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'There's A Lot More Work To Do:' The Impact Of The New Police Reform Bill On Colorado

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Scott Franz/Capitol Coverage

On Juneteenth, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed the “Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity” bill into law.  The bill was introduced in response to protests over the death of George Floyd and police brutality.

Denise Maes, public policy director for the ACLU of Colorado, joined KUNC’s Colorado Edition to explain what’s included in the legislation.  

Interview Highlights

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity

Henry Zimmerman: This bill addresses a few different things – can you briefly lay out the key points?  

Denise Maes: Sure. There’s a lot of key points in the bill. I think, for example, it does have a data collection requirement in it, so that we know all the instances when police stop and interact with community.

There's also a requirement that all local law enforcement wear body cameras, and that body camera footage be released within 21 days of a request. And there's a little bit of an exception to that, if release would jeopardize an ongoing investigation, then the law enforcement entity has 45 days to release.

There's also a couple of provisions on when local law enforcement can use deadly force. And, before the bill was signed, the law permitted, for example, law enforcement to use deadly force on someone who was fleeing, if that individual was suspected of having committed a felony. And, of course, with the signing of this law, that is no longer the case. Law enforcement can only use deadly force if the individual that is fleeing presents immediate risk or threat to the officer.

So there are lots of pretty key provisions, kind of a redefinition of when law enforcement can use deadly force. I think that’s a pretty significant change in the law.

This bill also addresses qualified immunity. And I want to talk more about that, but can you briefly explain what qualified immunity is for someone who has maybe never heard the term?

I’ll just simply say that qualified immunity is a court-created doctrine. Currently, an individual can file a civil rights claim in federal court, under what is known as Title 7 Section 1983, and that terminology may be familiar to a lot of folks because that’s how federal civil rights claims are enforced. It’s under this statutory provision of 1983.

Well, the court created this doctrine of qualified immunity – claiming that individuals, state actors could not be sued in their individual capacity, unless their wrongdoing was clearly established in the law that it was a violation of civil liberties or civil rights. That has been used as a shield to prevent lawsuits against individuals, state actors, in their individual capacity, and similarly has denied families justice, and has denied families a remedy, when violation of their civil rights is involved.

And, in this case, what we’re talking about is the violation of civil liberties or civil rights, that by law enforcement when it can actually result in an individual death in the hands of law enforcement. That has been used as a shield.

There is a movement really nationwide to get rid of qualified immunity, because it really is just a made-up court doctrine, and Colorado is now in the lead of being one of the very first states to get rid of qualified immunity in this particular instance, which is the violation of civil liberties or civil rights by law enforcement.

With Colorado being one of the first states to make this move to do away with qualified immunity, what will it mean in practice for our state moving forward?

I think it’s a pretty big deal, simply because this was a shield that prevented a lot of folks from going into federal court, and trying to adjudicate their rights. But with this particular law what we’re telling Coloradans is they can go to a Colorado court, a state court, state judges and state juries, and get their rights adjudicated, get their remedy, and no longer face this particular shield.

What do you see as the overall impact of this bill on law enforcement and other individuals in Colorado?

Well one of the things that I say about this bill a lot is that it was definitely a significant milestone, but it isn’t the finishing line.

I think that one of the co-sponsors of the bill, Rep. Leslie Herod, said it well in that you cannot legislate culture. And some of the things that I think that we see in law enforcement are really part of a culture, and I don’t know that this bill will affect that. Hopefully it will in the sense that it does change the definition of when an officer can use deadly force, it does compel the use of body cameras, which I think create greater accountability between community and police.

And so maybe this is hopefully a beginning of trying to put systems in place that give community a better sense that law enforcement really is there for their benefit. But, like I said, you can’t change culture. And so there’s a lot more work to do, and I think law enforcement knows it, I think community knows it, and I think both sides, and I don’t mean to say sides in the sense that I’m trying to create division, but I think there’s a collective view that we still have more to do. But this was a darn good start.

This interview is from KUNC’s Colorado Edition from June 25. You can find the full episode here.

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