After last year's protests and reforms, Colorado lawmakers consider more police accountability bills

Posted at 8:43 PM, Apr 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-02 14:34:55-04

DENVER — Nearly a year after Colorado lawmakers passed one of the most sweeping law enforcement laws in the nation, once again the legislature is considering more reforms.

At least three bills dealing with law enforcement accountability have been introduced, and more could be on the way.

Additions to last year’s law

One of the bills, House Bill 1250 introduced by Denver Democratic Reps. Leslie Herod and Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, adds to or clarifies some of the requirements last year’s bill, SB 217, set out for law enforcement officers.

“I think this bill just shows you that we are doubling down on our commitment to law enforcement accountability and reform, and we’re cleaning up some statutes to make sure that everybody understands and everyone is on the same page with how Colorado wants this bill implemented,” Herod said.

Among the biggest changes: a new requirement that law enforcement officers are only allowed to use deadly force after exhausting all reasonable deescalation tactics and based on the totality of the circumstances. The bill says law enforcement would only be allowed to use deadly force on someone to prevent imminent death or serious injury to another person, and the force used must be proportional to the threat. Deadly force would not be justified for someone who only poses a danger to themselves or to apprehend someone wanted for a minor or non-violent offense.

“What we wanted to do is to make sure that there was no confusion — that deadly use of force had to be used as a last resort,” Herod said.

Beyond that, the bill also clarifies some of the rules around the use of body cameras by agencies, outlining when they need to be turned on and off and the punishments for failing to activate or tampering with the camera.

On the other hand, the bill relaxes some of the rules for Peace Officers Standards and Training (P.O.S.T.) standards, allowing officers who are found to not have intervened in some excessive use of force incidents to regain their certification after one year. Previously, SB 217 required officers to be permanently decertified for failing to intervene.

However, one of the biggest changes to the bill deals with qualified immunity. The Colorado State Patrol (CSP) and Colorado Bureau of Investigations (CBI) would be subject to the changes made by SB 217 and troopers and officers would be able to be held civilly liable if they were found to have been acting in bad faith.

“Qualified immunity will no longer apply to state patrol. I’m very proud to say that state patrol supports that,” Herod said.

A draft version of SB 217 had included CSP and CBI but was later changed to only focus on local law enforcement agencies, a move that infuriated some. This time around, all Colorado law enforcement agencies would be included.

The bill would also revoke the funding for agencies for one year that try to shield their employees from personal liability by preemptively determining that the officer acted in good faith instead of conducting an investigation.

The bill is already receiving some pushback among the law enforcement community, however.

“Law enforcement recently completed training on the new use of force standards put in place by Senate Bill 20-217. We were surprised to learn of the use of force changes in House Bill 1250,” said Amy Faircloth, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, the County Sheriffs of Colorado and the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police, in a statement.

An alternative bill

Alternative to the bill brought on by Democratic lawmakers, a group of Republicans has introduced a police bill that does some of the same things as HB 1250, just in a different way. Senate Bill 183 also aims to include CSP and CBI for civil actions by curtailing their qualified immunity.

However, the bill would allow peace officers to use deadly force when all other means of apprehension are unreasonable and the suspect poses an imminent threat to someone else.

The bill also changes an officer’s duty to intervene for when they are engaged in an official capacity and makes a failure to intervene a class 1 misdemeanor. The bill also clarifies some of the rules around body-worn cameras and when they must be used. Finally, it requires an officer’s P.O.S.T certification to not be suspended or revoked until after an investigation is complete and all appeals or challenges to it have been heard.

Faircloth says police agencies are much more receptive to this bill than the one introduced by Democrats.

“As law enforcement has begun implementing different portions of Senate Bill 217, the wording in some sections has led agencies to interpret things differently, which can misalign actions of law enforcement with the intent of the legislature. Law enforcement had significant stakeholder discussions about clarifications needed to ensure Senate Bill 217 can be implemented uniformly throughout the state, and many of those clarifications are included in Senate Bill 183,” she said in a statement.

The Brady bill

A bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced a bill that would change reporting requirements when it comes to potentially problematic officers. Senate Bill 174 stems back to a 1963 Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland where the justices ruled that suppressing evidence favorable to a defendant who has requested it violates their due process.

With this bill, law enforcement agencies would be required to send the officer’s name and agency to the district attorney’s office. That information would then need to be turned over to the defense to determine whether to subpoena the officer’s record.

“If there is an officer that lied on the stand or in a police report or in an internal investigation, that goes to his credibility, his or her credibility, and so what happens is the law enforcement agency sends that information to the DA and then the DA gives that information to the defense attorney,” said Sen. John Cooke, the former sheriff of Weld County.

Currently, the burden is on the law enforcement agencies to self-report. Cooke says each agency and district attorney’s office across the state has its own policies for how to handle these officers, and this bill would make the process more uniform.

“Some officers do not live up to the high standard of their profession, and this bill is about holding those individuals accountable so that criminal defendants are treated justly,” said Sen. Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins.

If passed, Colorado could be the first state in the country with such a law on the books. Cooke doesn’t consider this a police reform bill so much as an accountability and transparency bill. He says law enforcement agencies are already supporting the move.

“Law enforcement is 100% behind it because of that, because they want to be transparent,” Cooke said.

In a statement, Faircloth said this bill will build upon the work in prior years to ensure policies are put in place that add to transparency and consistency among agencies.

Police reforms

Not everyone agrees with every part of each of these bills, however, both Democrats and Republicans say they are committed to continuing the conversation about police accountability and the standards the state wants to old its officers to.