Colorado state Reps. Jonathan Singer (D-Longmont) and Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez (D-Denver), along with local activist Sammie Leon Lawrence IV, hosted a virtual town hall yesterday to discuss Colorado’s police accountability legislation, which passed the legislature with bipartisan support and was signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis (D-CO) this month.
The bill, sponsored by Gonzales-Gutierrez and others, repeals qualified immunity, restricts the use of force, requires officers to wear body cameras, and more.
“This is not a partisan issue; this is about human rights, dignity, and justice,” said Gonzales-Gutierrez.
The town hall discussion covered concerns about the new law and future plans for police reform, which includes prioritizing local social services.
“This bill gives me a little comfort,” Lawrence said. “There are many people who have been left behind and forgotten by the people who serve us, and I want to say thank you to the legislative body and even police officers who are helping to bring change.
Concern: Will Respected Officers Leave the Police Force?
The main concerns over the legislation are the removal of qualified immunity harming innocent officers and causing many to leave. Many Republican leaders shared these concerns.
The removal of qualified immunity makes officers legally accountable for constitutional violations. They can be fined up to $25,000.
Gonzales-Gutierrez does not think officers will leave the force, stating that while a few resignations are unavoidable, there is no sign of a “mass exodus of police officers” due to the lack of qualified immunity.
“Maybe [some resignations] is a good thing – because you think about who are the people leaving and why are they concerned,” she said.
She also believes that both the constitutional law and the bill “leaves room for instinctive mistakes” made by officers operating under highly stressful circumstances.
“The everyday mistake that a police offer makes does not rise to constitutional violations,” said Denise Maes, Public Policy Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Colorado.
Additionally, Gonzales-Gutierrez emphasizes “intention” as a key factor.
She believes the requirement to use body cameras can help capture and distinguish “whether actions are intentional or not.”
“If the suspect draws a gun, the officer draws his gun, and something happens – that’s a mistake,” said Maes.
Something like the murder of George Floyd is not, she said, arguing that the Court is capable of making the distinction.
Lawrence also highlights the importance of training proper officers so they can minimize the chances of instinctive mistakes in these situations.
“With proper training… they must break the instinct and break the habit,” said Lawrence.
Concern: Will Violent Officers Become Bodyguards or Reapply elsewhere?
Local resident David Burns also expresses concern over violent officers being rehired as bodyguards.
Unfortunately, “there is no mechanism to disqualify them from reapplying for those types of jobs,” according to Gonzales-Gutierrez.
Burns is also concerned with a lack of protocol to judge whether the bill is effectively reducing police violence. Gonzales-Gutierrez and Singer agree, saying that there is room for developing policies to address this.
“I hope the data will tell us whether the bill is successful,” said Maes.
The Future of Police Reform
The panel is happy for and proud of the progress so far. However, they believe that there is still much more to be done.
They hope to spend less money on the police and reinvest it in social services.
They believe that currently, the police are responsible for handling many sensitive situations, such as homelessness and mental health cases, that their training does not prepare them for.
For example, on June 23, Mona Wang, an Asian student in Vancouver suffering a mental breakdown, called the police for help yet found herself dragged by the hair, kicked, and stepped on by the police officer.
“I was screaming for help, I was so confused,” Wang told CTV News, adding that she was in a semi-conscious state at the time. “In that moment when you’re already so vulnerable, and you need some medical attention, you hear them telling you you’re under arrest.”
“The police don’t have the training and degree for what people need at those moments. Someone with a holster and a gun pointing at them in that situation is only going to escalate the situation,” said Maes.
The speakers at the virtual town hall believe that mental health institutions and social security services should be given more funds so that they have the capacity to take over these cases from the police.
Currently, the Boulder Police Department has $38.6 million in funding, which is a $2.8 million increase from 2018. In contrast, the Colorado Housing and human services has $21.6 million with an $8.4 million decrease, according to Singer.
“This is so much disparity and segregation in the city against marginal communities, and COVID is impacting the same community,” said Gonzales-Gutierrez. “There’s always more work to be done and gaps to be closed.”
CORRECTION: The author of this post was initially identified incorrectly as Jason Salzman. Also, the Boulder Police Department was initially misidentified.