The legislation is the first in the country that allows victims of police violence to sue officers under state law. “I’m worried for my guys,” Pride, a national trustee of Colorado’s Fraternal Order of Police, told me in a phone interview. They’ve been trained not to hesitate: “When we hesitate,” he said, “there’s a good chance that we don’t go home at the end of the day.” But, Pride suggested, if they’re saddled with the fear of potentially losing their life savings, in addition to their job, how can they not?
The authors of the new law in Colorado say this reaction from officers on the street—call it an extra note of caution or restraint, if not hesitation—is healthy. What if, for example, the officers who confronted Elijah McClain in Aurora had hesitated before they placed him in a carotid hold and cut off the blood flow to his brain, or before the paramedics they called to the scene injected him with the sedative ketamine, after which he went into cardiac arrest and later died?
“If officers are rethinking [their career] because of a law of integrity and accountability, then they shouldn’t be in the profession as a police officer,” Colorado State Representative Leslie Herod, who wrote the new law, told me. “Their duty is to serve and protect, not kill. It is very important that law-enforcement officers think before they act.”
Read: First comes police reform. Then comes everything else.
Herod first tried to overhaul policing laws earlier this year, in response to McClain’s death. She initially wrote a narrower bill to ban choke holds and limit when police could fire on fleeing suspects, but Democratic leaders told her she’d have to try again next year, once she could gather some support from law enforcement. In fact, it was only because of the coronavirus pandemic that the Colorado legislature—which had postponed work from earlier in the spring—was even in session when the George Floyd protests erupted in Denver at the end of May.
As it happened, Herod, a Democrat and a Black woman, had joined protesters outside the state capitol when a gunman fired several shots into the crowd. State patrol officers rushed her back inside to safety, she told me in a phone interview last week. On a call later with fellow Democrats, her colleagues offered support and asked how they could help. Frustrated, Herod replied: “I don’t want a card. I don’t want any niceties. I want a bill, and I need your support to get a bill introduced that addresses these concerns.”
Democratic leaders allowed Herod to write a new police-reform bill, and, she said, gave her “carte blanche” to make it as broad as she wanted. In another big shift, the state Senate president, Leroy Garcia, agreed to work with Herod and move the proposal, which became known as Senate Bill 217, through the legislature’s more closely divided upper chamber, where law-enforcement groups had blocked previous police-reform measures in the past.