Omnibus police reform bill clears first Colorado legislative committee on party line vote

State Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver addresses protesters at the state Capitol June 2. She and other lawmakers are chief sponsors of an omnibus police reform bill passed 3-2 in a Senate committee June 4. PHOTO BY GRANT STRINGER, Staff Writer

DENVER | As hundreds of demonstrators gathered for another night at the state Capitol to protest the death of George Floyd, a hulking criminal justice reform package cleared its first hurdle in the state legislature Thursday following hours of testimony from attorneys, law enforcement officials and crime victims.

Democratic sponsors of the bill and protesters alike say the measures outlined in the legislation are long overdue. 

Lawmakers on a state senate panel voted 3-2 to approve Senate Bill 217, which was announced earlier this week and is being quickly shepherded through the halls of the state Capitol in an effort to get the measure passed before the current session ends. Two Republicans on the panel opposed the measure. 

If passed, the expansive measure would, among a slew of other stipulations, require all local police officers in the state to wear body cameras, instill harsher punishments on officers found guilty of using inappropriate physical force and make it easier for citizens to sue cops who infringe on their constitutional rights.

Among the most contested proposals in the measure was a call to remove the so-called good faith defense for local law enforcement officials. The doctrine often shields police from civil suits following actions that are later determined to be unconstitutional. Existing law allows police to use deadly force to arrest or prevent the escape of a person when that person is using a deadly weapon or likely to cause imminent danger. 

Sen. Rhonda Fields, a sponsor of the bill, introduced an amendment adding that defense back into the measure during Thursday’s hearing. The amendment passed on a 4-1 vote.

Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, who said there’s a lot in the bill he supports, like ending the use of chokeholds and collecting more data, blasted parts of the bill in a conversation with The Sentinel on Thursday. 

“The biggest problem with this bill, though, and it is devastating what they have done, is to the good faith exception for civil liability,” he said.It’s so anti-local law enforcement, I couldn’t come up with something else that they could do other than them slipping in: If you violate someone’s constitutional rights, ever, you could get put to death.”  

The measure would also subject cops who fail to intervene in violent acts carried out by other police officers to future civil suits.

The state District Attorneys’ Council on Thursday issued a statement of support for many aspects of the expansive bill, including the increased use of body cameras.

“District attorneys and many in the law enforcement community believe any peace officer who is convicted of inappropriate use of force should be terminated and support the elimination of the fleeing felon rule, banning the use of chokeholds by peace officers, increasing the use of body cams and creating a statewide tracking system within the Attorney General’s office of officers who are untruthful, decertified or terminated. We also encourage creating a duty for officers to intervene when another officer is violating the law,” a spokesman for the council wrote in a statement. “These changes in law can happen in the next week if legislators will come together on these issues with bipartisan support and not let areas of disagreement derail the good we can accomplish in this moment.”

But many protesters at the state Capitol building Thursday night supported repealing the so-called good faith provision and lowering the threshold to sue a peace officer.

“I’m all for it,” said Toba Unuigbui. He sat on near the west steps of the Capitol moments before a massive crowd entered the area chanting “black lives matter.”
Unuigbui said the legal threshold is too high for a civilian to take a violent cop to court.
Sergio Guess, who manned a signature-gathering booth for ballot initiatives in Denver’s nearby Civic Center Park, said he didn’t trust local district attorneys and police reviews to hold violence cops accountable.
“I think police reform, I think all of that is necessary,” Guess said. “Because you need to trust law enforcement.”

Other amendments to the bill, which were passed, include exempting district attorneys, as they are considered peace officers in Colorado, limiting the release of some body camera videos and allowing officers to collect some demographic data on stops from looking through means such as prior arrest records. 

While the bill would require all local law enforcement officers to wear body cameras, there are concerns about the cost. According to the bill’s fiscal note, it would cost approximately $120,000 to outfit a force of about 100 officers. 

The Colorado Municipal League is “pleading” for funding for those body cameras and the storage needed to keep all of that body camera footage. Aurora currently pays about $24,000 per month for camera data storage.

The bill now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee.