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Crime and Courts

Law enforcement warns of unintended consequences with Colorado Democrats’ sweeping police accountability bill

Police and prosecutors say there are aspects of Senate Bill 217 that represent positive and needed steps forward, but other provisions put officers and the public at risk. Democrats say it’s a necessary measure that’s been a long time coming.

Denver police respond to reports of a violent person the camp at St. John's Cathedral on May 19, 2020. One arrest was made. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)
  • Credibility:

An inability to recruit officers. Financial burdens small law enforcement agencies can’t handle. Sullied prosecutions. 

As Colorado Democrats’ sweeping police accountability bill received its first hearing on Thursday, police, prosecutors and Republican state lawmakers raised concerns about unintended consequences. 

“This bill is needed. We agree these types of actions are needed to respond to the compelling interests of the community across this country for policing and the actions of police officers,” said Ron Sloan, director of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police. “If we’ve got one chance to make this bill as good as we can, we need to clean up some of the issues.”

Senate Bill 217 was introduced on Wednesday in response to George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis last week, and it has the support of every Democratic state lawmaker and Gov. Jared Polis. The measure has been lauded as a major step toward stopping excessive use of force and rooting out bad officers as protests in Denver following Floyd’s death reached their eighth day on Thursday.

In fact, as lawmakers were weighing the legislation on Thursday hundreds were gathered outside the Capitol calling for more police accountability.

Hundreds of people gathered for a memorial for George Floyd at the Greek Amphitheatre in downtown Denver on Thursday, June 4, 2020, when a tree was planted in the park in his honor. The crowd remained silent for eight minutes and 45 seconds in honor of Floyd, who died at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun.)

“Basically what this bill will do is it will help address police brutality in Colorado,” said Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat and a prime sponsor of the measure. “This bill is calling for equal protection of black lives under the law.”

And while Republicans and the law enforcement community praise parts of the legislation, they fear that the measure is being rushed through too quickly and that problems will arise. They are pleading for changes to add specificity to the bill and limit its broad impact.

“There are things in this bill that are good,” said Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican who sat on the committee that heard the legislation Thursday, “but it needs a lot of work to find the right balance.”

Privately, some Democrats express similar concerns as lawmakers attempt to quickly pass the bill during a legislative session abbreviated by the coronavirus crisis. The lawmaking term is slated to wrap up before the middle of the month.

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The wide-ranging measure requires a number of significant changes for law enforcement, including that:

  • Officers wear body cameras and have them turned on throughout their shift
  • Body camera footage be released to the public within 14 days of an incident
  • Officers can be sued in their individual capacities
  • Police departments and sheriff’s offices collect and report racial data for every interaction with the public
  • Officers intervene when their colleagues use inappropriate force
  • Officers who are fired from a law enforcement agency be prevented from moving to another police department or sheriff’s office
  • Chokeholds not be used 
  • Officers cannot use deadly force to stop a person they suspect has used a weapon in a crime or is armed — called the “fleeing felon rule” — unless there is an imminent threat of the person using the weapon as part of their escape

The Colorado District Attorneys’ Council on Thursday endorsed many aspects of the legislation, including tightening the fleeing felon rule, banning chokeholds, increasing body camera use and creating a statewide tracking system of officers who are untruthful or fired. 

But Tom Raynes, who leads the organization, worries about small police agencies being able to pay for body cameras as communities struggle with the economic impacts of coronavirus, echoing concerns of the local governments. Data storage for body camera footage is very expensive. 

Raynes also is anxious about the release of that footage within 14 days could affect prosecutions.

“I want to see a successful version of this,” Raynes said. “The issues and passions that bring us here are critically important, and they’re not going away.”

Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock expressed concerns about prohibiting officers from using deadly force against people fleeing a suspected felony. He referenced the hypothetical case of an active shooter heading toward a crowd of people. 

“In the scenario of a school shooting, that’s exactly some of the concerns that law enforcement would have,” Spurlock said. “If you are in the middle of clearing a school and you still have a suspect there, law enforcement has to engage that individual. If he’s running away and he’s carrying a gun and they can see him and at the end of the hall there are a bunch of kids, the officer has a split second to make the decision to wait for him to start shooting and then take action or to interrupt that action.”

Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock talks to reporters about the introduction of the red flag gun bill on Feb. 14, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Spurlock, a former president the County Sheriffs of Colorado association, said he’s open to dialogue, but he wants to pump the brakes.

“It seems to me that people want to punish the police officer of the state of Colorado for four bad cops in Minneapolis, Minnesota,” he said. “I beg you not to do that. I beg you to spend time and let’s think about what’s right for this state.”

A number of people also testified in support of the bill, including Sheneen McClain, whose unarmed, 23-year-old son died at the hands of Aurora police last year. She made emotional remarks that called for immediate change. 

“This needs to pass to stop all the craziness,” she said. 

Mari Newman, an attorney who often represents alleged victims of police abuse and their families, pushed lawmakers not to be swayed or water down the bill.

“The last thing you all want to do as lawmakers is have the community accuse you of — and rightly so if this would happen — passing a law that pays lip service to doing the right thing without actually holding people accountable when they violate people’s rights,” Newman said.

Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat who is a prime sponsor of Senate Bill 217, is confident that the measure will get to a point where there is broad consensus. “We’re continuing to have great conversations, meaningful conversations,” he said. 

Garcia also isn’t worried about the shortened time frame. He thinks there’s even time to strengthen restrictions around law enforcement. 

“The legislature is not immune from working on a Sunday or late nights. So, we’ve got time,” he said. “… The time is now for us to act and address the injustices that are happening.”

Fields, meanwhile, vowed to make sure the legislation is passed the right way. “My goal is not to shut anyone out,” she said.

Fields added that the bill is not about “poking” law enforcement. 

Senate Bill 217 passed out of its first committee hearing 3-2 along party lines after more than six hours of debate and several amendments on Thursday night. It now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Staff writer Jennifer Brown contributed to this report.


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