How Colorado found the political will to pass a police reform law

By the time gunshots rang out near the State Capitol in the early evening on May 28, most Colorado state lawmakers already had left for the day. But none of them would mistake the change in the air outside in the days ahead.

A large crowd had assembled that evening to protest the recent police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It was the first mass demonstration in what would turn into a weeks-long protest of systemic racism and American policing that’s played out not only in Denver but in cities and towns across the country.

Those shots injured no one — and may have been fired from outside the crowd, onlookers said — but their sound sent many scrambling around and into the Capitol. Among them was state Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who chairs the state’s Black Democratic Legislative Caucus.

As the increasingly volatile situation played out that night, it deepened a drive in Herod, and soon others, to respond to the pain and outrage being expressed by those early demonstrators. The result was a sweeping police accountability measure written and passed at a near-record pace, drawing once-unthinkable support, and signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis on Friday morning.

One of Herod’s co-lead sponsors on that bill, state Senate President Leroy Garcia, was inside the Capitol on that first day of protest, and he heard the gunshots, too.

A couple hours later, as a mostly peaceful rally began to devolve into a show of tremendous force by the Denver Police Department — it was the first of several nights in which police deployed tear gas and pepper balls, among other weapons, on citizens — demonstrators smashed Garcia’s pickup truck, parked just outside the Capitol, beyond repair. It was one of many acts of vandalism that night.

Herod and Garcia soon got to talking about a legislative response. Garcia recalled how he felt watching that night.

“What I took from that is this is a public outcry is that has to be addressed,” he said. “There are so few times that I’ve ever seen so many people show up to the Capitol. What they were advocating was: Do something. Be responsive. Be leaders.”

They’d both been interested earlier this year in potential police reforms, but they tabled those ideas when the coronavirus pandemic halted the session, and then dramatically shortened it once lawmakers reconvened in late May.

But now things were different. Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat and the only person of color in leadership in either chamber, is a mostly passive figure despite his position of power, but his early leadership on such a hot-button issue was notable

“We looked at each other and said, ‘We have to run a bill,’ ” said Herod, who by contrast is an outspoken criminal justice reform advocate who frequently has a hand in progressive crime-related bills. “His words to me were, ‘I would be honored.’ ”

Within 48 hours, they had agreed to run the bill that would become SB-217.

“Business as usual”

The bill proposed to end qualified immunity for law enforcement officers — which effectively has shielded them from personal liability for their professional actions — and to require prompter release of body-worn camera footage. The final version also bans chokeholds and carotid holds; introduces potential criminal charges for officers who fail to try to stop colleagues from using excessive force; creates a public database of officers who have been decertified, fired, found to be untruthful or in violation of training standards; and significantly increases citizen protections from police tear gas and projectiles.

The bill was introduced June 3, and by then all Democrats in the legislature had promised to support it. That alone would’ve been enough to carry the bill, since Democrats hold majorities in both the House and Senate.

But the sponsors picked up substantial Republican backing along the way, especially in the Senate. Ultimately the bill received “no” votes from just 15 of the 100 state lawmakers.

By June 15, just before the legislative session ended, the bill was on its way to the governor, who chose the morning of June 19 — Juneteenth, a commemoration of the end of U.S. slavery — to make it state law.

Polis said he was proud to sign it.

“Things cannot go back to normal,” he said. “We need to create a new normal where black Americans feel safe … and where black lives matter.”

In just 16 days, SB-217 went from a big, radical idea to a historic new law. That’s nearly unheard of in state government.

“There have been times where I thought my world was upside down,” said Denise Maes of the ACLU of Colorado, who has a hand in most any recent major police or criminal justice bill at the Capitol.

What’s especially remarkable to reform advocates — and even those who call themselves police abolitionists — is that the bill was not watered down during its numerous committee hearings and floor debates, as can easily happen with proposals of this magnitude.

“It’s definitely not business as usual,” Maes said.

In Colorado in recent years, “business as usual” on police and criminal justice bills almost always has meant a distinct lack of teeth, a significant scale-back — or an outright rejection.

Business as usual produced a police accountability bill in 2019 that was intended to ensure that police officers found to have lied on the job would never work as cops again in Colorado. More than a year after its passage, it’s resulted in exactly zero officers being decertified.

Business as usual is the reason Colorado, seven years after legalizing recreational marijuana, has not expunged low-level pre-2013 pot convictions. State Rep. Jonathan Singer, a Longmont Democrat, says he’s been told an automatic mass expungement would require too much time and paperwork.

Business as usual has led lawmakers from both parties to vote against police scanner transparency bills the last three years in a row.

And business as usual resulted in the shelving of police reforms sought back in January by Herod, Garcia and others. Once the session resumed in late May — lawmakers had been off since March 14 — Herod said she lacked permission from House leadership to pursue proposals that included eliminating “fleeing felon” protections and installing a statewide independent police monitor.

In an interview about why he thought SB-217 was viable, state Rep. Matt Soper, a Delta Republican, said: “Back in March, if I’d taken similar language, I couldn’t have thrown the bill from one side of the hallway to the other without it dying. There certainly has been a major change. In government and public policy, there’s a window of opportunity, and you only have so long to go through it.” (Soper ended up voting against the bill, though he said “it was a protest vote against process, not substance.”)

“Responsibility to act”

Perhaps the greatest change has been a new willingness by lawmakers to challenge the law enforcement lobby.

“What typically happens is there’s an immediate line-up of law enforcement-related entities — the (police) chiefs association, the Fraternal Order of Police, the sheriffs — against any attempt to regulate what they do on a daily basis,” Maes said. “They’re usually joined by the county association, the Municipal League. So there’s this huge wall.

“And oftentimes, it’s the senators and the reps that tell me, ‘Oh, my police chief doesn’t like it,’ or, ‘My mayor doesn’t like it.’ And I’m always the one saying, ‘I don’t know if you know this, but you have more than one constituent in your district.’ ”

Before the pandemic recess, Soper proposed to eliminate qualified immunity for government officials but ended up killing his own bill in committee.

“To be brutally honest, I had to ask for it to be (killed) because of a lot of political pressure from the law enforcement lobby,” said Soper, adding that other Republicans threatened to run a primary challenger against him because of that bill.

Herod and Garcia said locking down support from every Capitol Democrat at the outset allowed them to negotiate on SB-217 from a position of strength. Republicans secured a series of amendments they said made them more comfortable — one key amendment reduced the amount of money for which an individual officer could be held liable for a civil rights violation — but they mostly did not fight the bill. The final vote in the Senate was 33-2.

There also was little resistance from the lobby. Rob Pride, national trustee for the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police, says he hopes law enforcement coming to the table on this bill demonstrates that they’re open to reform.

“I think, in any profession, … it’s human nature that we think only we know how best to do what we do,” Pride, who is black, told The Denver Post.

But, he added, police agencies are listening to the community’s demand for change: “A lot of people are angry with us right now, and we get that. But just remember that 99.99% of law enforcement are still out there working hard, still keeping the community safe and will keep doing that.”

Garcia also credited a larger awareness of public perceptions in recent weeks.

“I find it amazing,” he said. “In Pueblo, (police) still have had the chokehold” — a move that SB-217 bans — “and today, they’re like, ‘OK, we’re taking that out now.’ So what has changed? They’ve realized that people aren’t OK with them using that as a tactic.”

Herod, who’s used to opposition from the lobby and reluctant colleagues, expressed hope that lawmakers will retain the political will they mustered this spring when they return for next year’s session.

“I believe folks seeing the support they received from their constituents about this issue is helpful,” she said. “They’re starting to realize that these issues are real, and that they have the responsibility to act.”

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