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Crime and Courts

Colorado legislature sends far-reaching police accountability bill to Gov. Jared Polis

Senate Bill 217 picked up significant Republican support as it passed the Senate and House. The Colorado District Attorneys’ Council also announced it’s on board. The governor says he will sign it.

Sheneen McClain, whose son Elijah, 23, died after he was detained by Aurora police, stands with family attorney Mari Newman, left, during the final testimony about Colorado's sweeping police accountability bill in the Colorado House on June 12, 2020. The measure passed the House 52-13. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)
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The Colorado legislature on Saturday sent Gov. Jared Polis a far-reaching police accountability bill in response to the death last month of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. 

Polis has vowed to sign it into law. 

The pace at which Senate Bill 217 made its way through the lawmaking gears at the Capitol was astonishing. But Democrats were committed to change and Republicans eventually joined their push after the bill was tweaked.

“Today, members, we will be able to intervene and do something about what’s happening in our communities — all of our communities — and has happened for far too long,” Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat and one of the prime sponsors of the bill, said Friday as the measure cleared the House. “Black lives matter.”

Inside the Colorado House of Representatives just before the vote on the landmark police accountability bill on June 12, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

The legislation was introduced on June 3 and won final approval in the Senate at about 1 p.m. Saturday. A bill of such magnitude would normally take weeks — if not months — to be negotiated.

But lawmakers worked late into the night on several occasions to solidify the policy and hear out law enforcement’s concerns. They took into account the emotional testimony of family members whose loved ones were killed by police, as well as the experiences of black legislators. 

“The reason we were able to put this sweeping proposal together so quickly is that (lawmakers) who held these seats long before us had been working on this very issue for years,” House Speaker KC Becker said on the House floor through sobs. “This body met the moment.”

Even the most hard-line, pro-law enforcement Republicans in the legislature approved of the measure, including Sen. John Cooke, a Greeley Republican and Weld County’s former sheriff.

“There’s a lot more good in this bill than bad,” said House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock.

On Friday afternoon, the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council also announced its support for the bill, a major endorsement of the measure. 

Denver police ahead of protesters in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood on Saturday, June 6, 2020. (Jesse Paul. The Colorado Sun)

“As difficult as this legislative process has been, we really do believe this is going to make us better,”  Steve Schulz, president of the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police, said in a written statement. 

Senate Bill 217 affects almost every aspect of policing in Colorado.

Among its provisions are requirements that law enforcement agencies:

  • Outfit all officers with body cameras
  • Release body camera footage within 45 days of a questionable police encounter
  • Ban the use of chokeholds and carotid holds
  • Collect racial data on officers’ encounters with the public
  • Report to the state when officers unholster their weapons, point their weapons at a citizen and use deadly force

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Additionally, the legislation allows officers to be sued in their individual capacities and be liable for up to $25,000 in damages. It also changes the standards around the legal use of deadly force and prohibits police from using deadly force against people accused of a minor or nonviolent offense.

Also, significantly, the bill requires officers to intervene if one of their colleagues is using inappropriate force.

Finally, the measure changes Colorado’s so-called “fleeing felon law,” which allows officers to use deadly force to stop a person they suspect has used a weapon in a crime or is armed. Law enforcement, under the bill, would be able to use deadly force against a suspected fleeing felon only if there is an imminent threat of the person using the weapon as part of their escape.

There are also changes in the bill for prosecutors and the court system, including a requirement that a grand jury that declines to indict an officer must release a report to the public on their reasoning.

“We are making history by the passing of this comprehensive, sweeping legislation,” said Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat who championed the measure, moments before the bill was sent to the governor.

George Floyd died May 27 in Minneapolis after an officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. His death prompted protests across the nation, including in Denver.

Demonstrators clash with police at the Colorado Capitol on Saturday, May 30, 2020 during the third day of protests in Denver in response to George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minnesota. (Joe Mahoney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

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