DENVER – Colorado’s House on Friday overwhelmingly passed legislation to improve police accountability and transparency after an emotional debate that underscored the nation’s focus on the role of law enforcement amid weeks of protests over the death of George Floyd.
Among other measures, the bill requires all local and Colorado State Patrol officers who have contact with the public to be equipped with body cameras by July 1, 2023 – two years later than originally proposed – and requires that unedited footage be released to the public within 21 days of a misconduct complaint being filed.
It bans the use of chokeholds and bars police from aiming tear gas or rubber bullets at protesters’ heads, pelvises or backs. Many protesters in Denver were struck and injured by the non-lethal pellets during protests over Floyd’s death.
The bill, which was changed in response to some issues raised by law enforcement, also would allow police officers to be sued for misconduct by getting rid of the qualified immunity defense that generally protects government workers from lawsuits
Friday’s 52-13 vote sends the bill back to the Senate, which had overwhelmingly passed the legislation, for consideration of amendments. Democratic Gov. Jared Polis is expected to sign it.
Similar bills addressing police accountability have been introduced in legislatures in Minnesota, New York and Oregon in response to Black Lives Matter protests.
Floyd, a black man, died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee on his neck for several minutes. His May 25 death prompted global protests against police brutality and racial injustice.
Several representatives cried as they advocated for the bill. Some took time to recognize the family of Elijah McClain in attendance. McClain, a 23-year-old black man, died in Aurora last year after police confronted him as he walked to a store and took him into custody. Aurora police subsequently banned chokeholds; one was used on McClain.
“We are not out in front of this. You know, people feel like or said we should wait and really stake-hold this more. These families would say it is past time,” said Democratic Rep. Adrienne Benavidez.
Rep. Rod Bockenfeld was one of several Republicans who cautioned the rush to pass the bill before the coronavirus-abbreviated legislative session ends this weekend was “driven on emotion” and asked for more time.
Bockenfeld said that the issue of accountability for officers following higher-up commands like using teargas or rubber bullets at protests wasn’t accounted for. “If they obey, they personally get sued; if they refuse to obey, they could lose their jobs. Doesn’t seem fair,” he said.
Democratic Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp said feedback from police officers was included in later drafts of the bill. She read a letter from a local sheriff who commended the collaboration between law enforcement and legislators.
Some Republicans maintained that the vast majority of law enforcement officers don’t need the bill’s requirements. Democrats said the issue of police excessive force against minorities has existed in Colorado for generations – a culture perpetuated by a lack of acknowledgement and updated training.
Speaking remotely from her home, Rep. Janet Buckner, who is black, shared lessons she told her son when he was learning how to drive.
“If the police stop you, put your hands on the steering wheel. Be polite. Don’t be flip. If the officer ask you for your driver license, ask him for permission to take that driver’s license out of your pocket,” she told the chamber.
She continued, “Have any of you ever had to tell your child that? It’s called driving while black.”
Republican Rep. Richard Champion announced he was changing his vote to “yes” after listening to Buckner. “You convinced me that it is time to effectuate some change,” he told her.
Some were overwhelmed speaking about the bill, including Democratic Rep. Lisa Cutter. “This will be one of the best things I’ve ever done,” she said, tearing up over the mic.
Patty Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.