DENVER | Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Friday signed into law a broad police accountability and reform bill introduced amid protests over the police killing of George Floyd.
Polis signed Senate Bill 217 after a series of passionate and emotional speeches highlighting the death and injury of blacks during local and national confrontations with police. The deaths resulted in recent waves of protests in Colorado and across the country, set in motion by the murder of George Floyd last month.
“Black Americans specifically deserve to feel safe in our neighborhoods, to go for a run, walking to a convenience store, watching birds in a park, interacting with police or just being in their own homes,” Polis said, referring to a catalogue of now infamous recent incidents where black Americans have been harassed or killed, often by police.
Polis lauded protesters and passionate supporters from across the political and racial spectrum “echoing the righteous refrain that black — lives — matter.”
Other elected officials agreed.
“To our allies, our partners, our protesters, to the citizens of Colorado, who came out here to protest, I want you to know that we heard your cry, and the people of Colorado did not look away,” said state Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora. Fields was a prime sponsor of the bill.
The parents of Elijah McClain looked on during the signing and speeches. McClain died at the hands of Aurora police last August after being confronted while unarmed walking home from a store. The McClain case has recently garnered national attention as controversy over the deaths of black Americans has drawn historic protests and government reaction.
“This will not bring back Elijah McClain or De’Von Bailey, but their deaths will not be in vain,” state Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver said in a statement after the signing. Harod was prime sponsor of the bill. She also lauded protesters and victim family members who have taken up the fight for reform.
Fields also tabbed victim families for their work.
“I know what strength it takes to stand on your grief and seek justice for your loved ones,” Fields said. Her own son and his fiancé were killed in 2005 when they became witnesses to a shooting and eventually targets of the perpetrators. The deaths prompted Fields to seek change in witness protection laws and eventually seek elected office.
She talked passionately Friday about the need for police reform in Colorado based on the treatment of black residents for years, criticizing the response of some police during confrontations with blacks.
“Don’t just pick up your gun and shoot somebody in the back,” Fields said, explaining how part of the new law removes nearly automatic exemptions for police to use deadly force for subjective reasons. Another part of the law creates a database of officers disciplined or fired for inappropriate behavior and use of force.
“Just like you (police) have information on us, now we will have information on you,” Fields said.
Herod, said the measure was pushed over the finish line even though she and others have spent years working for reform.
“Law enforcement, for too long, has been able to target communities of color, without retribution, without accountability, and without the integrity we expect from those who are there to serve and protect us,” Herod said.
She said the measure is the result of work with police, victims and others to change the culture of policing and restore trust.
Herod said an integral part of the bill removes the so-called “fleeing felon” clause that allows police to shoot at someone of they think they might cause harm to anyone. She added that the clause has ties to Jim Crow laws and is the standard explanation given when blacks are shot in the back by police.
“We’ve seen it happen all too often,” Herod said. “The presence of blackness is a threat to too many, and it should never be an excuse to kill someone.”
Lawmakers touted the new law as historic.
Colorado is one of several states and cities considering proposals aimed at limiting excessive force and increasing accountability after Floyd, a black man, died May 25 when a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on his neck for nearly eight minutes.
Polis, a Democrat, said the new law will help restore trust between law enforcement and the community and that “black Americans deserve to feel safe.”
“We cannot go back to normal,” Polis said. “We need to create a new normal where everybody’s rights are respected.”
The measure eliminates the qualified immunity defense that protects police officers from lawsuits and it now allows them to be sued for misconduct.
The law also bans chokeholds and limits other uses of force and prohibits police from aiming non-lethal weapons like tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters’ heads, pelvises or backs.
The new law requires all local and Colorado State Patrol officers who have contact with the public to be equipped with body cameras by July 1, 2023. Unedited footage from body cameras must be released to the public within 21 days of the filing of misconduct complaints.
The law bars police from using deadly force against suspects they believe are armed unless there is an imminent threat of a weapon being used as suspects attempt to escape
Grand juries under the law will be required to release reports when they decide against charging officers accused in deaths.
Also present during the signing were fellow prime sponsors state Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez and Senate President Leroy Garcia.
The state Legislature overwhelmingly approved the bill 10 days after it was introduced on June 3.
“This is not the end,” said Gonzales-Gutierrez. “This is one small step and there is a tremendous amount of work ahead of us.”