Colorado lawmaker proposes new 'rules of engagement' for law enforcement during protests

Sponsor: People can seek redress of grievances
Senate Bill 21-31
Posted at 12:34 AM, Feb 18, 2021

DENVER — A Colorado lawmaker, who says the First Amendment is his favorite, has introduced a bill that would limit law enforcement's ability to disperse crowds involved in demonstrations.

"I think the bill is about creating some clarity," said Sen. Jeff Bridges. "There's a lack of clarity between protesters and police, when a peaceful protest becomes a dangerous protest, a protest that police have a duty to shut down."

Under Bridges' proposal, police would not be allowed to disperse protesters, unless they were acting in concert to pose an imminent threat to use force or violence to cause personal injury or significant property damage.

The Greenwood Village Democrat said every effort must be made to differentiate between those trying to escalate a situation and those acting peacefully.

"Just because there were a few bad actors doesn't mean that everyone else should lose their First Amendment rights," he said.

Bridges said there were a number of instances last year where police responded with force against peaceful protesters, "because of a few bad apples."

"Especially in Aurora during the protest where people were playing violins," he said. "There were a handful of folks behaving badly, throwing rocks and bottles. They needed to be stopped, but the entire protest shouldn't have been stopped. All the people expressing their right to peaceably assemble."

Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, has a different take.

Cooke served as the Weld County Sheriff from 2002 to 2014.

He said SB21-31 "puts law enforcement in a bad spot again."

He said the wording is so vague, there is no definition of "significant."

"I don't see the need for the bill because if somebody is going to cause bodily injury — that is already a crime," he said. "And committing damage to private property, or public property like this capitol, is already a crime as well. We just need to enforce it."

Bridges said police make those determinations right now with less guidance than is currently in the bill as drafted.

He gave an example.

"Standing on grass can do property damage, which is why we say significant property damage, but when you start breaking windows, you've crossed a line, and that is no longer expressing your First Amendment right," he said. "That's something that requires folks to step in, but if there are only a handful of folks doing that, police have a responsibility to step in and address those bad actors without trampling the First Amendment rights of others who are there peacefully."

One protester, who was seriously injured when police used pepper spray and projectiles to disperse a crowd near the state capitol during a curfew on May 30, said the bill "logically makes sense to me."

Russell Strong said he went to the capitol to be an ally to the Black community that he feels gets brutalized by police.

He said he wasn't a rioter.

"I didn't do any damage to public property," he said. "I condemn the behavior of those that went there and committed crimes. It undermines our purpose."

Strong said the goal was to improve the relationship between citizens and police, and to work together as a community.

Events unfolded quickly

"The atmosphere went from peaceful to chaotic in just the blink of an eye," Strong said. "There were a lot of loud flash bangs and smoke grenades. I was in the park, holding my signs, and felt like a bystander to what was unfolding. I was knocked unconscious and the next thing I knew I was getting carried away by (other) protesters."

"From our perspective there was no reason to target Russell, and there was no reason to target any of the people near him," said Felipe Bohnet-Gomez, an attorney with Rathoud | Mohamedbhai LLC.

"The officers should not have fired impact projectiles into the crowd," he said. "What was done violated Russell's constitutional rights."

Bohnet-Gomez said he too supports Bridges bill.

"The amount of force and the way it's used is reckless," he said. "There's nothing we've seen in Russell's case that would have justified the volley of grenades and projectiles that were fired at the crowd, so we think the message is that that kind of behavior stop. In that sense, the legislation is much-needed reform."

Strong said that losing an eye so abruptly has been very difficult, and that he's had to have therapy to cope with the loss.

He added that he is getting better and is adjusting.

Strong, through his attorney, filed a lawsuit against the City of Denver and its police department.

The suit alleges police were targeting their KIP (Kinetic Impact Projectile) guns “at the most vulnerable body parts of protesters to deliberately inflict maximum harm.”

Police are not commenting about the lawsuit.