A new law meant to enhance accountability in law enforcement in Colorado has caused at least two officers to leave their positions at the Durango Police Department, and several others to take time off to consider whether they want to continue as law enforcement officers.
Senate Bill 217, which Gov. Jared Polis signed into law in June, bans chokeholds, overhauls use of force and expands the use of body cameras across the state.
The law also requires the creation of a new statewide database to document the potential wrongdoing of police on duty and eliminates some litigation protections for officers.
The bill was developed by the Colorado Legislature in direct response to demonstrations from Denver to Durango demanding justice for George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man killed by police in Minneapolis, and for Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who died at the hands of police in Denver nine months earlier.
“There is deep concern about civil liability,” said Christian Champagne, district attorney for the 6th Judicial District, which includes La Plata County.
Several officers have left local law enforcement agencies in the district, Champagne said, because the liability was “too much for them and their families.”
One officer had been in law enforcement for 16 years and was in a position to retire.
“But he told me he wanted to work for four more years before the current climate,” said Bob Brammer, chief of police at the Durango Police Department.
Another officer submitted a resignation letter saying the “liability was potentially too great,” Brammer said. The Durango Police Department gave the officer three or four weeks to contemplate what he wanted to do, Brammer said.
A third officer took an extended vacation through the end of July to decide whether he wants to stay on the force.
Durango police officers were not willing to comment for this story, saying they felt they could not speak for themselves individually while serving as members of law enforcement. The two officers who quit the force could not be reached for comment.
Chris Burke, spokesman for the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, said a member of the SWAT team resigned from the team because of increased liability concerns, but he did not leave the agency.
Another deputy recently left the Sheriff’s Office, but Burke said it was for personal reasons.
Champagne said if an officer is sued for violating a citizen’s rights, the law enforcement agency will pay for legal fees on the officer’s behalf. But if the law enforcement agency finds the officer acted in bad faith, then the officer is responsible for $25,000 or 5% of the total award of damages in the lawsuit, whichever is less.
Champagne said that change scares officers because it exposes them to liability.
“I understand the motivation for the bill, there are some good things in it,” Champagne said. “But it goes too far.”
For Champagne, putting officers at higher legal risk for their responses undercuts community safety, especially if it causes officers to hesitate to act. In Durango’s case, it is already causing officers to leave the force.
“These men and women are truly putting their lives on the line every day,” Champagne said.
Body camera, reporting requirements Durango police officers are already wearing body cameras on duty, but the new law will require extensive reporting on interactions between law enforcement officers and the public. Champagne said the requirements will put a high administration and cost burden on law enforcement agencies because it will require a significant amount of staff time.
That means less money for officers on the ground, which Champagne said is “short-sighted.”
Calling for these measures while at the same time demanding lower funding for law enforcement agencies is counterproductive, Champagne said.
“It’s easy to look at police and say we’ve got too many cops on the street, but when you call 911, you want them to respond quickly to keep you safe,” Champagne said.
New training and enrollment Brammer said the agency is learning more about the law and what it means, but some of the “initial shock has worn off.”
Local law enforcement agencies can determine when and how to retrain officers regarding use of force, but the training must take place before Sept. 1, according to the new law.
Doug Parker, director of the Southwest Regional Law Enforcement Academy, said enrollment numbers are up despite current liability concerns. Last year, there were 16 or 17 cadets, but there are 20 or 22 people enrolled for the fall, Parker said.
“I don’t know if that’s because people interested in law enforcement don’t understand the issues or don’t care,” Parker said. “But if you do the things you’re trained to do, it won’t affect you.”