Colorado Springs police chief sees some challenges in new police accountability law

Gov. Jared Polis signs a sweeping police reform bill into law at the State Capitol on Friday,...
Gov. Jared Polis signs a sweeping police reform bill into law at the State Capitol on Friday, June 19, 2020. (KKTV)
Published: Jun. 12, 2020 at 3:00 PM MDT
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Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed Colorado's police accountability bill into law at the state capitol on Friday.

"I'm so proud to sign this bill today on the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth," Polis said. "This legislation specifically contains landmark, evidence-based reforms, that not only protect civil rights but will help restore trust between law enforcement and the communities that they serve."

Colorado Springs Police Chief Vince Niski gave the following statement on the new law:

"During my 31-year law enforcement career, I have seen many changes to the profession, but the one thing has remained a constant is our officers’ dedication to serving our community with integrity and humility. While the bill will pose some changes for our department, I am confident that our officers will adapt and continue to bring honor to their badge. The bill does present challenges for us, such as deciphering contradictory language about when provisions are to take effect and logistically collecting data without an effective technological system. While we will overcome those hurdles, we are proud to say that many of the new requirements set forth by law have already been our standard procedure for years. Currently, our department is reviewing the bill and drafting any policy revisions and procedural changes necessary to ensure that our department operates in accordance with the new law. Moving forward, our plan is to provide intensive, and consistent, training for sworn officers to make sure their understandings and police practices are in line with the bill. While we are still working on how to implement certain aspects of the bill, our duty is to uphold the law— which includes how we serve in a police capacity set by these new provisions. We are proud to serve our community, and no matter how it looks in the future, we will continue forward in our mission to keep Colorado Springs safe."

Different parts of the law go into effect and different times in the coming years.

Highlights of the bill, provided by Colorado House Democrats, are as follows:

Mandate body cameras.

The bill requires officers to wear body cameras and record interactions with members of the public that have potential for enforcement, and for footage of an incident of misconduct to be released to the public within 21 days. The bill includes privacy provisions for victims, witnesses, and juveniles, or when footage contains highly personal circumstances such as nudity, and it ensures the victim of the officer misconduct and the victim’s family receive the footage 24 hours prior to public release.

Require public reporting on policing.

All law enforcement agencies would be required to track and publicly report data for any contacts they initiate for law enforcement purposes. That data would include any use of force (both the type and severity), civilian searches, forced entries into homes, the unholstering and discharge of a firearm, and demographic information on race, ethnicity, sex and age of the person contacted.

Rein in use of deadly force by officers.

It would bring Colorado law in line with Supreme Court precedent holding that an officer may only use deadly force, including on someone who is fleeing the police, when there is an imminent risk of danger to human life if their apprehension is delayed. It also repeals an officer’s authority to ever use dangerous tactics like the chokehold.

Prevent the rehiring of bad actors.

If an officer is convicted of, or pleads guilty to, any inappropriate use of physical force, their POST certification would be revoked. Officers who are found untruthful, terminated for cause, or decertified would be listed in a public database to prevent them from moving from one agency to another.

Hold individual officers liable for their actions.

It would allow victims of police misconduct to bring a lawsuit for the violation of their constitutional rights within a two-year statute of limitations, and officers convicted of misconduct would no longer be shielded by the doctrine of qualified immunity. It would make the failure to intervene during another officer’s inappropriate use of physical force a class 1 misdemeanor

Restricts the use of chemical agents and projectiles.

In light of incidents at recent protests, this bill would prohibit law enforcement officers from using tear gas without first verbalizing orders to disperse a crowd and allowing individuals adequate time to comply. The bill prohibits officers from targeting rubber bullets at someone’s head, torso, or back.

“It’s not every day we have the opportunity to vote on a true life or death issue in the legislature, but that’s exactly what we did today,” said Rep. Gonzales-Gutierrez, D-Denver. “The bill we passed today will make lasting, overdue change to our law enforcement system and will hopefully prevent the deaths of Black and Brown people at the hands of police in Colorado. I am honored to have accomplished this work with another woman of color, Representative Herod. This long-fought struggle for true justice has been going on for generations, and although this is a great victory for the movement, our work is nowhere near done.”

The following email was sent out by El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder to his staff on Friday:

"Moments ago, the Governor signed Senate Bill 20-217, it is now Colorado law. The County Sheriffs of Colorado and the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police issued the following statement: "Today as Colorado observes Juneteenth, we recognize social justice holds an important place in our society, including policing. Senate Bill 217 is an example of a collaborative process to help ensure justice and policing in Colorado is transparent and fair. So many people -- advocates; lawmakers on both sides of the aisle; and law enforcement -- worked tirelessly to improve accountability. “Many of the policies included in Senate Bill 217 are already in place at the local level, but we are glad to have statutory support for changes that law enforcement can implement uniformly statewide. Other parts represent a significant change in the way officers do their jobs. Amid COVID restrictions and social distancing requirements, departments statewide face the challenge of training officers in the quick timelines required; and they are already hard at work to inform and train officers in a thorough and safe manner. “We recognize implementing SB 217 is just one piece of building community trust and ongoing conversations are needed. We are committed to keeping the lines of communication open between law enforcement agencies, lawmakers and the communities we serve." Several portions of the bill go into effect immediately, others are pushed out to dates in the future. As you know, EPSO was well represented throughout the movement of this legislation. We were instrumental in working very closely with our local elected legislators in successfully drafting and passing significant amendments that made it agreeable among the law enforcement coalition partners. We have convened an internal team of subject matter experts who fully understand the legislative intent of the law and have compared that to our current use of force policy. They will determine those areas of policy which must be modified or added bringing the agency into compliance. Because of the aggressive review in our 2015 Use of Force study, sweeping changes had already been implemented. Secondly, since 2016, we have consistently used national best practices (that are based on federal court decisions) to guide us in continuing to modify our policies. Consequently, EPSO policies already follow the majority of the provisions in this new law. We are now tasked in developing sound training for each piece of policy, specifically highlighting changes or modification. Our training staff will ensure that each member of the organization is thoroughly familiar with the applicable policy, understands the intent of the law and policy as well as understands the outcome of policy violations. This will include training first line supervisors and mid management leadership on expectations and providing guidance on policy implementation and adherence. Lastly, our HR team will continue their ongoing review of hiring practices and selection processes to ensure that we are screening out candidates who have any history of misconduct or potential for anger management concerns. The current process is extensive and comprehensive but further review and amendment will keep the agency current. I have attached a copy of the final Act. The portions which are highlighted are the portions of the bill that take effect today. We will notify you very soon, when we are able to identify a date and time to conduct a question and answer session for all employees about the effects of SB20-217. This session will include specifics regarding changes to the qualified immunity piece contained in the new law to include options for legal defense coverage. I appreciate everything you have done and will continue to do as we work through these turbulent times in our profession. I have and will continue to support you as we work through challenges together. Please know my door is always open, and I truly mean that."