Gov. Jared Polis on Friday signed Colorado’s sweeping police accountability bill, passed in the wake of George Floyd’s death, into law, calling it a necessary and positive step toward healing the state’s pain and hearing the public’s concerns.
Senate Bill 217 was introduced and passed in a matter of two weeks after being introduced in the days after Floyd’s May 25 death at the hands of police officers in Minnesota and as Denver and cities across the nation were being rocked by protests in response.
“This is a long overdue moment of national reflection,” Polis said just before he signed the measure at a ceremony in the Colorado Capitol. “This is a meaningful, substantial reform bill.”
Polis said the bill contains “landmark, evidence-based” changes that he hopes will help build trust between communities and law enforcement. But he said that more work must still be done.
Colorado is one of the first states to take legislative action in the wake of Floyd’s death and demonstrations across the nation.
Also in attendance at the bill signing were Democratic and Republican state lawmakers who worked on the legislation, as well as law enforcement officers and the family and friends of Coloradans killed at the hands of police.
The governor planned the bill signing for Juneteenth, which commemorates June 19, 1865, the day slaves in Galveston, Texas, learned they were free. It was more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation and about two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at the end of the Civil War.
Here are some of the most important parts of the legislation:
The rules around using deadly force have been changed
Right now, Colorado law enforcement officers can use deadly force if they reasonably suspect that someone is a threat to themselves, other officers or the public.
Senate Bill 217 changes that standard to require that officers face an imminent threat before they use deadly force, a change lawmakers hope will remove some of the subjectivity from the decision-making process.
Under the new law, officers are also prohibited 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 deadly force.
Law officers must identify themselves as such and give clear warning that deadly force may be used “with sufficient time for the warning to be observed,” the new law states. Officers are exempt from the requirement if the warnings would place themselves or others at risk of death or injury.
“I want the people of Colorado to know: We heard your cry,” said Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill.
Finally, the law also 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 will be allowed 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.
Law enforcement agencies must train their officers on the changes by Sept. 1.
Law enforcement must collect and report data
Senate Bill 217 required law enforcement agencies to collect and report to the state a vast amount of data to the police.
That includes racial data on officers’ encounters with the public, where the interaction took place and the circumstances — including the suspect crime that occurred — that led up to the situation.
Agencies will also have to report whenever one of their officers unholsters their weapon or points it as a citizen and whether or not they fired it.
Use of force data must also be collected and sent to the state, including information on what led up to the encounter, the type of force used and any information on injuries to the suspect or officer that resulted.
An annual report must be released by the state starting in July 2023.
Officers must intervene if a colleague is acting inappropriately
Law enforcement officers, under Senate Bill 217, must intervene if a fellow officer is using inappropriate force against a member of the public.
Peace officers who stand by as a colleague uses excessive force can have their certification revoked. The board shall not, “under any circumstances,” reinstate that peace officer’s certification unless the officer is exonerated by a court, the law states.
The measure also has safeguards to better track officers who are fired from police departments and sheriff’s offices to prevent them from moving from agency to agency.
Every law enforcement officer in Colorado must wear body cameras
The new law requires that police officers activate cameras, either worn on their body or mounted on the dash of their patrol cars. Their use is required at “during any interaction with the public.” The cameras may be turned off in some circumstances, including when recording personal information that is not related to the case or during a long break in the incident.
Officers working undercover are not required to wear cameras. And the camera requirement does not apply to members of the governor’s Colorado State Patrol security detail.
It does, however, apply to officers working in jails who are about to perform a “task that requires an anticipated use of force.” Otherwise, jail guards do not need to wear body cameras.
Agencies have until July 1, 2023, to implement the body camera changes.
Officers who fail to activate their camera or tamper with the footage could face disciplinary action and even criminal and civil charges.
When there is alleged police misconduct, video from the incident must be released publicly — unedited — within 45 days. The victim’s relatives must be notified that they have a right to see the video before its public release.
A clause in the law says that video that raises privacy concerns, particularly for victims of sexual assault, children or people in a mental health crisis, will not be released publicly without consent of the victim. Also homes and treatment centers in the video can be blurred and victims’ names redacted if they are captured in the recording
Officers can be sued in their individual capacities
Under the law, officers may be sued in their individual capacities and be liable for up to $25,000 worth of damages.
Police reform proponents hope this will mean more accountability for officers, who right now can be shielded by their departments from financial consequences if they act inappropriately or commit abuses while on the job.
Earlier versions of Senate Bill 217 would have made officers liable for up to $100,000 in damages, but the measure was pared back during negotiations with law enforcement groups and Republicans.
The Colorado Attorney General’s Office also is given the power under the bill to investigate and take legal action against law enforcement agencies in the state that are suspected of engaging in a practice of civil rights abuses.
Officers cannot use carotid and choke holds
Senate Bill 217 bars the use of chokeholds and carotid holds in which pressure is applied to someone’s neck in order to force them to comply.
This is a significant change because Floyd died after an officer kneeled on his neck for nearly 9 minutes. Also, a carotid-pressure hold was central to the death last year of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old man in Aurora after an encounter with law enforcement.
A carotid hold is where an officer applied pressure to both sides of someone’s neck, cutting off blood flow.
Law enforcement is limited when responding to demonstrations
The law prohibits officers from using tear gas on protesters without warning and from firing less-lethal projectiles indiscriminately at demonstrators’ heads, pelvises or backs.
This section of the legislation came after the police response to Denver protests after Floyd’s death.
“No longer can you fire rubber bullets, hitting someone in the eye where they lose their eyesight,” said Sen. Fields.
Prosecutors and grand juries must release more information
The new law specifies that if a district attorney’s office refers an incident of deadly police use of force or misconduct to a grand jury, the DA’s office must release a statement notifying the public that the matter is under investigation.
Also, even when a grand jury decides not to indict the officer under investigation, the panel is required to issue a report explaining its findings.