Post-Chauvin verdict, Colorado advances new police reforms


DENVER (AP) – A day after a former Minneapolis police officer was convicted in the killing of George Floyd, Colorado lawmakers advanced legislation Wednesday to tighten standards set by a sweeping police accountability law adopted last year following protests over Floyd’s murder.

The bill, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Leslie Herod and Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, seeks to encourage officers to use their body cameras; strengthen investigations of use of force incidents; and promote “de-escalation techniques” in police encounters with citizens.

The measure aims to deter and avoid police shootings and other deadly uses of force by increasing accountability and sanctions required of officers and their departments.

Such incidents have taken a disproportionate number of Black lives across the country.

“If yesterday’s verdict suggests complacency, I’m here to tell you my drive is opposite,” Gonzales-Gutierrez told the House Judiciary Committee about the need for continued accountability work.

The panel referred the bill to the House Appropriations Committee by a 7-4 party-line vote.

Last year’s law “was a direct answer to the community’s cries for accountability” – a long and ongoing process, Herod said. She pledged to keep working with law enforcement agencies on their concerns but objected to testimony that insinuated she and Gonzales-Gutierrez hadn’t done so relentlessly.

“A just system would be George Floyd still alive. A just system would be Elijah McClain with his mother,” Herod said. “We must continue to work to make this system better because people are dying.”

As protests over Floyd’s killing engulfed downtown Denver last June, the Legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill co-sponsored by both lawmakers that, among other things, required all officers to use body cameras by July 2023, banned chokeholds, limited potentially lethal uses of force and removed qualified immunity from police, potentially exposing officers to lawsuits for their actions in use of force cases.

The 2020 law also barred police from using deadly force against suspects they believe are armed unless there is an imminent threat of a weapon being used. It required officers to intervene when seeing use of excessive force by colleagues and to report such cases to superiors.

It also required the public release of unedited footage from body cameras within 21 days of the filing of misconduct complaints. Grand juries under the law are required to release reports when they decide against charging officers accused in deaths.

Herod and Gonzales-Gutierrez want to strengthen the law by removing qualified immunity from Colorado State Patrol officers, who frequently work with local law enforcement. They want checks on police applicants, and those with histories of misconduct would be posted to a state misconduct database. They want multiagency investigations of some use of force cases and to grant the attorney general’s office subpoena power to initiate its own probes – or appoint administrative law judges to investigate such cases.

The bill would immediately require use of body and dash cams in as many circumstances as possible, including during welfare checks that, witnesses testified, often involve mental health crises and can turn violent.

With certain exceptions, “You should have that body cam on, all the time,” Herod said.

Most visibly, the bill would require the use of “de-escalation techniques” such as verbal persuasion, waiting out rather than pursuing a suspect, and calling in backup or social workers in certain encounters when an officer’s life isn’t immediately threatened.

Proponents say such techniques could have prevented numerous deaths, including that of McClain, a 24-year-old Black man who died in 2018 after being confronted by police in suburban Aurora responding to a citizen’s call about a “suspicious” person in their neighborhood.

A handful of skeptics objected to the bill’s mandate that officers consider de-escalation options before turning to proportionate force, if necessary, in situations that quickly can, and frequently do, change for the worse.

Ronald Sloan, representing the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, said the bill risks creating a mindset among officers of “I can’t use force. I have to do everything in my power not to use force. And that is a deadly formula for officers.” Herod insisted the bill’s definitions on use of force were crafted largely in response to demands for clarity from law enforcement.

Rebecca Wallace, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Colorado, called the bill a balanced measure that provides due process for officers accused of excessive use of force – and allows those exonerated of such charges to keep their police certifications.

The state patrol supports the removal of qualified immunity for its officers, Mike Honn, the agency’s legislative liaison, told the committee, saying it will place CSP officers on equal footing with local law enforcement.

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