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Last Tuesday—amidst nationwide protests in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police—State Representative Leslie Herod and a group of Democratic legislators introduced a bill that would hold Colorado law enforcement more accountable. Just 10 days later, that proposed legislation is on the verge of becoming law. After passing the state Senate (32-1) on Tuesday, the bill cleared the House (52-13) on Friday; Governor Jared Polis is expected to affix his signature to Senate Bill 217 in the coming days.
“Don’t let anyone tell you that protesting doesn’t work or isn’t productive,” said Herod on Tuesday after the bill passed the Senate with near unanimous support. “For several days now, Coloradans have been protesting in the thousands, demanding justice for George Floyd. They have been venting their anger and frustration at the many Black and brown people killed at the hands of law enforcement, which, let’s be clear, is happening within our own Colorado communities. SB217 is, in part, an answer to their call.”
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Every Democrat in the General Assembly said they supported the bill immediately after it was introduced. It originally featured a wide range of provisions: preventing police from working in a new city after being fired for using excessive force in another municipality, requiring the use of body cameras, banning officers from using chokeholds, and abolishing qualified immunity—which prevents public officials from being sued in the event they cause serious harm to an individual—for police officers.
Most of the initial measures remain intact, but some adjustments were made to assuage Republican concerns about the bill being too far-reaching. For example, the bill originally mandated that all law enforcement interactions must be recorded and released to the public within two weeks. Now, video should only be released within 14 days if there is an allegation of police misconduct. Another change allows police officers to obtain insurance they can use in the event they’re sued. In the first version, officers would have had to pay for a lawsuit of up to $100,000 on their own.
“I was so upset and mad when I first saw the bill,” said Republican Senator and former Weld County Sheriff John Cooke, who ultimately decided to support it following the alterations. “[The main sponsors] worked with us, and they worked with law enforcement, and they changed our concerns.”
Other amendments expanded the scope of the bill even further: Senator Mike Foote, a Democrat from Lafayette, added a measure that prohibits the use of deadly force unless law enforcement faces an imminent threat. Previously, police officers could resort to deadly force if they reasonably feared for their life or the life of a colleague, a determination that ultimately relies on an officer’s subjective understanding of a situation. Other additions prevent the use of tear gas without adequate warning and require police to document every time an officer unholsters or fires their weapon.
Once the bill made it to the House, it engendered emotional and sometimes controversial discussion. During testimony on Thursday night, representative Larry Liston, a Republican from Colorado Springs, said, “I am not justifying anything that that officer or the other three did at all. I want to be very clear about that. But George Floyd was no angel either. He was in and out of prison.”
Perhaps the most impassioned pleas, though, came from Representative Jovan Melton, a Democrat from Aurora. “Every year we do the Martin Luther King Jr. resolution,” he said. “Every single year. And it passes unanimously every single year. But now what? This is the what. This bill.”
“It shouldn’t have taken this long,” Herod said in a statement following the bill’s passage in the House. “The community has been pleading for law enforcement reform for generations now, and today we answered their plea.”