Police accountability bill passes Colorado Senate 32-1

DENVER (AP) — The state Senate on Tuesday overwhelmingly backed a sweeping police accountability bill introduced amid protests over the death of George Floyd, sending it to the House for consideration.

Senators spoke at length about the compromises that went into the measure before approving it , 32-1. Lawmakers also expressed their pain on the day Floyd was being buried in Houston as well as their support for police.

The bill, which was changed in response to some issues raised by law enforcement, would allow police officers to be sued for misconduct by getting rid of the qualified immunity defense that generally protects government workers from lawsuits. It would require police officers to pay up to 5% or $25,000 — down from $100,000 in the original bill — of any civil judgement if they were believed to have knowingly violated the law, with their employer paying the rest.

It would ban chokeholds and limit force to only being used to “when all other means of apprehension are impractical given the circumstances.” The bill also requires all local and Colorado State Patrol officers who have contact with the public to be equipped with body cameras by July 1, 2023 — two years later than originally proposed — and requires that unedited footage be released to the public within 21 days of a misconduct complaint being filed.

An officer could not testify in court about events not recorded by a body camera and jurors considering a misconduct lawsuit would be allowed to assume that the failure to record an incident was intended to hide wrongdoing. Officers who are convicted of unlawfully using force would lose the certification need to work in law enforcement.

The bill would also bar police from aiming non-lethal weapons like tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters’ heads, pelvises or backs, echoing an order from a federal judge against Denver police last week in response to allegations of the practice. The Denver Post reported Tuesday that Jax Feldmann, 21, said he was blinded in one eye after an officer fired a projectile at his face on May 30 as he was walking back to his car near the protest area.

Democratic co-sponsor Sen. Rhonda Fields called the bill “something we can all be proud of” and said she was encouraged to see the diversity of protesters across the country.

“Now we have white people saying black lives matter. That’s why my heart is full,” she said.

Senate Minority Leader John Cooke, a former Weld County sheriff, said he thought the bill was originally a “punishment bill” but he credited its sponsors with listening to concerns from police and making amendments. He stressed the difficult job that law enforcement officers face.

“In a second they have to decide, are they going to be killed, or is another citizen going to be killed?” he said.

Republican Sen. Larry Crowder of Alamosa said law enforcement concerns in his rural district focused on the cost of saving footage from body cameras but he said small town America “is not excused from this situation.”

“The reality is we’ve lost too many citizens. Something needs to be done,” Crowder said. “The main thing is we must not lose sight of our Constitution and our equality in man.”

The vote came just a week after lawmakers re-convened their session interrupted by the coronavirus. It had been in the works for months before, inspired by cases of fatal police encounters in Colorado, civil rights attorney Mari Newman said.

She said the video of Floyd’s death and the protests against police brutality globally have created the right time to address this issue.

“It is absolutely impossible to watch what is going on in the world and still claim there is no problem,” she said.

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