By James Anderson, The Associated Press
Democratic Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed legislation Friday designed to shed light on the conclusions of internal police investigations into alleged officer misconduct by making investigation documents available to the public.
The law allows citizens to obtain records of internal affairs investigations, with proper redactions protecting witnesses, victims and others who aren’t the subject of an investigation. Sponsors Rep. James Coleman and Sen. Mike Foote, also Democrats, said the law will increase transparency — and trust — among law enforcement agencies and the public.
In the past, certain investigations that absolved officers in misconduct complaints have been kept secret — even in cases where municipalities have paid monetary settlements to affected citizens.
“We want to make sure that the tax-paying citizens of Colorado have access to this information, especially when it’s their funding,” Coleman said. “And in our communities, we have people who want to build that trust and relationship with the law enforcement community. The importance of this bill is making sure we have that transparency.”
In Colorado, only Denver routinely releases, on request, details of internal probes, according to the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. The law applies that practice statewide.
Fourteen other states have similar laws, the coalition says.
The new law also allows redactions of confidential intelligence information. Agencies can first provide a summary of an internal investigation before granting access to the complete file. The law applies only to the actions of officers on duty.
The Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act had allowed records to be withheld if they were determined to be “contrary to the public interest.”
“I think it’s a win-win because the departments will benefit from this as well as the communities,” said Foote, a former prosecutor in Durango and Boulder. “The departments will be able to have more trust with the communities and if there’s an internal investigation that shows that the complaint was meritless, then the community gets to know that.”
In one case cited during testimony, the city of Aurora paid $110,000 to a young black man after a police officer shot him in the back with a stun gun in 2016. The man, Darsean Kelley, struck his head on the pavement.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado negotiated the settlement, arguing that Kelley had been unlawfully stopped while walking on a street. Despite the settlement, Aurora police refused to release details of an internal investigation that found the use of force was “reasonable, appropriate and within policy,” the ACLU said.
A 2018 study released by the University of Denver Sturm College of Law found that police agencies routinely ignored or denied requests for internal investigations records involving alleged police misconduct.
The Colorado Press Association, the Colorado Broadcasters Association, Common Cause of Colorado and the Independence Institute also supported the legislation.