Colorado’s sweeping police accountability law is historic. What’s next?

More change needed, say reformers, who eye training, statewide oversight, surveillance, militarization for new legislation

By: - September 3, 2020 6:01 am

A firework explodes behind a line of police officers next to the Colorado state Capitol as protests against the death of George Floyd occur on May 30, 2020, in Denver. (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

When protests ignited in Colorado in response to the death of George Floyd in May, Denise Maes was working 12-hour days for weeks straight on what became Colorado’s sweeping police accountability law. 

“I have a little bit of PTSD over it, frankly. It was really stressful,” said Maes, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. “I did feel at times that I was living in an upside-down world because of how big and how bold the bill ultimately was and that it actually passed.” 

Though the law was historic and now serves as a model for other states seeking to implement similar police reforms, Colorado state lawmakers and advocates are looking ahead to what’s next — everything from training requirements and statewide oversight for law enforcement to limiting surveillance technology and militarization gear.

The Law Enforcement Accountability and Integrity Act, signed by Gov. Jared Polis on June 19, requires most law enforcement officers to wear body cameras, banned chokeholds and carotid control holds, and removed the qualified immunity defense for officers who act in bad faith. 

Police officers walk through a cloud of tear gas as they try to disperse people protesting against the death of George Floyd in front of the Colorado State Capitol on May 30, 2020, in Denver. (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

Under the law, agencies are required to send the state reports on use of force instances that result in serious injury or death. The law also gave Colorado’s attorney general the authority to conduct patterns and practices investigations into law enforcement agencies — an authority already being used to investigate the Aurora Police Department. 

“This law is historic because it was comprehensive and it attempted to get at a lot of different aspects of just poor law enforcement behavior that folks have been working on for a long time,” said Maes, who was a staffer for Vice President Joe Biden before joining the ACLU. “That said, we don’t kid ourselves, the bill is reformative but it isn’t transformative. You can’t legislate law enforcement culture. There are a lot of things that we still need to work on.”

Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, a Commerce City Democrat who worked on the bill, referred to the law as “kitchen sink” legislation, meaning it was a culmination of many past bills that had ultimately failed.

“A lot of it wasn’t new. Similar individual bills were brought before but many members did not have the political will to get it passed,” Benavidez said. “And I think as a result of the protest marches and the other things going on, not only in our state but throughout the country, people started to recognize that Black and other people of color are disproportionately abused, disrespected or killed by police. It’s a very real phenomena. And I think that our members throughout the Legislature started to recognize that.”

First step: closing loopholes

Soon after the police accountability bill was signed into law, the city council of Greenwood Village, a Denver suburb, passed a resolution that aimed to shield its law enforcement officers from being held personally liable — with a penalty of up to $25,000 — if they were found to have acted in “bad faith.”

The decision brought a swift response from community leaders and activists, who condemned the decision. But the resolution remains in place. On July 2, Westminster city officials issued a similar statement, saying they would protect officers from civil liability, but they announced in the days that followed that it would obey the new state law

“The first step is addressing the cities and counties who say that they will never find an officer in bad faith and make sure there is oversight from the attorney general to make a determination of bad faith,” said Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who helped champion the police accountability bill.

State Rep. Leslie Herod poses for a portrait in Denver’s City Park on Aug. 16, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

“This wasn’t initially what we planned to do but obviously these cities have made it clear that we need to do that,” she said, adding that the towns and cities that have issued statements defying the new state law should be the ones under the most scrutiny.

Herod stressed that the personal liability piece of the bill is narrow and is only for officers who harm the community or violate someone’s constitutional rights. 

“Other professions have the same type of requirement. And there’s no reason why we should be shielding law enforcement officers,” she said. “When people talk about good officers versus bad officers, I don’t believe there are good officers who protect bad officers. If you are complicit or complacent and you protect bad officers, then you are just as bad as the bad actors.”

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Benavidez, who is an attorney, said there’s a misconception that the qualified immunity piece opens up all law enforcement officers to personal liability.

“It doesn’t make anybody liable. It just allows the case to go to court. And both sides have to prove their side of it. And the court makes a decision,” Benavidez said.

The qualified immunity piece of the law excludes state law enforcement officers, including the Colorado State Patrol, the attorney general or state university police departments from personal liability.

A bill introduced in February sought to eliminate qualified immunity for all state employees. But the bill ultimately failed. 

Benavidez said it is unclear if lawmakers will try to expand the qualified immunity provision to encompass all state employees, noting the potential financial strain it would have on the state’s budget. “I don’t know how much it would cost, but it’s certainly not free,” she said.

Since the police accountability law was signed, Herod said she’s been worried about a potential backlash.

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Demonstrators block Denver police vehicles in front of the Colorado Capitol on May 28, 2020, as part of a protest against the killing of George Floyd. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

“Anytime there is change there is a backlash, and I’m concerned about the harm that can be done to the community in this backlash. I think what we saw in Fort Collins is a clear example of that,” said Herod, referencing an incident at a pro-police rally that was caught on video from Aug. 8. “Where pro-police groups really did attack and harm a group that was protesting for Black Lives Matter and for police reform. That keeps me up at night.”

Herod said she’s exploring legislation around improvements to police academy curriculums, hiring practices, and the reallocation of police funds.

“Law enforcement is one of the few areas that have a history of abuse but don’t have regulatory oversight in a lot of ways,” Herod said, who was a prime sponsor for the police accountability bill with state Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, a Denver Democrat, Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, and Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat.

