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Colorado’s sweeping police accountability bill now requires officers to face imminent threat before using deadly force

Another amendment added to Senate Bill 217 on Monday prohibits officers from using tear gas on protesters without warning. The measure now has bipartisan support.

Denver police ahead of protesters in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood on Saturday, June 6, 2020. (Jesse Paul. The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado Democrats’ sweeping police accountability bill won preliminary approval Monday in the state Senate after undergoing a number of changes, including the addition of a prohibition on the use of deadly force by officers unless they face an imminent threat. 

Currently, officers may use deadly force if they reasonably fear for their lives or the lives of their colleagues — called the reasonable officer standard — and not necessarily if they are facing an imminent threat.

The imminent threat amendment brought by state Sen. Mike Foote, a Lafayette Democrat, aims to give officers’ subjective viewpoint less weight in the determination around whether deadly force was legally used. Instead, investigators will determine whether there was an imminent threat in what Foote hopes will be more objective.

“One of the main impediments to lowering the use of force and lowering the excessive use of force has been the reasonable officer standard,” said Foote, a former prosecutor. “There will be a more legitimate possibility of prosecuting use of force cases under (this change).”

The change was endorsed by Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican, who has been anxious about the breadth of the measure, Senate Bill 217

The legislation passed by a voice vote and with bipartisan support after Senate Republicans initially opposed the bill. GOP lawmakers lauded policy on Monday, thanking Democrats for incorporating their proposed changes and nodding to the fact that some in law enforcement may still take issue with sections of the measure.

“When I first looked at the bill, I have to admit I was pretty upset,” said Sen. John Cooke, a Greeley Republican and Weld County’s former sheriff. “It looked to me like it was a revenge or punishment bill. As a matter of fact, that’s what I called it.”

But Cooke said that with the changes made in recent days, he is now on board. “I’m here to say I support the bill,” he said, adding that he believes law enforcement will also back the measure.

There was no opposition to the measure when the voice vote was called Monday.

Foote’s amendment also prohibits officers from using deadly physical force to apprehend a person who is suspected only of a minor or nonviolent offense. Law enforcement must also try to use nonviolent tactics before resorting to using force.

MORE: Read Sen. Mike Foote’s amendment.

The amendment dictates, as well, that officers must identify themselves as law enforcement and give a clear warning that force could be used, “with sufficient time for the warning to be observed,” before using deadly force on a suspect. Officers are exempt from the requirement if the warnings would place themselves or others at risk of death or injury.

Another amendment added to Senate Bill 217 on Monday prohibits officers from using tear gas on protesters without warning and from firing less-lethal projectiles indiscriminately at demonstrators’ heads, pelvises or backs.

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TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

That change comes after a federal judge on Friday ordered Denver police to temporarily cease using less-lethal force against peaceful protesters and stop using tear gas and pepper spray without warning. Judge R. Brooke Jackson also ordered officers not to fire less-lethal projectiles at demonstrators’ heads, pelvises or backs.

Senate Bill 217 must receive one more vote in the Senate before it can head to the Colorado House for further debate. The legislation comes amid 12 straight days of protests in Denver in response to the death of George Floyd last month at the hands of police officers in Minnesota. 

The bill was introduced on Wednesday and is expected to pass before the end of the week. In a joint statement, the County Sheriffs of Colorado, the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police and the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police said they are worried about the legislation.

“We took some steps forward today with changes in the Senate,” said the statement, issued on Monday afternoon. “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.”

In total there were 12 amendments made to the measure on Monday. Other changes reduce the amount of data law enforcement must collect during interactions with the public and add privacy protections for people recorded by police body cameras when that footage is released.

One major alteration gives law enforcement agencies until 2023 to comply with a requirement in the measure that all police departments and sheriff’s offices outfit their officers with body cameras.

Senate Bill 217 also requires officers to intervene when their colleagues use inappropriate force, bans the use of chokeholds and opens up officers to be sued in their individual capacities when they act inappropriately.

Finally, the legislation makes it so that law enforcement 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.

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