Confusion over police reform: Routt County sheriff seeks clarification on Senate Bill 217
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A recently passed bill meant to enhance law enforcement accountability in Colorado has led to confusion and a degree of concern among agencies in Routt County.
Senate Bill 217, which Gov. Jared Polis signed into law June 19, makes sweeping changes to law enforcement in the wake of nationwide protests over police misconduct. Among its most significant provisions include the creation of a new statewide database to document wrongdoing and the elimination of certain litigation protections for officers.
During a Routt County Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday, Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins asked for local support and guidance for his agency in wake of the bill.
“This new law has a lot of ambiguity,” he told the commissioners, adding it needs “some cleanup and some clarification.”
In particular, Wiggins sought input on a piece of the bill that removes the qualified immunity defense. It allows people to file lawsuits over civil rights claims in Colorado courts and sue officers in their individual capacities. If an officer did not act in what the bill refers to as “good faith” and a reasonable suspicion that his or her act was lawful, then the officer could be personally liable for 5% of a judgment or settlement or $25,000, whichever is less.
Another piece of the bill makes it so any officer who pleads guilty to or is convicted of wrongdoing, such as being found civilly liable for using excessive force or failing to intervene to stop excessive force, would permanently lose his or her Peace Officer Standards and Training board certification. This, as Wiggins said, would effectively end their career as a law enforcement officer.
While he agrees with the intent of these provisions — namely, to remove bad officers from the line of duty and hold them accountable for wrongdoing — Wiggins voiced concerns that some unintended consequences could cost good officers thousands of dollars or their jobs.
Wiggins’ first request was for the commissioners to devise some type of policy or resolution that acts as a safeguard to the removal of qualified immunity. Wiggins envisioned a formal investigation process that would determine if an officer accused of wrongdoing acted in good faith.
Under the state reform bill, the employer of an officer is responsible for compensating him or her for any costs of the lawsuit, unless the employer finds the officer did not act in good faith. Wiggins’ concern is that because the definition of “good faith” is not clearly defined in the law, an officer could face substantial legal fees for erroneous reasons. An investigation could prevent that from happening, he argued.
“If we determine that a deputy acted outside of his legal authority or violated a policy or procedure, he would be on his own,” Wiggins said, referring to legal costs. “But if we find he made a sound judgment, then I think we should indemnify that individual.”
As Routt County attorney Erick Knaus acknowledged, the law does not carve out a clear review process for evaluating if an officer acted in good faith.
“What’s interesting to me is that the legislature puts the burden on the employer to determine what the officer did or didn’t do,” Knaus said.
It also is not clear if the employer deciding the matter would be considered the Routt County Sheriff’s Office or the county. Or, in the case of a municipal lawsuit, if the employer would be the Steamboat Springs Police Department or the city of Steamboat Springs.
Wiggins’ second request was to formulate an agreement stating the county will not settle a lawsuit without the consent of the deputy involved. As he explained, local governments and the insurance companies representing them often settle claims outside of court to avoid costly legal fees, not due to any actual wrongdoing.
Within the parameters of the new law, a settlement could imply the deputy did not act in good faith, even if this was not the case, Wiggins said, and could ultimately lead to the end of the deputy’s career.
In an interview after the commissioners’ meeting, Steamboat Springs Police Department Chief Cory Christensen agreed with the sheriff’s concern about how civil settlements could negatively impact good officers.
“It’s not about protecting bad police officers,” Christensen said. “This is a complicated and dynamic profession. From time to time, good police officers make mistakes.”
He has heard of at least one Colorado police officer who took a job in another state because of the new law.
“I have a lot of good officers who have anxiety over Senate Bill 217,” Christensen said, adding their fears surround the unknowns of the bill’s effects. “Every chief is trying to find ways to reassure their good officers that their organization will support them.”
Commissioners postpone formal action
While the commissioners empathized with Sheriff Wiggins’ concerns, they were not ready to take any formal action in regards to the new law.
Commissioner Doug Monger admitted the law is “clear as mud” to him, and he needs more time to understand its sweeping changes.
“I really understand the concern of these officers,” Monger said, “but I need a lot more information before I can decide.”
Commissioner Beth Melton referred to a recent controversy in Greenwood Village, which passed a city resolution protecting its officers from financial liability in civil courts. The resolution said the city would never determine an officer acted in bad faith in a civil case, making the city liable for all expenses incurred in a civil proceeding or lawsuit.
In a statement to CBS4 in Denver, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser opposed the Greenwood Village resolution, saying it “goes against the spirit of the law and the importance of ensuring accountability for wrongful conduct.”
With that in mind, Melton wanted to be sure she and her fellow commissioners are acting in the best interests of the county and its residents.
“There are members of the public who would like to comment on these things, and we are ultimately accountable to them,” she said.
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