One year after George Floyd's murder, Colorado lawmakers consider more police reforms

Posted at 6:49 PM, May 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-25 20:49:28-04

DENVER — In the year since George Floyd’s murder, across the country and within the halls of the Colorado State Capitol, lawmakers have been looking for ways to add more accountability for law enforcement agencies.

In the weeks after Floyd’s murder, the legislature passed some of the most sweeping changes in the country, becoming the first to end qualified immunity for local law enforcement, among other things.

This session, Democrats are, once again, expanding on those reforms with House Bill 1250. The bill ends the qualified immunity for Colorado State Patrol, putting the agency in line with its local counterparts and opening the door for civil lawsuits over misconduct.

“We also put in a duty to intervene and a duty to report, so law enforcement officers can no longer stand by and watch their fellow officer use excessive force against someone,” the bill's co-sponsor, Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, said.

However, one of the most talked about sections of the bill dealing with use of force was recently removed. That section would have required officers to only use deadly force as a last result when all reasonable deescalation tactics have been exhausted. That section was taken out of the bill during the House debate.

The bill also speeds up the implementation of some of the rules around body-worn cameras by a year.

“I am proud to say that law enforcement agencies across the state are rapidly adapting to that proposal and not waiting for 2023 to implement the body camera mechanisms,” Herod said.

Justin Smith, the sheriff of Larimer County, says much of HB 1250 makes adjustments to law year’s law in order to better clarify the rules since that law was passed so quickly.

He supports the use of body-worn cameras and says they help the public understand all of the pressures police officers face in making a split-second decision.

However, he’s concerned with the costs associated with speeding up the implementation timeline.

“These things don’t come with a low price tag. They’re very expensive, and they require a lot of staffing,” Smith said. “To potentially move that up in the middle of a budget year is extremely problematic.”

Smith estimates the body camera provision adds an additional $500,000 in yearly expenses for Larimer County, and there’s still questions over whether the law applies to volunteer deputies, who only work limited hours. He worries the expense of adding cameras to these volunteers would be too much for some agencies to bear.

The bill also speeds up the timing for the creation of a database run by the The Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training Board that keeps record of an officer’s actions regarding their untruthfulness, revocation of certifications, terminations, resignations, etc.

An amendment added to the bill last week also aims to add more transparency for news organizations. The amendment would require law enforcement agencies that encrypt their radios to come up with a policy to allow members of the media to access those scanners.

“If you don’t have that information right away from the police scanner, then you’re relying pretty much 100% on the police agency to tell you,” said Jeff Roberts from the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

Journalists rely on scanners to determine where to go for stories and to get a general sense of what is happening so that they can ask the proper questions. However, in recent years, law enforcement agencies say bad actors have also been listening in to find out where officers are and what they are doing.

More than 30 law enforcement agencies across the state have already encrypted their scanners. Some, like Denver, have offered news outlets access, but only if the news outlet agrees to certain terms, like signing an indemnity clause, agreeing to cover the city’s legal costs if it is sued for information put out and used on those scanners.

Denver police also required news outlets to give them access to some of the newsroom’s records. Media outlets largely disagreed and refused to sign on in order to be given access to a scanner.

The amendment calls for police to work with media for reasonable restrictions on the use of scanners while providing access, though it doesn't specify what those limits should be.

“It’s not very specific about what that should be, but at least it opens the door to negotiations,” Roberts said.

Similar bills have been introduced in recent legislative sessions but have all failed.

Nevertheless, Roberts believes the amendment is a step in the right direction and will play a role in accountability efforts.

“More transparency among police agencies helps build trust between a community and its law enforcement agents,” he said.

HB 1250 expands on the police reforms Colorado lawmakers passed last year, however, both bill sponsors and law enforcement agree there’s still more work to be done to rebuild trust.

“It’s going to take us all to really get at the root of this issue when it comes to law enforcement accountability, but beyond that, we all have to step up and do our part to root out racism across this country,” Herod said.

Meanwhile, Herod wants to see more action on a federal level to address police reform and says the conversation about race and equity in the country is only beginning.

“As difficult as it has been of a conversation, there certainly has been, and will continue to be, good that comes out as long as we're all able to sit at the table and have honest conversations with each other,” Smith said.