Police reform: Routt County law enforcement to make changes under new accountability bill
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A sweeping police reform bill signed into law Friday already is sparking change among Routt County law enforcement agencies.
Senate Bill 217, which Colorado lawmakers introduced and passed in the span of two weeks, gained momentum in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.
Gov. Jared Polis signed the bill into law on Juneteenth, a day honoring the emancipation of the country’s slaves in 1865. Moments before he signed the measure during a ceremony in the Colorado Capitol on Friday, Polis called it “a long overdue moment of national reflection” and “a meaningful, substantial reform bill” that he hopes will foster more trust between communities and law enforcement.
Changes under the bill
Among the bill’s most notable provisions are changes to rules surrounding deadly force, officer accountability and data collection and reporting among agencies.
It prohibits the use of chokeholds and carotid holds, two controversial maneuvers that apply pressure to someone’s neck as a way of forcing compliance. A carotid pressure hold reportedly was a major factor in the death of Elijah McClain during a violent encounter with police in Aurora last summer.
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The new rules restrict the use of force to instances where officers face an imminent threat. Before the bill, officers could use deadly force if they had a reasonable suspicion that someone posed a threat to police or the public.
In dealing with minor or nonviolent offenses, officers must attempt nonlethal tactics, such as de-escalation, before resorting to deadly force. If an armed suspect flees, police may use deadly force only if officers believe the suspect poses an imminent threat to others.
Agencies must train their personnel on the new rules by Sept. 1.
Officers also are more liable for damages under the bill. Previously, law enforcement agencies operated under “qualified immunity,” which protected officers from any legal liability unless they violated “clearly established” rights. It was seen as one of the biggest barriers to holding law enforcement officials accountable in court.
Under the bill, officers can be individually sued and held liable for up to $25,000 in damages.
One of the more immediate changes involves documenting and reporting a vast amount of information regarding interactions with the public. Agencies must now compile demographic data, such as gender and ethnicity, of all the people whom officers contact and the circumstances leading up to the encounter. All instances in which officers unholstered, fired or pointed their weapons at someone must be recorded, as well as other uses of force.
Agencies must make annual reports to the state with this information starting July 2023.
Buttressing the enhanced data collection measure is a rule requiring all law enforcement officers to use cameras, either worn on their bodies or attached to their patrol vehicles. The cameras must be activated during any interaction with the public but may be temporarily turned off in certain instances, such as when recording personal information.
If allegations arise over police misconduct, footage from the incident must be released to the public within 45 days. An exception is if the video contains sensitive or private information, a provision meant to protect juveniles, people in a mental health crisis and survivors of sexual assault, among others.
What changes mean locally
As Steamboat Springs Police Chief Cory Christensen explained, some of these changes are not new to local law enforcement. His officers and Routt County Sheriff’s Office deputies already wear body cameras. Both forms of pressure holds have long been prohibited under department policy, according to Christensen.
The most immediate change concerns the data collection component, he said. His officers have begun recording demographic information of people they contact, such as during traffic stops or while investigating suspicious incidents. One issue, Christensen said, is a lack of clarity over exactly what information the state wants and how his agency should collect it.
“We don’t have a problem collecting that information — we just want to do it correctly,” Christensen said.
For example, his officers must self-report demographic information, meaning they must assume a person’s gender and ethnicity, Christensen said.
His officers also do not have specific criteria when it comes to documenting this information. Christensen raised a question over how the state wants his officers to identify a transgender person, for example. Should they document the gender on the person’s driver’s license or use the person’s self-assigned identity?
Further confusion surrounds the criteria for ethnicity. Christensen said there is varying terminology when referring to certain ethnicities, so his officers have been relying on the list used by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins described similar changes taking place among his deputies. Both the Sheriff’s Office and Police Department are evaluating what trainings they need to complete and determining if there is any funding available to help pay for the cost.
“It’s a really tough time, because budgets are very tight,” Wiggins said, adding that his agency had to cut most of its travel and training budget due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wiggins, who serves as president of the County Sheriffs of Colorado, is seeking additional clarity over some of the bill’s provisions, adding it is too soon to say what changes will look like in the coming weeks and months.
Before signing the bill, Gov. Polis acknowledged more work lies ahead to achieve desired reforms and protect citizens.
Christensen echoed that sentiment, describing how he has been speaking with residents and Steamboat Springs City Council members on further changes to pursue beyond the purview of the bill.
“When it comes to improving a police department, there is no finish line,” Christensen said.
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