Rep. Tony Exum, third from right, leads members of the Black Democratic Legislative Caucus of Colorado in a prayer before a press conference at the state Capitol on April 20, 2021. (Courtesy of Colorado House Democrats)
On Tuesday, a jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty in the death of George Floyd. The ruling reverberated around the nation — including at the Colorado Capitol, where lawmakers in June passed sweeping police reform in response to Floyd’s death, and the deaths of other Black people at the hands of police.
Members of the Black Democratic Legislative Caucus of Colorado called for continued efforts toward ending police violence against Black people — and ensuring officers like Chauvin can be held accountable in court for their actions.
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The guilty verdict on charges of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter is unheard for an on-duty police officer in the United States. But Floyd’s death rocked the nation when cell phone video circulated showing Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes.
“Until you see us as people, as human beings who deserve to live, and little James as a young Black boy who deserves to grow up, we won’t have justice in this country, and the work will not be done,” Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat, said at a Black Caucus press conference following the verdict in Chauvin’s trial. By “little James,” she meant the young son of Sen. James Coleman, a Democrat from Denver and member of the Black Caucus.
Herod was the House sponsor for Senate Bill 20-217, which passed in June. The bill, also led by Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat, prohibits the use of the “qualified immunity” defense in Colorado civil court cases where an officer is determined to have clearly violated a person’s constitutional rights. Officers can be individually liable for up to $25,000 or 5% of the total judgment in a civil case.
While qualified immunity is still a defense in federal lawsuits — due to federal law allowing the use of qualified immunity — the legislation opened up an opportunity for people to sue officers in state court and perhaps have a better chance of finding justice. Other provisions of SB-217 required law enforcement to activate body-worn cameras during most interactions with the public; release camera footage within three to six weeks in cases of alleged misconduct; and publish data on officers’ use of force.
Coleman said Chauvin’s guilty verdict gave him hope for his young son, whom he has to give “the talk” about the dangers for Black people of interactions with police.
“It is under this expectation and tradition of racist law enforcement that countless — literally, countless — Black people in America have been murdered without accountability,” Coleman said during the press conference. “This conviction does not make up for those lies, but rather, it’s a single, small step toward equality in the law.”
Rep. Naquetta Ricks, an Aurora Democrat, acknowledged the long road ahead toward achieving racial justice.
“Today, we are far from justice, but we are one step closer to reckoning with white supremacy in this country,” Ricks, the first Black immigrant to serve in the Colorado General Assembly, said on Twitter. “I stand in solidarity with my fellow members of the Black Caucus in our commitment to justice for all black lives.”
‘We’re with you’
Legislative leadership offered words of support for the Black Caucus on Tuesday.
“This is the right verdict — the only viable outcome of such a tragic and heartless injustice,” House Speaker Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, said on Twitter following the verdict. “Feeling relieved, sad, exhausted, and grateful for my (Colorado Black Caucus) colleagues. We’re with you.”
“I am relieved to see Derek Chauvin will be held accountable, but we can’t stop our fight for justice because of today’s historic verdict,” Garcia tweeted. “I stand with my (Colorado Black Caucus) colleagues and will continue to work towards a safer and more just Colorado.”
At the press conference, Herod said lawmakers would work on passing additional law enforcement reform this session and hoped to have support from members of both parties.
Last year, SB-217 passed the House on a 52-13 vote with considerable bipartisan support and some Republican opposition and on a nearly unanimous vote in the Senate, with one Republican opposed.
Upcoming law enforcement-related bills include:
• House Bill 21-1250, led by Herod and Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, a Denver Democrat. The bill would provide legal clarity on aspects of SB-217, such as the circumstances in which a body-worn camera must be turned on, and make other changes to that legislation. The bill’s first hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.
• House Bill 21-1251, sponsored by Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a Thornton Democrat, along with Herod. This proposed law would restrict the use of ketamine, a powerful sedative, to subdue suspects. The bill has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.
In Minnesota, three other officers who were on the scene of Floyd’s murder — Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao — are scheduled to go on trial in August on charges of aiding and abetting Chauvin.
The maximum sentence for Chauvin is 40 years for second-degree unintentional murder, 25 years for third-degree murder and 10 years for second-degree manslaughter. But Minnesota sentencing guidelines recommend a much shorter sentence of 12 and a half years for murder for a person with no criminal history. Manslaughter has a presumptive sentence of four years for someone with no criminal history.
Deena Winter of the Minnesota Reformer contributed to this report.
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