The recent protests across the country over the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, at the hands of police officers have revived the conversation around how best to investigate police-involved deaths in Colorado.
State lawmakers were planning to try to make changes in the wake of the fatal Colorado Springs police shooting of 19-year-old De’von Bailey in August. The coronavirus crisis cut this year’s legislative session short and left many of the efforts on the cutting room floor.
But now, after Floyd’s death renewed national attention on the issue, legislators may take a second look at police accountability, House Speaker KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat, said.
“There’s interest in doing something,” she said. “We’ll see.”
One such bill that was being drafted before the legislature’s pandemic pause created a statewide independent monitor program, similar to what’s in place in Denver, to review and investigate law enforcement-involved deaths across the state. The drafting of the bill came after a handful of high-profile police deaths involving law-enforcement in Colorado, including the fatal shooting of Bailey.
“It’s an important issue and I think what’s going on around the country and in our city, it’s clear that it’s important for our community,” said state Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, a Commerce City Democrat who is working on the bill. “So, I’m glad that it’s being reevaluated.”
The yet-to-be-introduced bill proposes giving the Colorado Attorney General’s office authority to do “pattern-or-practices” investigations of police and sheriff’s departments in order to reform “serious patterns and practices of excessive force, biased policing and other unconstitutional practices by law enforcement.” The bill also included a grant program that would supply local communities with resources if they wished to start their own independent monitoring programs before the state-wide monitor could be established.
Denver is the only Colorado city that has an independent agency focused on oversight of law enforcement, though the cities of Aurora, Boulder and Colorado Springs have been exploring similar programs.
Officer-involved deaths outside of Denver are investigated by a team of police detectives, including at least one agency that was not involved in the incident. The death is then reviewed by the district attorney’s office in the same jurisdiction where it occurred. Advocates are pushing for completely independent investigations.
“Independent oversight is a big, big piece of the solution puzzle,” said Denise Maes, public policy director for the ACLU of Colorado. “… We do know that independent oversight does build community confidence in police. I think that’s a big piece. If you don’t have that community trust there’s always going to be confrontation and conflict.”
Dozens of cities across the country have citizen oversight boards, including New Orleans, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco and New York City. In February, Phoenix approved a citizen review board, modeled after Denver’s independent monitor.
In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed after an officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes, the city has a Police Conduct Oversight Committee. The committee provides recommendations to the city council, mayor, and chief of police relating to Minneapolis Police Department practices. But it appears that the commission does not have the authority to do independent investigations.
Floyd’s death is currently being investigated by the FBI and Minnesota’s attorney general. On Friday, four days after Floyd died in police custody, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. He and three other officers were fired soon after the death.
Two Arapahoe County Sheriff’s deputies were placed on administrative leave after a shooting at a Days Inn near Interstate 25 and East Dry Creek Road on Thursday. The killing is under investigation by the 18th Judicial District Critical Response Team, which is the investigative body for officer-involved deaths in Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties.
Officer-involved shootings in Colorado are tracked by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice. Since 2015, law enforcement agencies have been legally required to report any officer-involved shootings that occurred since 2010 to the criminal justice division. But the division doesn’t have authority to enforce the law that requires agencies to self report incidents.
There were 432 police-involved shootings involving 65 law enforcement agencies in Colorado from Jan. 1, 2010, until June 30, 2019, according to a report released in January. Of the 432 shootings, 49% resulted in death. But the numbers may not reflect all police shootings in the state.
Some district attorneys and law enforcement leaders argue that Colorado’s system of investigating police-involved deaths is working and is robust. They say that communities should have the option of policing themselves and that there are already mechanisms in place for the public to challenge decisions.
Rep. Jovan Melton, an Aurora Democrat who helped draft the legislation for a statewide independent monitor program, said the proposed bill faced opposition for how much it would cost before the pandemic hit.
As the state’s coronavirus budget woes were fully evaluated ahead of the session resuming this week, he didn’t think the statewide monitor program was going to move forward.
“So we decided to kind of pull back from the bill,” Melton said. “However, given what we’re seeing with the protests and especially the issue of accountability and how long it’s taken for the arrests to happen in Minneapolis, I think there needs to be an evaluation of how this bill can move forward.”
Like all legislation currently under evaluation, the biggest hurdle is finding the money to fund the program, Melton said. “If we can figure out how to do this, we can get the bill introduced fairly quickly.”
“It’s just a matter of really trying to figure out the resources at a time right now where we’re looking for any and every little pot of money or any programs that could be delayed to save money. It’s hard to start a brand new program under that kind of condition.”
Staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.