EDITORIAL: Colorado push for police brutality reform risks failure without fundamental mandates

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One thing must guide efforts at the state Capitol and in addressing the complex and pervasive problem of how blacks and other minorities are mistreated by law enforcement: Police cannot be trusted to police themselves.

Amidst the overwhelming job of managing crises created by the virus pandemic, legislators are taking on the Herculean task of trying to reform police agencies under the pressure of unprecedented and righteous police brutality protests and developments.

The risk of making grave mistakes looms large as Senate Bill 217 is rushed through the Legislature. It’s critical lawmakers get this right, and the current version of the bill has serious problems.

Current law affords individual officers and agencies the benefit of the doubt that as they handle endless mundane and critical encounters with black people and other minorities. It assumes that every officer will enforce and uphold the law equally, professionally and without bias.

We truly believe that the vast majority of cops and deputies are allegiant to those critical qualities, but too many police officers in Aurora and across Colorado, are not. There’s no reason to believe that without fundamental changes to the law and drastic changes to policing, that the endless instances of brutality and racism will change.

Current state and local laws, and the very system overseeing police actions and agencies, are as much of the problem as are racist and brutal cops.

The current system suffers from three major problems that SB217 must address.

  • Police cannot police themselves, and incidents of alleged police wrongdoing must be assessed by truly independent, non-police-agency investigators. These investigations must be transparent and report to the public, not police. Agencies, cities and counties can created these independent panels, under state regulation.
  • Investigations into whether individual officers committed crimes in dealing with the public, and especially minorities, cannot be investigated by local district attorneys. Instead, criminal investigations, separate from independent assessments, must be handled by the state attorney general’s office using a grand jury system.
  • The law cannot continue to give blanket exceptions to police to maim or kill anyone they encounter based on the subjective notion that they feared for their own lives or the lives of others as an encounter unfolds.

SB 217 offers a variety of other important changes that will improve the quality and accountability of policing in the state. It mandates that all police officers use body cameras, and that they use them correctly during every encounter with the public. Lawmakers, however, cannot be cavalier in enacting the mandate without finding some way to help fund it. Body cameras are expensive to acquire and maintain. Despite the current state budget catastrophe, if it’s important enough to mandate, it’s important enough to pay for.

We disagree with legislators who say mandated cameras will net savings to police agencies through reduced wrongful death payouts. Aurora has paid and will pay millions to victims and their families even with, and probably due to, recorded police malfeasance. The cameras, however, still provide untold benefits to police and the public alike.

The current bill prohibits the use of so-called “choke holds” during police encounters with the public. But lawmakers must go further to include what police call “carotid” holds, which they use to force arrestees to faint. The practice is dangerous and cruel. Likewise, lawmakers must address the widespread use of ketamine and other sedatives forced on arrestees, which are equally dangerous.

But these propose changes are no substitute for independent assessments of whether individual officers and police agencies should be held accountable for controversial encounters with minorities and all of the public. Truly independent panels of local experts, fellow officers, laymen and others can and must deliver assessments of police actions.

Likewise, recent ghastly deaths and abuses of Aurora residents at the hands of police have been repeatedly dismissed by local district attorneys.  It doesn’t matter whether “suspects” were completely innocent of any wrongdoing at the time or whether they were being arrested for being outside the law. It’s the same in Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Denver, and across the state. The law must be changed to remove these criminal investigations from the same agencies that work with the same police agencies to prosecute the public. The task should be given to grand juries made up of the public, guided by prosecutors from the state’s attorney general.

Critically, while the law must address the reality of what it’s like for police to react instantly to potentially dangerous, complicated matters during often chaotic encounters, it cannot simply state, as it does now, that anything goes if the officer perceives the threat as serious. Such a standard is neither provable nor disprovable, and it accounts for every instance of local prosecutors letting errant police off the hook.

Legislators should pull that most difficult task from this bill, enact the other important changes, and find a way to address police exemptions in separate legislation. If they fail to solve the “exemption” problem during the current abbreviated and chaotic session, independent assessments and grand juries may help provide justice where, clearly, the current process has not.

While these proposed changes are substantial and promising, the heavy lifting in the most effective reform efforts will come from local city councils, county commissions and the police departments they oversee.

Lawmakers have created an important and long-overdue frame for reforming police agencies statewide, but without truly independent, transparent accountability, and without moving the criminal assessment of police actions away from local district attorneys, the biggest problems in Aurora and across the state will continue.