AURORA | Democratic U.S. Rep. Jason Crow on Friday introduced a bill that would require states to enact laws outlining investigation protocols related to law enforcement officials who kill or injure people on the job.
Deemed the “Use of Force Accountability Act of 2021,” the proposal would require states that receive federal grant money tethered to policing to codify investigation panels that would probe police who use lethal or injurious force.
The initial language identifies a variety of entities that could serve as purportedly independent investigators, including citizen panels, state attorneys general, local prosecutors or fellow law enforcement agencies. All of those entities are currently capable of investigating contentious police encounters in Colorado, though few cities in the state have robust citizen oversight bodies, and many of those that do exist are often seen as ineffective.
The findings of any investigation would be sent to the relevant department’s internal affairs bureau, and any probe conducted by a neighboring police force would be sent to the state attorney general upon completion, according to the bill’s text.
The measure is the upshot of the encounter between Aurora police, paramedics and Elijah McClain in August 2019. McClain, an unarmed Black man, died days after a 911 caller described him as “sketchy,” police placed him in a now-banned chokehold and paramedics sedated him with a drug that has since been removed from their arsenal.
“No legislation can bring back Elijah McClain or ease his family’s pain. We failed Elijah and his family, and the least we can do is learn from this injustice,” Crow said in a statement to The Sentinel. “The Use of Force Accountability Act would hold police officers accountable for misconduct by requiring thorough, independent investigations after such incidents. This is an important step toward accountability but we must be fearless in tackling the systemic racism that is embedded in our criminal justice system, our government, and every facet of our society head-on.”
Crow said the bill seeks to ensure police investigations into deaths and injuries caused by police are transparent and accountable through some mechanism of independence.
The fallout from McClain’s death spurred months of protests in the city and marked Aurora as an epicenter of police accountability in the country. It was also, in part, what prompted state legislators to pass a bellwether police reform law in Colorado last summer.
Qusair Mohamedbhai, the attorney now representing McClain’s mother, Sheneen, commended Crow’s efforts.
“Ms. McClain appreciates the kindness of Representative Crow and his staff,” Mohamedbhai wrote in an email. “He has always been attentive to her positions on reducing police violence and increasing police accountability if violence occurs.”
Aurora NAACP President Omar Montgomery said the legislation may be a tool that helps the criminal justice system regain trust, especially after highly-publicized deaths like McClain’s and countless others across the country.
“In the cases that have been publicized you begin to see a disparity in how they’re handled,” he said. “One city might release the body camera footage. Another might say they don’t want to compromise the investigation. There needs to be some uniformity so people can gain trust in the system.”
Following a string of high-profile scandals within the Aurora Police Department, police oversight has remained at the forefront of conversation in the city in recent months. A panel of more than a dozen residents recently released their recommendations regarding how a new police oversight board should look in the state’s third-largest burg. The suggestions came shortly after City Manager Jim Twombly announced the forthcoming creation of a city monitor’s office designed to serve as an ombudsman for Aurora police.
With eyes toward enhancing those efforts, Crow’s bill threatens to withhold federal grant dollars from states that don’t comply. The measure technically only imposes requirements on states that receive various grants from the Department of Justice, though all 50 states received some version of the specified funding in 2020, according to federal statistics.
The so-called justice assistance grants can be used to underwrite myriad programs related to policing, prosecution, indigent defense, jailing, drug treatment and mental health programs, among others, according to the justice department.
In 2020, Aurora received $187,111 in justice assistance grant funding, and Arapahoe County netted $23,801. Adams County was given nearly $43,000 and Douglas County got just south of $27,500. Across the state, more than $1.4 million was doled out.
Another area of funding mentioned in Crow’s measure, the community-oriented policing section of the DOJ, has given out some $14 billion for various projects in the past 30 years.
In the metro area last year, both Arvada and Northglenn were handed $500,000 to add four officers to their respective departments. Aurora hasn’t received a COPS grant in recent years, according to federal records.
While he sees the need for such accountability programs, Montgomery also highlighted how crucial funding is to make them happen. Crow’s bill would create a grant program, in addition to the accountability requirements, for states that implement new independent investigation statutes.
“Along with legislation, we need funding,” Montgomery said. “They (cities and municipalities) need resources so we don’t set them up for failure.”
If passed, Crow’s measure would give states three years before losing federal funding.