Law enforcement bristles at Colorado legislature's sweeping police reform bill

Carol McKinley
Special to Colorado Politics
Posted 6/5/20

“We are disgusted by the behavior of the officers in Minnesota,” Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock told members of the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee. “Those were bad cops, and if they work for any sheriff in this room they would have been fired just the same.”

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Law enforcement bristles at Colorado legislature's sweeping police reform bill

Posted

Just one day after a sweeping police reform bill was introduced in the Colorado legislature, lawmakers on June 4 passed the controversial measure 3-2 on first committee after hearing seven hours of questions and testimony from law enforcement, criminal justice advocates and families of victims who have died in police encounters.

The lightning speed of Colorado’s proposed Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Bill was prompted by the bellowing outcry following the death of George Floyd, the 46-year-old Minneapolis black man killed in police custody on May 25.

“We are disgusted by the behavior of the officers in Minnesota,” Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock told members of the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee. “Those were bad cops, and if they work for any sheriff in this room they would have been fired just the same.”

The comprehensive police reform measure is sponsored by Sens. Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, and Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, and Reps. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, and Serena Gonzales-Guitierrez, D-Denver, and next heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Included in the 16-page bill is the creation of an intensive reporting system to track officers that have used force if they move to another department. It also would stipulate that officers could use deadly force only when a suspect is using a deadly weapon or presents an imminent danger to the officer, which eliminates the so-called “fleeing felon” statute.

SB 217 would also allow officers to be sued for civil rights violations in their individual capacities, a mandate which opponents said would make it even harder to recruit new officers.

“Most troubling is going to be the good-faith exception; if you make a mistake, it doesn’t matter if you thought it was right, you are on the hook to the tune of $100,000. Oh, by the way if you guess wrong that’s it. You lose your house and your kid’s college fund,” 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler said.

Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle reminded the room that his son is a Douglas County sheriff’s deputy whom he put through college. “If this were in this bill, I would never have recommended that he go into this career.”

But Natalia Marshall, whose uncle, Michael Marshall, was killed in Denver County jail by sheriffs deputies, told the committee she has little empathy for police who may have to pay for their crimes, “Everybody’s worried about officers losing their homes? When I see my uncle I see him in ashes. I see an urn. That’s what I see. I’m 100% for this bill.

”This bill needs to pass. The police need to be held accountable.” said Sheneen McClain, whose 23-year-old son, Elijah McClain, died in August during a fatal encounter with the Aurora Police Department. ”Elijah was not a criminal yet the police officer stopped him, and put him in two choke holds.”

If SB 217 passes as it’s written, it would ban the procedure.

Discussed at length was the body camera requirement, which stipulates that all officers should wear them any time they deal with the public.

Pelle, Brauchler and Spurlock all said they are in favor of body cameras, but that there needs to be limits to when officers are required to wear them. They are opposed to a requirement that all footage would be made public within 14 days after an incident, explaining it could be a problem if the footage reveals the identity of a witness in an ongoing investigation.

There were also concerns from law enforcement that the storage of so much footage would be expensive.

On Wednesday, Herod appealed to corporations to help pay for the millions she says it will cost to implement such a system. “I’m very concerned about the funding for this bill so I’m asking wealthy donors who say they want to do something about this issue, who want to stand up for black lives, to help us fund this,” Herod told Colorado Politics.

Empassioned discussion went on inside the state Capitol as protesters marched through Denver’s downtown streets for the eighth straight day in Colorado.

Mari Newman, a Denver attorney who helped draft SB 217, says the police reform bill was resurrected after being put on hold earlier due to COVID-19 postponements. “They had been working on a bill pre-COVID, and there was a real limit to what could happen this session.”

Though the legislative session was cut short due to the virus, Herod feels there is enough time to get the bill through. “It’s time for meaningful reform and it starts right here today at the State Capitol.”

Still, many of the state’s law enforcement agencies are balking at its urgency.

“This was too soon, this was knee-jerk, (and) this was not really getting to the core of the problem. They’re throwing everything in but the kitchen sink,” Spurlock told Colorado Politics before his testimony. “If they really want to be a part of making law enforcement better, then let’s bring the experts, the people that do the job, into the room to make it happen.”

Sen. John Cooke, R-Windsor, was dismayed that questions from the floor were rushed after just an hour in order to have time for witnesses to testify. “I object to our voices being stifled. This hearing should be no different than any other committee hearing.”

Elisabeth Epps with the Colorado Freedom Fund countered that lawmakers’ voices are not being stifled, it’s the voices of minorities that are being snuffed out. “That’s the silencing that matters,” she said. “I’m tired of begging for my life to matter. For the lives of people who look like me to matter.”

Cooke, a former Weld County Sheriff, also sparred with co-sponsor Leroy Garcia over his lack of police knowledge. “You’ve never been in law enforcement,” he said. But Garcia told Cooke that although he respected his service, he doesn’t know what it’s like to be a person of color. “My district is 46% Latinos,” Garcia said. “You equally have to yield some reservation to understand communities of color. This is why you see and hear the outcry.”

As the night wrapped up, co-sponsor Rhonda Fields told law enforcement in the room, “This bill is not about poking at you; it's about accountability. As a mother I've had "the talk, but who is talking to the police? This conduct will no longer be tolerated."

The committee voted to include four amendments to the measure, including one which would keep any sensitive nude footage from body cameras, especially in sexual assault cases, from being released to the public. Yet another change to the original bill regarding victims’ compensation: an officer who truly makes a "good faith" mistake will be indemnified and not have to pay restitution.

There were awkward moments due to the mask-wearing-requirement. When Gonzales chided Brauchler for criticizing her home town, tweeting about how good it is to live somewhere other than Denver during the protests, he said “I love Denver. You’ve got some of the best graffiti I’ve ever seen.” When he got crickets, he said, “I’m smiling behind the mask.”

Newman hopes the legislation is passed as written, telling Colorado Politics, “This is no time for a symbolic gesture. We need true change now and that’s what this bill is as it is currently written. The last thing we need is for lawmakers to water it down.”

“There’s more good than bad in this bill,” said Tom Raynes, executive director for the District Attorneys Council. “And frankly, the next session is only six months away now.”

This story is from Colorado Politics, a weekly news magazine and politics-news website. Used by permission. For more, visit coloradopolitics.com.

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