Colorado Democrats made it clear last year that they wanted to rethink policing. This year, they’re doubling down.
In the coming weeks, Democrats who run the legislature are primed to introduce a series of proposals that will, among other things, limit use of the sedative ketamine by first responders; limit and/or ban no-knock warrants; and, as Senate President Leroy Garcia put it, “demilitarize” police forces by restricting their use of military surplus vehicles and equipment.
Colorado is the only state in the U.S. to have stripped police of qualified immunity — which often protects cops from being sued — as part of last year’s law that was passed and signed after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police. The state also already banned chokeholds, required police departments to better track “use of force” incidents and introduced civil penalties for cops who don’t intervene in excessive force cases.
Lawmakers plan to expand on the 2020 law by getting rid of qualified immunity from Colorado State Patrol and Colorado Bureau of Investigation personnel. Both parties appear on board with that, and last year’s law had broad support at the Capitol — including from many of the most conservative members of the legislature. But Republican interest in other Democratic ideas may not be as strong now.
“This is the problem with people who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about,” Republican Sen. John Cooke said as he looked out over the Senate floor Thursday morning. “Nobody here has law enforcement experience. Most the experience they have is watching ‘Law and Order.’”
Cooke has experience. He was the Weld County sheriff from 2002 to 2014, and is not happy that “people are trying to tell law enforcement what to do when they don’t know what they’re talking about,” especially on things like no-knock warrants (which happened in the Taylor case in Kentucky) and on military surplus vehicles, which police deployed in great numbers in response to last year’s protests.
“I think it is too soon,” Cooke said.
Amy Fletcher Faircloth, a spokeswoman for the associations that represent Colorado sheriffs, police chiefs and the state’s largest police union, said it’s never too soon for good policy.
“The more important question is not whether it’s too much for law enforcement to implement but rather what’s the impact on public safety,” she said.
She added that law enforcement groups haven’t seen drafts of the coming proposals.
“When we don’t have a collaborative stakeholder process, including input from the professionals within public safety,” she said, “policies can be created that actually harm the populations we are trying to protect.”
Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pubelo, listens as Gov. Jared Polis delivers his state of the state address in front of the House of Representatives at the Colorado State Capitol Building on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021.
“Hammering a nail”
Garcia was a sponsor of last year’s reform bill, having been moved, he said, by the outpouring of anger and exasperation that played out in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood in May and June. The former Marine was also made uncomfortable by the police presence around the Capitol, with their riot gear, tear gas and military-style vehicles.
“I am aware, because I served in the Marine Corps, because I served in Iraq, of a culture that creates ‘We’re heavy handed, we’re gonna roll in there,’” Garcia said, holding up his fists and mimicking someone preparing to fight. “I don’t want to see a culture (in policing) become pervasive where they just feel like, ‘We have the authority.’”
He’s in talks with other supporters of “demilitarization,” including Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat who said she’s sympathetic to Cooke’s argument but intent on moving forward with a new set of reforms.
“Absolutely, you can’t keep hammering a nail and not give people the opportunity to address the policies we just put in place,” Fields said. “But there’s just too much work that needs to be done. I don’t want to keep pounding on law enforcement — ‘You’re not doing this right, not doing that right, so now do this instead’ — but it doesn’t mean that we stand still.”
If she had her way, the legislature would outright ban the use of ketamine by first responders. The issue was thrust into the spotlight after the death of Elijah McClain, who was violently arrested by Aurora police and then injected with a dose of ketamine later deemed excessive for his size.
Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who’s leading the ketamine bill, said that at a minimum, the state will force police to use the drug only when they’ve been able to weigh someone and can monitor that person’s vital signs on an ongoing basis.
Herod said she is also hoping to give the public access to scanner traffic across Colorado through a bill banning encrypted police scanners. Republican Rep. Kevin Van Winkle of Highlands Ranch has unsuccessfully led this effort for years, and said he’s not sure he’d sign onto a bill this year, though he believes the cause is more viable now than in years past.
“It’s very important that our press and public are able to access news firsthand as it’s happening,” he said.
Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, front left, speaks with Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, front right, during 2nd day of the 73rd General Assembly of the Colorado State Legislature in Denver on Thursday. Jan. 14, 2021.
New disclosure requirements
Transparency is an underlying theme of much of the coming police-related legislation, and not just from Democrats.
Cooke recently introduced a bill that aims to require police departments report officers with known credibility issues to district attorneys, who would share those records with defense attorneys and defendants. Garcia supports that idea, but wants to go further by making it so that police officers who’ve been disciplined repeatedly or are considered an unreliable witness to be fired.
“Should it be several strikes and you’re out? Could you have 15 of these challenges? We’re aware of some officers who’ve been written up in excess of 15 times,” he said. “Why should it be acceptable for taxpayers to have someone on the payroll (who) no longer has that standard of good standing in the court?”
A strict new disciplinary standard would be a major change for a state where more than 400 officers were found to have histories that could negatively affect their credibility in court, according to a December Denver Post investigation.
Smaller transparency measures are in the works, too, Herod said, like a new policy to force officers to display their name badges prominently.
“For so long they’ve not had anything, or not much,” in the way of new state-mandated restrictions, Herod said. “We’re talking about people’s lives here, their liberty. It’s important we get this right, (and) act swiftly and decidedly.”
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