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Politics and Government

Colorado bill would convene a study of law enforcement response to police protests

The bill comes after largely peaceful demonstrations in late May and early June were met with tear gas and hundreds of arrests.

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

Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill that would convene a study of law enforcement response and training on protecting First Amendment rights and ensuring peaceful demonstrations.

The measure comes after outrage by activists on Denver and local police department’s response to last summer’s racial justice protests for the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Elijah McClain in suburban Denver.

The largely peaceful demonstrations in late May and early June in Denver and its suburbs were met with tear gas and hundreds of arrests. The American Civil Liberties Union filed lawsuits against the city on behalf of Black Lives Matter 5280 and several demonstrators who were allegedly injured by police.

An amendment offered by one of the bill’s sponsors, Democratic Sen. Jeff Bridges at the Senate Judiciary’s committee hearing Thursday, changed the bill which would have originally prohibited officials from deeming protests unlawful unless a significant number of protestors posed imminent threats to property or personal injuries.

The bill now calls for a study group lead by Colorado State Patrol to evaluate law enforcement response during protests, improve communication between organizers and authorities and look at the costs and insurance for property damages and personal injuries.

The research would also aim to “identify methods to differentiate between lawful demonstrators and outside agitators engaging in unlawful actions and damage,” according to the amendment.

“What we were seeing across cities in Colorado, was basically ad hoc and in an arbitrary fashion, law enforcement deeming something to be an ‘unlawful assembly.’ And there wasn’t any consistency to that notion,” said Denise Mayes, public policy director for the Colorado branch of the ACLU.

Colorado statute has a definition for what is deemed a riot, but does not define lawful or unlawful assembly, which is why the ACLU supports creating a study group to look at these issues, Mayes said.

The group would also evaluate and strengthen law enforcement training requirements for first amendment rights, crowd control, stress management and other skills to ensure peaceful demonstrations. The bill would require the group to report its findings and recommendations to the Legislature on or before Jan. 1, 2022.

Steve Garcia, a major with Colorado State Patrol, said the agency would engage law enforcement, district attorneys and protest and community leaders in the discussions.

Democratic Sen. Julie Gonzales, vice chairwoman of the committee, questioned why State Patrol should lead the study since the bill and amendment was “introduced in response to people who had critiques of law enforcement.”

In response, Garcia said the study would assess topics that help bring “procedural justice” which includes voice, respect, trustworthiness and neutrality. By allowing law enforcement to lead the conversation, Garcia said it would help repair police legitimacy by allowing more direct community engagement.

Gonzales also pushed back on the content of the study, noting that there have been conversations about the role of law enforcement in community, extremism and the role of the First Amendment — but none have been inward looking on those topics.

“Where is the place to have the conversation around extremism within law enforcement?” she said. “I raise the question because last summer, community members were coming to me having the conversations around Three Percenters who were within the National Guard, Three Percenters who where in law enforcement agencies.”

The Three Percenters are an anti-government militia group who were among the extremists who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Stephen Schulz, president of the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police, said he did not know whether extremism within law enforcement would be included in the State Patrol-led study.

Gonzales also asked the witnesses if it was an issue worth talking about.

“If there’s any bad actors in law enforcement … if it’s brought forward, those are investigated by the agencies and matters are handled the way that they should be appropriately,” Schulz said. “As far as extremism in law enforcement, I don’t have an answer for that.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee laid over the bill Thursday and it will be voted on in a future meeting.

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Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.