State lawmakers, impacted Aurora families announce police oversight bill

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State Representative Leslie Herod speaks to a crowd gathered outside the state Capitol building on June 2, 2020. A group of lawmakers announced a bill that aims to establish an independent review of violent police officers. (Photo by Grant Stringer/Sentinel Colorado)

DENVER | State lawmakers and families of Aurora police brutality victims announced a sweeping police oversight bill Tuesday before a raucous crowd at the state Capitol. 

Aurora Sen. Rhonda Fields and the family of Elijah McClain, a young black man who died days after being restrained by Aurora police and sedated with ketamine last year, joined Denver Rep. Leslie Herod, Senate President Leroy Garcia and other lawmakers to announce the bill that seeks to establish independent review of violent police officers.

A copy of the bill was not immediately available Tuesday afternoon. It remains unclear how exactly the measure would establish oversight of police.

But the bill’s announcement became its own rallying cry at the Capitol, where hundreds had again gathered to protest the death of George Floyd and Colorado victims of police violence. 

“We’re saying enough is enough,” Fields said, as the crowd roared. 

“Your voices and your cries have been heard,” Herod added. 

Herod floated several policy changes that would be addressed if the bill is introduced, clears the state legislature and wins the approval of Gov. Jared Polis. Namely, she said law enforcement officers would face harsher penalties for infractions that occur while on the job. That could potentially weaken the so-called “qualified immunity” doctrine, which stipulates that officers who act erroneously but don’t blatantly and knowingly break the law cannot be sued, according to Elisabeth Epps, a self-described abolitionist who introduced the state congressional delegation Tuesday. 

Aurora City Councilperson Curtis Gardner, who serves as vice chair of the city’s public safety policy committee, has also publicly called to abolish the contentious doctrine. 

It’s past time to discuss reforms to our criminal justice system to make sure we protect constitutional rights, maintain the rule of law and value human life,” Gardner wrote in a statement issued Monday night. “Some of these needed reforms include ending qualified immunity, increasing the use of rehabilitation programs & alternatives to incarceration in our prison system, moving away from mandatory minimum prison sentences and more. Changes like these will improve outcomes, save lives and make the job of law enforcement easier.”

Herod also said “bad” police officers couldn’t begin working at another police department if convicted of offenses.

Elijah McClain’s mother, Sheneen, also spoke and told a Sentinel reporter she supports the proposal. 

If the bill were to pass, Sheneen McClain said she’s optimistic it would provide an avenue to re-open an investigation into her son’s death last August. Adams County District Attorney Dave Young declined to levy criminal charges in November against the officers involved in McClain’s death. That decision sowed further unrest after months of protests at city council meetings and in front of the Aurora Municipal Center.

Earlier this year, City Councilperson Nicole Johnston helped assemble a task force intended to explore the possibility of creating a separate entity that could review contentious police interactions in Aurora. The exploratory task force’s initial meetings have been indefinitely postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Johnston is expected to discuss the process for the task force with Mayor Mike Coffman on an Aurora TV segment later this week.

LaQuana Gardner also spoke as the bill rolled out. She’s the partner of De’Von Bailey, a Colorado Springs man shot down by police. 

Gardner was roiled that the police officers involved are still living freely while her partner is dead. The officers involved were not charged. It’s a case that has also produced additional calls for oversight of police officers. 

The niece of Michael Marshall, who was killed by Denver Sheriff’s deputies in November 2015, also voiced her frustrations.

“They get to go to their families,” Natalia Marshall said. “I’ll never be able to see my uncle again.”

— Sentinel staff writers Kara Mason and Quincy Snowdon contributed to this report