EDITORIAL: Colorado protesters, leaders deserve praise for historic police reform feats — which are unfinished

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Protestors and police, including Chief Vanessa Wilson, center, kneel together for eight minutes and 46 seconds, June 2, 2020, during a peaceful protest against police brutality, following the death of George Floyd. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel ColoradoProtestors and police, including Chief Vanessa Wilson, center, kneel together for eight minutes and 46 seconds, June 2, 2020, during a peaceful protest against police brutality, following the death of George Floyd. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Color

Colorado shouldn’t rush past the historic accomplishments made last week to recognize and end the longstanding scourge of racism and brutality plaguing police departments across the state.

Nor should anyone think the problems are now solved.

Despite the onslaught of multiple state crises, every resident, every government official and every police officer in the state should take a moment to reflect on the monumental changes set in motion last week, and take great pride in the achievements.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators protested peacefully and relentlessly across the state, risking their own lives. The murder of George Floyd became a tipping point for black Americans and others fed up with seeing the lethal result of unchecked racism and police brutality.

All of Colorado is indebted to the army of peaceful protesters. If not for them, their diligence, their passion and their persistence, change would not be coming to Colorado and its police departments.

A new army of government and police officials are now ceding the relentless racial bias in Colorado’s police systems and among the ranks. The mere public admission of systemic racism and abuse within police departments — a view nearly unanimous among elected and appointed leaders from across the political spectrum — is a colossal feat.

This is a world where even the most mundane of state issues become fodder for immutable partisan battles. Colorado legislators, however, set warring politics aside for this crisis. Legislators created a strong and powerful bipartisan consensus to tackle an issue that has been among the most polarizing problems in the state and the nation. They are to be lauded for having overcome decades of resistance to change by creating substantive reforms spelled out in Senate Bill 217.

The bill addresses a bevy of issues:

  • It mandates the use of police body cams and requires speedier release of footage to the public.
  • The measure ends legal carte blanc for police to use deadly force during interactions with the public based on subjective standards prosecutors could never overcome. 
  • It requires police to intervene if they see fellow officers using excessive force.
  • It tracks fired and disciplined officers, preventing them from rehire in different police agencies.
  • The measure empowers the state attorney general to sue problematic police departments.
  • It forbids the use of chokeholds by police. 
  • The bill collects a wide range of data from police departments focusing on the issues of racism and brutality, setting up an expectation of accountability.

Every one of these changes are important steps toward ensuring better police forces and restoring public trust.

In Aurora and Denver, police and city officials moved ahead of the state, banning lethal holds, especially the use of so-called carotid-holds, causing subjects to faint.

Aurora Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson has focused on “a duty to intervene” when fellow officers exhibit racism or use excessive force during interactions with the public. Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen has repeatedly made guarantees to move his department through reforms. Individual officers, unions and associations across the state have joined and even lead efforts for reform. 

Aurora city lawmakers have almost unanimously pushed their nascent citizen reform task force forward, providing the committee with latitude and energy.

Almost every one of these important changes have united polarized leaders on an issue that has previously created stalemates for generations. That is an astounding accomplishment. 

But the admirable alliances and promising legislation are only a foundation to build on.

The real victories will come from police who feel so confident and empowered that they check the inevitable fellow officer who either purposely or inadvertently mistreats minorities or misuses police power.

Success will come from fundamental changes in police departments that scale back a widespread evolution toward militarization and returns to community oriented police practices, which Aurora was once famous for.

Critically missing from these successes, so far, are mandates for truly independent oversight mechanisms of police departments. Restoring and bolstering public trust in police departments will never happen without independent review of police and full, unfettered reporting directly to the public. It will take the same commitment that has pushed the issue this far.

All of Colorado needs to acknowledge what’s just been accomplished and commit to building on these successes and getting the job done.