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Aurora police line up in riot gear during a protest in summer 2020. Photo by Robert Sanchez
2020: The Year That Changed Everything

How 2020 Has Affected the Way We Hold Law Enforcement Accountable

This year, Colorado passed one of the most thorough police accountability bills in the country. How it impacts the state remains to be seen.

It took just 17 days—and years of protests against police forces’ unequal and often violent treatment of Black communities—for the Police Integrity Transparency and Accountability Act to become state law in Colorado.

Also called Senate Bill 217 (SB217), the bill makes a number of changes designed to reform policing across Colorado. Among them is to end qualified immunity—a legal principle that protects public officials who cause harm while performing their jobs from lawsuits—for police officers, meaning citizens can more easily sue officers and sheriff’s deputies. Colorado is the first state in the nation to end qualified immunity.

SB217 also banned chokeholds, required all officers to wear body cameras, and got rid of the “fleeing felon” statute, which allowed officers to shoot a person running away as long as they were suspected of a felony and had a weapon. And now, officers who use deadly force in Colorado must bear the burden of proving that they, or the public, faced an immediate threat. The bill, which received bipartisan support, passed decisively, with Governor Jared Polis signing it into law on June 19, after it was introduced on June 2 by Colorado Representative Leslie Herod and a group of Democratic legislators.

For those protesting in Colorado following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, SB217’s swift passage represents an enormous step forward for the state. “It was the most comprehensive police accountability bill in the country,” says Apryl Alexander, a community organizer for Black Lives Matter 5280, but she says that although there have been some promising signs, it’s too early to know whether the act will change police behavior—and activists say it’s up to the public to continue pressuring officials for accountability.

Waiting Game

Concrete data about police conduct under SB217 will be collected, but that information is several years away: SB217 orders the Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training (P.O.S.T.) board to maintain a database detailing, among other things, if a peace officer has been decertified. It also requires the Colorado Department of Public Safety to create a publicly available database with a slew of information about police conduct, including all uses of force that result in death or serious bodily injury. The former will not be available until 2022; the latter, 2023.

Until then, Alexander says, activists need to be vigilant. “I think, in this moment, we’re just kind of waiting to see if that bill is going to be effective, and as effective as we think,” she says. “There’s going to be a period of time where we just need to monitor the changes.”

Some activists are using current police behavior as a barometer for how departments are reacting to increased public scrutiny, though readings are fuzzy. The number of Denver Police Department internal affairs investigations resulting from complaints against officers increased slightly this year. From January 1 to November 19, a total of 466 cases were opened, compared to 438 during the same time period in 2019, according to Doug Schepman, a spokesperson for the Denver Police Department. With many of the cases still open, though, it’s difficult to draw conclusions about whether accountability within the department has increased. Schepman declined to comment on current investigations, but he did tell 5280 via email that “the Denver Police Department takes allegations of misconduct and inappropriate force seriously and works to ensure those cases are fully investigated, while working in concert with the Office of the Independent Monitor,” the civilian oversight agency that monitors the Denver Police and Denver Sheriff Departments’ disciplinary systems to ensure officers are effectively held accountable.

Lillian House, an organizer with the Denver branch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), can’t help looking back at this summer’s protests, pointing to departmental use of chemical agents and other less-lethal weapons against protesters: “Even with the national attention, they acted violently, often right in front of the media,” she says. “I think it was eye-opening for a lot of people and underscores the urgency of continuing to push for more police accountability.”

She knows of what she speaks: House was arrested on September 17 and charged with 12 felonies for her role in this summer’s protests, including attempted first-degree kidnapping and inciting a riot, as were several other members of the Denver PSL, an anti-capitalism group that frequently organizes protests against social injustices such as mass-incarceration and police brutality. The PSL released a statement denouncing the charges, which House says are trumped up and designed to silence protesters. “The political nature of this attack shows the police and the rest of the justice system aren’t interested in being held accountable,” House says.

Sue Lindsay and Vikki Migoya, spokespersons for the Offices of the District Attorney overseeing the 17th and the 18th judicial districts, respectively, told 5280 that their offices do not talk about open cases outside the courtroom and declined to comment. Dave Young, district attorney of the 17th Judicial District, previously told Denverite that “there is a difference between a peaceful protest and a riot” when discussing the charges brought against the protesters.

What Senate Bill 217 Doesn’t Do

One weakness of the bill, according to Alexander, is that district attorneys and prosecutors—the people who are supposed to bring charges against officers accused of violating the law—did not lose qualified immunity. “When they act in bad faith and don’t pursue charges or undercharge for instances of police brutality, what accountability is there for them?” Alexander asks.

Such concerns are not without precedent. Young infuriated people in Aurora and beyond when he did not bring criminal charges against the Aurora police officers involved in the death of Elijah McClain in 2019. Governor Jared Polis since issued an executive order reopening the case, naming Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser as special prosecutor—though he will be investigating the officers involved in McClain’s death, not Young’s professional conduct.

House says she’s hopeful the state’s new investigation will deliver justice for McClain, but she’s still being vigilant. She points to the case of Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed this summer in her Louisville, Kentucky, apartment by police executing a no-knock warrant (Taylor’s boyfriend says he fired his gun at the officers because he believed they were intruders; the officers’ return-fire killed Taylor). In September, protests erupted when two of the three officers involved in the shooting were not indicted by a grand jury. The third officer was charged with wanton endangerment for firing recklessly toward the neighbor’s apartment. Several grand jurors later expressed frustration that the prosecutor never brought more serious charges against the officers involved.

“We would hate to see something like that reproduced here,” House says. “With the experience that we have seeing how so many police murder investigations play out, we have to look at any investigation with the utmost scrutiny.”

Public Pressure

No matter the impact of SB217, House and Alexander agree that it’s just a starting point. “Every piece of legislation that limits the amount of destruction the police are able to cause in our community, that’s a positive,” House says. “But it’s by no means a total solution that will end the violence of the police.”

Coloradans must continue calling for better police accountability in order to continue SB217’s momentum, Alexander says. “I think this year, despite communities of color talking about the issue of police violence for decades and even centuries, more people are becoming aware of it,” Alexander says. Videos of police violence against communities of color are appearing with ever-increasing frequency, she says, and when people saw the footage of George Floyd during stay-at-home orders, there was little to distract them. “That propelled the Black Lives Matter movement more than ever because so many people were seeing the injustices.”

But, she says, this isn’t the first instance of mass protest demanding police accountability in the United States. The killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, Philando Castile, and others sparked outrage, but after calls for change, the public response has mostly fallen silent. Alexander fears that, now that Joe Biden won the presidential election, complacency might settle in again. “We’ve had this flood of individuals who are interested in supporting the movement and have showed up in so many different ways,” Alexander says. “There’s going to be more efforts beyond 217 that we still need to address as a community. We’re not done yet.”

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