As nation rethinks policing, Colorado offers blueprint toward reform
How far has America come in enacting meaningful police reform since George Floyd’s death nearly one year ago? That question faces renewed scrutiny with the rare verdict against ex-police officer Derek Chauvin. On Tuesday a Minnesota jury found Chauvin guilty of murdering Floyd after he pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for roughly nine minutes — captured in a video that spurred a global awakening.
Nearly 1,000 miles from Minnesota, criminal justice experts say Colorado has set a bold example for the entire nation when it comes to impactful police reform.
“There's no other state legislature in this country that has been able to do what Colorado has done to date. It just hasn't happened,” said Howard Henderson, founding director of the Center for Justice Research and a professor of justice administration at Texas Southern University.
When Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 217 into law last year, the state became ground zero for police reform, Henderson says, and offered other states a model. The new law ticks multiple boxes: “body-worn cameras, use of force, duty to intervene, firing police officers, qualified immunity, police prosecutions, protester protections and data tracking all in one bill.”
Taken together, the initiatives have impact, Henderson said, and he emphasized one measure in particular: data collection.
“All the other changes in the Colorado bill – those are going to be great. But if you don't keep track of it and how often they occur, there's not much you’re going to be able to do with it,” he said.
Cries for Justice Ring Through Capitol
Polis signed the bill on the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, saying leaders heard the cries of racial justice demonstrators across the state and nation.
“Millions of Americans have become part of our nation’s largest civil rights demonstrations in half a century," he said. "This is a long-overdue moment.”
Denver Democrat Rep. Leslie Herod, chair of the state’s Black Democratic Caucus, was standing beside Polis as his signature ushered in a new era for Colorado policing. Herod, a prime sponsor of the bill, says Colorado’s historic uprisings were the catalyzing force that compelled lawmakers to move fast.
“We had such pressure not only from folks protesting outside of the state Capitol in Denver, but from across the state to say: This is wrong. I don't care what side of the political spectrum you're on,” she said.
Amid a national reckoning on racism and police brutality, the Colorado legislature returned for a short session last spring after a pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As demonstrators demanded justice for the disproportionate number of Black people who have died at the hands of police – justice for Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Colorado's Elijah McClain, and many others – Herod crafted a sweeping reform bill.
“We took it upon the state legislature to say that we are going to address this issue of police brutality and we are going to do it now,” she said.
Herod and her colleagues, including prime sponsor and Senate President Leroy Garcia, did what was seemingly unimaginable just a few months prior. After drawing the support of all Democratic legislators, they brought Republican lawmakers and police lobbyists into the fold too, passing Senate Bill 217 during a whirlwind session meant to focus on budget items.
“We were at the negotiation table every day for hours,” Herod said.
It was a massive endeavor to tackle in a short period of time, “not just with the legislation itself, in the words, in the language, but also a lot of stakeholder work,” said Denise Maes, policy director for the Colorado American Civil Liberties Union, who helped write the bill.
That included stakeholder work with police representatives, many of whom were “surprised” by the bill, said Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith. He chairs a committee for the County Sheriffs of Colorado, an organization that advocates for sheriffs' offices, and says despite police representatives' “significant concerns,” they worked through the bill and wrote 40 successful amendments.
Those changes, though, did not dilute the legislation, according to Garcia, a Democrat representing Pueblo.
“Sometimes in consensus you get watered down policies. That's not true in 217,” he said.
The Marine Corps veteran pushes back on critics who say the law is an attack on policing. Instead, he says it is meant to improve accountability and trust between police and the communities where they work.
Garcia already sees that happening as an indirect result of the new law as some cities take additional steps outside the legislation. Pueblo, for one, is now contemplating a community policing board, Garcia said, and Colorado Springs formed a citizen oversight committee after the police reform measure was signed into law.
Still, Smith, the Larimer County sheriff, says some of the compromises were tough to digest. He pointed to the removal of qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that protects police and public officials from liability in civil lawsuits. Under the new law, local police can be held personally responsible for violating a person’s civil rights, which Smith believes could unfairly punish officers for doing their jobs. (Recent legislation Herod co-sponsored, House Bill 1250, would remove qualified immunity for state troopers as well, and strengthen some aspects of Senate Bill 217. Lawmakers voted along party lines to advance the bill on April 21, one day after a jury delivered Chauvin's verdict.)
Police did receive a concession when lawmakers agreed to lower the maximum amount an officer can be sued for, from $100,000 to $25,000, but Smith says that could still financially devastate many officers. He says qualified immunity was never a free pass for police.
