Garfield County police chiefs, sheriff offer thoughts on state’s new police accountability law
Reaction among Garfield County law enforcement officials to Colorado’s new police accountability bill that was signed into law last week has been supportive — though not without some significant concerns around costs and how some of the provisions might be interpreted.
In general, though, much of what’s contained in the law has already been in practice locally for some time, said area police chiefs and Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario.
“From the first version that was being discussed to what we were able to work through with the legislature, I do believe they have listened to law enforcement concerns,” Vallario said in response to Senate Bill 217, which was signed by Gov. Jared Polis on Friday.
“It became a palatable, livable bill for us as a police agency,” Vallario said.
The bill passed with significant bi-partisan support after being introduced in the Colorado Legislature shortly after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 by a police officer who was using a chokehold.
Vallario pointed out that the use of chokeholds by police was already banned by the legislature three years ago.
Also, many of the officer training provisions included among the bill’s measures are already being used in Garfield County, in many cases going above and beyond the new state law, he said.
One thing that will be new for the Sheriff’s Office is the requirement that all law enforcement officers must wear body cameras by 2023, and for any video requested to be made public.
Even that provision was just a matter of time, Vallario said.
“We knew that was coming eventually, and we will migrate to that policy,” Vallario said, adding the estimated $600,000 to $800,000 startup to implement the program will need to be figured out locally or at the state level.
One amendment to the bill was that undercover officers be exempt from the body cam requirement, he noted.
“Once that was taken care of, it was absolutely fine,” Vallario said.
- All law enforcement officers will be required to wear body cameras by 2023, and video must be made public if requested or a formal complaint is filed.
- Chokeholds are prohibited.
- Shooting at fleeing suspects is prohibited — deadly force can only be used if someone’s life is in imminent danger.
- Any time police make contact with someone suspected of a crime, officers must provide the person’s race, gender and ethnicity to try to guard against racial profiling.
- Police must report wrongdoing by fellow officers.
- Officers can be held personally liable for damages up to $25,000 if they are found guilty of violating someone’s civil rights.
Glenwood Springs Police Chief Joseph Deras doesn’t think the new law will have a big effect on his department’s operations.
“By and large we have already been doing most of what that bill asks of law enforcement,” he said.
And, some of what the bill focuses on has not been relevant to local policing.
“We don’t have the use of force issues the legislation is designed to protect from,” he said.
Deras said he’s the only one on the Glenwood force that is trained in the proper use of chokeholds, but he would not use one in any situation because it is against policy and already banned by the state.
“This department is not trained in [choke] holds. It’s not part of our use-of-force continuum,” he said.
Deras said he’s “not overly concerned here in Glenwood” about litigation following the elimination of the qualified immunity defense, but he said it could be a problem for some agencies.
“Among officers, generally speaking, qualified immunity will take some time to understand and reconcile,” Deras said.
Deras is more concerned about the financial ramifications of the body camera provisions of the bill, which he called an unfunded mandate. Through his work with other police departments, he said he has dealt with releasing body camera footage. That can be very expensive and very time-consuming, he said.
Part of that time is spent redacting people who appear in video footage but are not relevant to the case, in order to protect their privacy.
“You have to buy redaction software, then it takes staff time to put it into practice,” he said.
That extra time would likely require reassigning existing staff or hiring another employee, Deras said.
“Do we hire somebody new or redirect somebody who’s here?” he asked.
Deras said that there are still details that need to be ironed out.
“They were very quick to enact this, and things still need to be looked at,” he said.
New Castle Police Chief Tony Pagni also pointed out that some of the provisions in the police accountability bill were put in place years ago.
“Many of the things that people are astounded by had already been adopted in the past,” he said, referring specifically to the use of chokeholds.
Pagni said New Castle officers also complete sensitivity and racial bias training every year.
The bill’s big impact, at least locally, is the cost associated with the release of body camera footage, Pagni said.
“Policing in small-town Americana just got dramatically more expensive,” he said.
“Today in New Castle when a primary car goes on call he turns on his camera,” he said. “We’re eating up two hours of a 10-hour shift downloading, categorizing and attaching footage to case files,” he said.