“So, just like the oil and gas industry, just like business, we should be coming back to the table every year talking about how to reform and enhance these systems,” Herod said.

Potential statewide police reforms for next legislative session

During the drafting process, most of Maes’ time was spent talking with legislators and providing research and recommendations related to police accountability. “There were some things taken out of the bill like the militarization piece, and the statewide oversight piece was removed,” Maes said. “But there were a lot of things that were added, too.”

Maes said she’s in constant conversation with other states that are interested in using elements of Colorado’s police accountability law across the country.

“There is certainly more that can be done and we are looking at things like when law enforcement can shoot at moving vehicles, for example,” Maes said. “I think more work around use of force would be appropriate. One of the things that we tried to address in Senate Bill 217, but we weren’t able to do it was to deal with the militarization piece.”

Potential new statewide police reforms being explored

  • Implementation of a statewide independent monitor program, similar to Denver’s Office of the Independent Monitor, to investigate all deaths involving law enforcement officers
  • Public notification when law enforcement agencies acquire additional surveillance technology
  • Enhance and expand integrated training for law enforcement officers
  • Changes to hiring practices
  • Reallocating police budgets towards social services

Next session, she hopes lawmakers explore legislation around police surveillance technology. 

“I think there is a lot that local governments could require of their law enforcement to at least notify the public when they acquire new surveillance technology. I think we should get ahead of the game on facial recognition, for example,” said Maes. “There’s all kinds of stuff that law enforcement uses to track our every move.”

Prior to the pandemic, state lawmakers were exploring legislation to create a statewide independent monitor program, similar to Denver’s Office of the Independent Monitor, to investigate all police-involved deaths. 

The topic resurfaced briefly after protests erupted outside the Capitol building in May, but the effort was not included in what ultimately became Colorado’s police accountability law. Lawmakers plan to revisit the legislation next session.

“I’m still very interested in bringing the bill next year,” said Benavidez, who was exploring the legislation with Rep. Jovan Melton, an Aurora democrat. “How we do it, I’m not exactly sure.”

A focus on integrated training, reallocating police funding

Paul Taylor, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver who specializes in police decision-making, said that a statewide review system for law enforcement would help create more transparency and uniformity within different law enforcement agencies. But one of the most important reforms he would like to see is requiring more integrated training for officers.

“So if you think about police academy officers, they get their firearms training, they get their law training, they get Taser training, they get communications training, but really there’s no crossover,” said Taylor, who previously worked as a field training officer and use of force instructor before going into academia.  

“Six months of training, that is mostly powerpoint based, is not nearly enough,” Taylor said. “Currently, the curriculum for dealing with mental health calls is a two hour PowerPoint presentation that academics give. It’s not enough.”

Several hundred protesters marched 5 miles from Aurora to Denver on East Colfax Avenue on Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020, in a demonstration against police brutality and in support of Black lives. (Carl Payne for Colorado Newsline)

He said that there has been a push from community members to decrease certain aspects of use-of-force training. “And what I say to that is that officers are currently getting 80 hours of defensive tactics training. Eighty hours, that’s it. A high school football player gets more training on physical contact.”

Taylor’s research focuses on the scenarios and police practices that lead to bad outcomes in policing and how officers can improve decision making in the field. He said police reform has focused primarily on transparency and accountability, which don’t necessarily lead to better outcomes.

“When we look at body cameras for instance, they certainly increase transparency so the public has a greater view of what’s happening, which is good,” Taylor said. “But we still have the systems in place that got us there in the first place.” 

He wants more policies in place that take a more systems-wide approach. The police accountability law is a step in the right direction, he said.

“There’s really no organizational or professional learning that’s occurring from these bad outcomes,” he said, referencing the deaths of George Floyd and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio in 2014. “And that to me is the biggest tragedy. It almost guarantees that we’re going to continue to repeat these outcomes and continue to repeat these tragedies.”  

He said that in the current economic crisis, he’s worried that there might be unintended consequences related to the push to defund the police.

Several hundred protesters marched 5 miles from Aurora to Denver on East Colfax Avenue on Aug. 30, 2020 in a demonstration against police brutality and in support of Black lives. (Carl Payne for Colorado Newsline)

“Policing is the wrong tool, but it serves as an important role in communities that’s currently not being filled by other services. And if cities aren’t serious about the funding of these other services, it’s really problematic,” Taylor said, stressing that less funding has historically led to less training. “And that, ultimately, is not going to lead to better outcomes,” he said. “What we really need is more training, a different kind of training and better training.”

He said the debate around police reform has become unnecessarily divided: a person is either pro-police, trying to reform the police, or trying to get rid of it all together. 

“You don’t have to defund the police entirely in your entire city to start to explore whether or not defunding the police in some communities while increasing services improves outcomes for those communities,” Taylor said. “That’s testable and that’s something that you can do, and start to push forward with broad, sweeping measures.”

He said in terms of Colorado’s recent police accountability law, he doesn’t think it goes far enough to capture system-wide reforms.

“I don’t think we’re going to see significant improvements in outcomes,” Taylor said. “I think we will see officers being sued more often. I think we will see greater accountability. I think we will see body camera footage released earlier, but I don’t think that those things are going to impact outcomes in law enforcement significantly.”

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Moe Clark
Moe Clark

Reporter Moe Clark covers criminal justice, housing and homelessness, and other social issues for Colorado Newsline.

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