional, there would be criminal and civil penalties, including the potential firing of an officer and the loss of their certification for at least one year.
Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, further defined what constitutes a police contact through an amendment, after the original draft left the term undefined. Originally labeled a "stop," SB217 mandated that departments report demographic information to the attorney general's office for each interaction, including the sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability and veteran status of the person stopped. Now, demographic details would only come from contacts "for the purpose of enforcing the law" or investigations of possible crimes.
“I think we’ve accomplished more in this area of police accountability in the last four days than we have over the last four years," observed Foote. Referring to the daily demonstrations in Denver and around the country, he added that while past police reform efforts have fizzled, "now we’re in different circumstances.”
Garcia, another sponsor of the bill, agreed that the time was right for change following the Floyd case.
"Murders should not need to be broadcasted in order to achieve some semblance of justice," he said.