House committee gives Colorado cops more time on changes, adds ban on carotid control holds

A House committee amended Colorado’s police accountability and reform bill to give law enforcement more time to implement some changes and added a ban on carotid control holds before voting to support the bill at midnight Wednesday.

The approval came on a party-line vote, with all four Republicans on the House Finance Committee voting against Senate Bill 217, despite near-unanimous support in the Senate. It followed hours of emotional testimony by people who’ve had family members killed by police in Colorado.

The bill will now head to the House Appropriations Committee before going to the House floor — likely Thursday.

One of law enforcement officials’ biggest objections has been that agencies need more time for training on the changes, so lawmakers set a September 2021 deadline for new use-of-force regulations to take effect. The new policies include a requirement to only incrementally use force if other methods don’t work.

Other parts of the bill — including a ban on the use of chokeholds and limits on when police are allowed to shoot at a person who is running away from them — would take effect immediately if the bill is signed into law.

The bill would still require all officers to wear body cameras by 2023, but the House Finance Committee extended the deadline for releasing body camera footage to 45 days — the third time the deadline has been lengthened — and added a protection for personal health information. The Senate previously added protections for victims, witnesses and undercover officers.

Lawmakers also amended the bill to add a ban on carotid control holds, also sometimes called sleeper holds, in which officers apply pressure to the side of someone’s neck and can cause them to pass out. Aurora police announced this week that it would ban the maneuver, which they used to restrain Elijah McClain before he died.

Other changes made Wednesday:

  • A district attorney who charges an officer for use of force in an incident but doesn’t charge other officers at the scene would have to explain why in a public report.
  • When a grand jury decides not to indict an officer in a police shooting, it would have to release a public report.
  • Agencies would have to collect data on when officers unholster or fire a weapon.
  • A clarification about when officers can use deadly force: when a lesser degree is inadequate and that the officer or someone else is in danger of getting killed or being seriously harmed.

The bill aims to bring more transparency and accountability to policing in Colorado. Cops would be required to intervene when seeing other officers using excessive force, and the bill removes “qualified immunity,” allowing officers to be sued in their individual capacities when they’re accused of using excessive force.

Rep. Serena Gonzales Gutierrez, D-Commerce City, said the bill is about changing behavior, but it’s also about addressing cultural issues — a point discussed by other lawmakers and law enforcement.

Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat, said she is sick and tired of having “conversations in quiet” about racism and the need to do something through legislation but being told there aren’t enough votes.

“It’s time that we have courage to stand up and say that we have to break the insidious culture that is killing people who deserve to live,” she said.

The hearing was an emotional one as family members testified about the deaths of their loved ones at the hands of police. It was also emotional for lawmakers.

Rep. Tom Sullivan, D-Centennial, said he has made it a point to get to know the victims and learn their stories since his son Alex was killed in the Aurora theater shooting.

“You’re never going to understand what that’s like,” Sullivan said, expressing frustration about continued debate over technicalities when people’s lives are at stake. “But those of us who have endured this, it is our solemn duty to continue to stand up and do our best to tell you about it. That’s the only way we’re going to get this to stop.”

He added: “We continue to talk, but we need action.”

Some of the 13 amendments passed Wednesday were minor but aimed to win the support of more lawmakers and groups. It was clear, though, that it wasn’t enough to earn bipartisan support in the House.

Rep. Shane Sandridge, a Colorado Springs Republican, said as a former police officer he understands the need for oversight, but he wants more time to discuss amendments with stakeholders before moving forward.

Another Republican, Rep. Matt Soper of Delta, who sponsored a bill to remove qualified immunity earlier this year before withdrawing it, said he appreciates the movement on the bill but isn’t ready to support it, citing what he called several moving parts.

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