In a bipartisan vote of 52-13, the Colorado House of Representatives gave final approval Friday to a package of reforms to disclose, deter and discipline excessive uses of force by police officers, an effort to halt further slayings at the hands of law enforcement.
"There’s nothing new about black and brown Coloradans feeling a target on their backs," said House Speaker K.C. Becker, D-Boulder. "It shouldn’t take viral videos of police brutality or massive protests all over the country to jolt us into action. But in any case, I'm glad we’re here now."
Starting to cry, Becker addressed bill sponsor Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, who handed Becker a tissue and patted her reassuringly on the back. "Thank you for helping this body make history today," Becker continued. "Today we're honoring the memory of George Floyd and every other victim of police violence with action. We’re channeling our sympathy, our empathy, our sadness and our rage into making lasting change."
With a final Senate vote approving House amendments Saturday, the bill now goes to Gov. Jared Polis for his signature.
Senate Bill 217, introduced last week, contains several provisions discussed in recent years to address police use of force and accountability standards.
Among the provisions are mandated body-worn camera usage and disclosure of footage by local departments and the Colorado State Patrol, a ban on chokeholds, and the ability to sue officers directly for their conduct. An amendment added in response to the racial justice protests places limits on departments' use of chemical agents and projectiles when handling protesters.
In the final House vote, 11 Republicans joined all Democrats in passing the measure. Polis issued a statement saying he will sign the bill when it reaches his desk.
Lawmakers acknowledged representatives of the families of De'Von Bailey and Elijah McClain, two black men killed in Colorado Springs and Aurora, respectively, who were present in the chamber. House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, D-Denver, recognized that the repeated advocacy of protesters since the death of Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in late May spurred the legislature to act.
"In that moment where you're about to see red, where you’re about to fire that pepper ball at the innocent bystander at the sidewalk, when you're about to fire that rubber bullet at somebody who’s exercising their First Amendment rights, when you’re about to fire a bullet at somebody who’s running away because they are scared," he said, "this bill is going to say, 'Stop. Nothing is worth taking that life."
In addition to Democratic leaders, the House Minority Leader, Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, voted yes on SB217, despite being "100% against" the original draft.
"I can be a yes vote and still be absolutely disgusted by some of the comments and the graffiti outside of these walls," said Neville. "I can be a yes vote and still support our men and women in blue."
Bill sponsors consulted intensively with police, victim and local government groups while drafting and amending the bill. During the second reading of SB217 the night before, Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, R-Watkins, lamented that rank-and-file officers did not have a bigger voice in the legislation. He read from an email he said he received from an officer, illustrating the difficult situation that a rookie officer may encounter of needing to call out superior officers' misconduct.
If "a superior officer orders an officer to effect an arrest ... the officer must obey, and he is the one who will be personally liable if the arrestee sues," Bockenfeld said, quoting the email. "When they follow the orders of a superior officer, the superior officer should be the one who assumes the liability. Or the officer should be able to refuse the order if it places him in legal jeopardy."
Bockenfeld mentioned riot response as a scenario in which officers could be disciplined for not following orders or sued for following unreasonable directives for use of force, which he deemed a "no-win situation."
Due to the complications of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ability of the General Assembly to pause its legislative session until a few weeks ago, lawmakers happened to reconvene around the same time as daily protests commenced at the state Capitol. Colorado moved quickly to create an omnibus policing bill, the first such measure introduced after Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, although other states have seen individual bills or amendments to address the topic.
The debate was freighted with emotion, in particular because of the personal experiences of several legislators of color. Rep. Monica Duran, D-Wheat Ridge, spoke of her son, whom she alleged police profiled and harassed in Jefferson County unprovoked several years ago.
"They proceeded to beat him and beat him," she recalled. "When he was thrown in the back of a police car, he wasn’t sure if he would live or die or what they were going to do with him.”
Tearing up while retelling the story, Duran said that when she and her husband went to bail out her son from police custody, "we saw many families coming in. Many sons and daughters that look like mine." A lawyer later told her, "Mrs. Duran, this is nothing new. This happens every night of the week.”
During Thursday night's debate, Rep. James Coleman, D-Denver, delivered an impassioned speech asking Republican members to think of him as being just as easily the victim of police violence as was Floyd. Rep. Janet Buckner, D-Aurora, referenced his comments in her own plea to pass the bill.
"When I heard James speak last night, I heard my husband. My husband always said, 'call it what it is,'" she said, referring to the late Rep. John Buckner, who she said was Coleman's school principal. "And James called it what it is last night."
Buckner said that every legislator has a constituent of color in their district, and implored lawmakers to "please keep them in mind." Her comments appeared to sway the vote of at least one uncommitted member.
"If I vote yes, I’m voting for change," said Rep. Richard Champion, R-Columbine Valley. "And if I say no, it feels very different, that I’m standing up for the police." Champion said that he had been torn on how to vote, before acknowledging, "I didn’t know which way to vote until I listened to Rep. Buckner. Dear lady, you convinced me that it is time.”
On Tuesday, the Senate approved the bill on a widely-bipartisan vote of 32-1.
This story is from Colorado Politics, a statewide political and public policy news journal. Used by permission. For more, visit coloradopolitics.com.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the ages and places of death of De'Von Bailey and Elijah McClain. This version has been corrected.
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