“Now, every officer will be filming the same incident, so instead of one person recording, now all four will be running footage.”
Pagni said he expects the time related to certain aspects of video management to increase four-fold.
“They haven’t thought through that; when we send files to the DA’s office there’s a bunch of editing that has to be done. The parties not concerned have to be pixelated. The DA does pixelating now, but when we have to release files to the public, we’ll have to do the pixelating,” he said.
The time spent working on video footage may take time away from contact with the public.
“Any time you’re looking at having more work to do in the same time period you can’t help make that assessment,” he said.
Generally speaking, though, Pagni said meeting the requirements of the bill shouldn’t be too hard. There is still a lot of time to figure things out, he said.
“That bill gives us until 2023 to get it activated and running,” Pagni said.
But he won’t be waiting that long to start implementation.
“I’ll make sure my plan is in action in one year or less,” he said.
Rifle Police Chief Tommy Klein said his department also has already made some changes, and will continue to make more.
“There are some things in it that are very good, I believe. There are some things in it that are a little concerning to some officers,” Klein said.
“We’ve made some changes to our policy based on information that is in the new legislation, a lot of the things we already had in our policy, like duty to intervene. If an officer sees another officer utilize too much force, they do have a duty to intervene based on our current policy.”
For Klein and his department, the most significant change will be removing any types of chokeholds from the policy, and the cost of body cameras for all officers, or anyone in the department that has the potential to interact with the public.
“A lot of these things are in our policy as it is written now. We have changed our policy in terms of neck holds over time,” Klein said.
“At one time, officers were allowed to use the carotid restraint as a force option since it causes a person to pass out but does not prevent a person from breathing,” he explained. “We later moved the carotid restraint technique to the deadly force category.”
Choking holds that disrupted breathing were an option only when deadly force was authorized by law in a given situation, Klein said.
“The new law removes the option of all neck restraints and we removed those holds from our policy prior to the governor signing the legislation,” he said.
Klein said he originally had reservations about body cameras, but has since changed his stance and believes they can provide a lot of good evidence.
“I’ve really thought about it and felt like it was time to switch over to body cameras,” he said.
“We started getting estimates before Mr. Floyd’s murder, so we were moving in that direction already,” Klein said. “That’s a lot of money for us … it’s an upfront cost, that is a great deal for an agency of our size.
A requirement that agencies collect and report data, including when an officer unholsters his weapon, will also add additional time to the department’s duties, Klein said.
“We already have in our policy if our officer points a weapon or taser we consider that a force situation, and we record information on that, so it is an easy thing for us to do.” Klein said.
The Carbondale Police Department is currently in transition between current long-time Chief Gene Schilling and the just-hired incoming chief, Lt. Kirk Wilson, a former Rifle police officer who is in training to take over as Carbondale chief in September.
Schilling and Wilson shared a concern about the potential that patrol officers might be less inclined to make certain low-level types of traffic stops because of the new requirements.
“I think it’s going to be a detriment to citizens in general,” Schilling said. “On the traffic end of things, officers might be less likely to make contacts and look for the more serious stuff.”
Schilling agreed with his counterparts throughout Garfield County that the new law is redundant in terms of what his department does already.
“We already do all of the things that they’re worried about,” he said. “It doesn’t really change a lot in terms of good officer behaviors.”
Carbondale’s officers already use body cameras, but there will be some additional cost for the new editing software, he agreed.
“I share roughly the same concerns,” Wilson added. “My other concern is how this can affect the recruiting and hiring of new officers.”
Wilson said he had already noticed fewer people applying for law enforcement openings, and enrollment in police training programs across the country has fallen off.
“I don’t think this is necessarily going to help,” he said. “Unfortunately, it can have the effect of sending a message that communities don’t trust law enforcement in general.
Wilson applauded a clearinghouse provision in the new law, though, that can flag bad cops who are let go by one agency but could potentially be re-hired by another agency.
“We do have officers out there that are a problem, but I would say the vast majority are fantastic individuals who chose this career … so they could do the right thing.”
Glenwood Springs Post Independent reporters John Stroud and Charlie Wertheim, and Rifle Citizen Telegram Editor Kyle Mills contributed to this report.
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