After more than 10 days of protests in communities large and small across Colorado, the state Senate approved by a vote of 32-1 a comprehensive set of reforms to police accountability and transparency, Senate Bill 217.
“We are shouting right now," said Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail. "We have seen these masses of people gather at embassies across the world and on our front steps shouting that it is time for change.”
She added, “I really hope that this time when we shout, it rings through history differently.”
Members of both parties complimented the willingness of everyone involved to compromise and address defects of the original proposal. A series of amendments on Monday lowered the bar for prosecutions of police over use of excessive force, modified body camera requirements and created consequences for an officer who fails to intervene when they witness another exceeding the use of force required for the situation.
“As a Republican, how can you be voting for that bill?” someone texted Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, he said. “I would not have supported this bill as written. I will support it as amended.”
Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, called SB 217 "inevitable," and related a conversation he had with a small town about the costs to local police departments.
“I understand there’s going to be cost," he acknowledged. "But the idea is that small-town America is not excused from this situation either.”
He continued, “We’ve lost too many citizens. Something needs to be done.”
Legislative staff who analyzed the price tag of the proposal assumed a cost of $3,400 per body-worn camera per officer. Outfitting the Colorado State Patrol will cost approximately $4.2 million.
The Senate vote drew praise from people who have been involved in the issue of police accountability.
Denise Maes, the public policy director for the ACLU of Colorado, worked on the bill itself during the past two weeks. "For 11 days straight, Coloradans have been protesting in the streets venting their anger and frustration at the many who have lost their lives at the hands of police," she said. "SB217 in part responds to these protests and I applaud the Senate's vote."
"It means everything to me as a mother of a black son," said Shontel M. Lewis, a Regional Transportation District board director who recently suggested that the agency divest from its police contracts. "It means everything to our communities who are harmed by loopholes and a lack of accountability." She added that the bill appears to cover RTD's security officers.
In a statement issued after the second reading approval on Monday, the principal law enforcement associations in the state — the County Sheriffs of Colorado, the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police and the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police — stopped short of endorsing SB217.
"Law enforcement still has some concerns, but we look forward to continuing to work with Democrat and Republican lawmakers to achieve the shared goals of increasing accountability and transparency while maintaining public safety," the statement read.
Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, a former Weld County sheriff, told his colleagues, "No one in this room knows what it’s like to be police officer — to be on the front lines when people are throwing rocks and bricks at you, calling you names, trying to do damage and hurt to you."
"Black lives matter. I agree with that," he added. "Also, law enforcement lives matter."
Amber Widgery with the National Conference of State Legislatures said that since the slaying of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody on May 25, Colorado is the only state that has introduced an omnibus policing reform bill.
"This doesn't mean that other states aren't going to pivot on existing bills," she said, clarifying that most other state legislatures are not currently in session. A proposed amendment to an education bill in California would address choke holds and use of force, and legislation in more than a half dozen other states pertains to oversight, use of military equipment and civil immunity for officers.
Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, who on Monday offered an amendment limiting police use of chemical agents and less-than-lethal bullets on protesters, outlined the roots that modern policing had in countering labor uprisings and enforcing slave codes in the South. She said that diversity in police departments or body cameras themselves would not solve problems, but rather "Senate Bill 217 allows us to begin a new process of establishing a different relationship between police and the communities they serve.”
Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, was the only no vote. Two senators were excused. The bill now heads to the House of Representatives.
What's in the bill:
- Beginning on July 1, 2023, all local law enforcement agencies and the Colorado State Patrol will need to issue body-worn cameras to personnel.
- Incident recordings will be released to the public within 21 days.
- There are guidelines for body camera use and sanctions for officers who tamper with or fail to activate cameras. There are also exceptions to the recording requirement.
- Data on police officer contacts and use of force resulting in death or injury will be reported annually by the state.
- There is permanent revocation of peace officer certification for those convicted of or pleading guilty to force-related charges.
- During protests, there will be certain parameters for police use of projectiles and chemical agents.
- Qualified immunity will no longer be a defense in civil lawsuits against officers, and they will be personally liable for $25,000 or 5% of the judgment amount.
- There is a new standard for use of force and a prohibition on choke holds.
- Officers have a duty to intervene if they see a peer using unlawful physical force.
- A legal basis is required for an officer to make a contact while enforcing the law or investigating.
Editor's note: The National Conference of State Legislatures provided an updated list of policing legislation introduced or amended within recent days. The story now reflects the latest actions.