“The purpose of qualified immunity was to recognize officers are responding to dynamic things,” Smith said. He says common occurrences like late-night traffic stops can quickly spiral out of control and other crises, like the recent active shooter incident in Boulder that left 10 people dead including one police officer. Such events demonstrate cops are constantly “making life and death decisions at the drop of a hat,” he said.
Qualified immunity has plenty of critics. The Colorado ACLU's Maes pointed out that some conservatives have labeled it "judicial activism." On the other side of the aisle, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor declared qualified immunity “an absolute shield for law enforcement officers.”
Opponents of Colorado's police reform bill also point to a potential link to police retention and recruitment last year. The numbers paint a mixed picture. More police officers left their positions in 2018 and 2019 versus 2020 — when the police reform law was passed, according to data from the Colorado attorney general’s office. In 2018, there were 2,050 officers that either retired, quit or were fired. In 2019, that number was 2,061. One year later, in 2020, there were 1,756 officers that left their posts. The number of new recruits, however, declined. In 2018, there were 2,801 new officers. The following year, there were 2,378 new recruits. And in 2020, new recruits amounted to 1,610 of Colorado officers.
Herod says if some officers are leaving due to the new law, they shouldn’t be in policing to begin with. Other factors are likely making policing less appealing, she says. For one, the stressors of the job have been intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Herod believes the way law enforcement is perceived in the community has also played a role – and that’s one of the reasons she wrote the bill.
Her father was a correctional officer at America’s only supermax prison near Florence, Colorado, and Herod says she understands the dilemma people face “when they can no longer wear their uniform home” and the toll that takes on someone simply trying to serve and protect their community. “But when you have officers murdering people on social media and showing up on your smartphone, the integrity of the profession diminishes and we need to bring that back,” she said.
‘Humans Should Care About Each Other’
Back at the Colorado state Capitol, Herod says the rising awareness of Elijah McClain’s death after a brutal encounter with police in August 2019 further galvanized protesters and forced lawmakers to act.
McClain was described by family and friends as insightful and gentle. He was known to play his violin for shelter animals. And his death was Colorado’s to confront.
Aurora officers tackled, choked and handcuffed the 23-year-old Black man after they received a call about a suspicious person, though McClain had done nothing wrong. A paramedic then injected McClain with a large dose of the powerful sedative ketamine and he went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital. He died days later.
A recent independent investigation was deeply critical of police and paramedics’ actions that night. For example, the report found officers were unjustified in stopping McClain, in using the carotid chokehold that caused McClain “to partially or fully lose consciousness” and that the dose of ketamine was based on “a grossly inaccurate and inflated estimate of his size.” Several investigations into McClain’s death are ongoing. Meanwhile, Herod introduced a bill this legislative session that would ban the use of sedatives in police confrontations.
McClain’s mother Sheneen McClain spoke to KUNC’s Colorado Edition in February. She said her son’s story has touched many people for different reasons, but at the end of the day, one thing transcends all of that: “If we take out all the boxes and categories that we’re placed in, we’re just human. We’re just humans and humans should care about each other.”
McClain’s death not only helped spur legislative action in a state with the sixth highest rate of police killings in the nation, it also engendered local reforms.
Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson became interim chief months after McClain died, earning the job permanently in August 2020 (amid the department’s latest controversy), and quickly implemented changes, like banning the type of chokehold officers used on McClain. Since then she has shifted Aurora’s police academy away from a militaristic style of training and launched a multi-pronged campaign to rebuild trust with the community. Now, Aurora’s community policing task force wants broader powers, including the ability to fire officers. Wilson says she’s open to evolving further.
“We have to change and we have to evolve because that's what the community is asking for, not just Aurora Police Department, but law enforcement in general,” Wilson said.
Justin Nix, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha, says citizen oversight bodies typically lack teeth – they can only make recommendations. He says giving those boards sweeping authority would improve policing.
“I think in our democratic society, policing needs to be transparent and citizens need to have a voice not just on policies and discipline on the back end after alleged misconduct occurs, but even the day-to-day responsibilities of police departments,” Nix said.
This underscores his view that reform begins at the local and state level, because, “policing, after all, is a local thing in America,” Nix said.
Criminal justice expert Henderson agrees. He doesn’t place too much stock in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed in the U.S. House but faces an uncertain path in the U.S. Senate, because he says 85% of criminal justice happens at the local and state levels.
Across the board, though, public appetite for police reform is only growing.
“Societal consensus changes over time on all manner of issues – look, abortion, gay rights. Policing is not excluded from that,” Henderson said.
Law enforcement has been hesitant to that type of systemic change, he said, but no system of power maintains itself forever.
This is the first of two stories exploring police reform in the Mountain West. Part two will look at lawmakers and activists in the region attempting to replicate Colorado’s landmark policing initiative.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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