Prepared remarks: County Sheriffs of Colorado (Sept. 15, 2020)
We can all agree that 2020 has been a challenging year, and especially for law enforcement professionals. First, we face a once-in-a-century pandemic, which calls on us to enforce public health orders and adapt to a challenging set of operational changes. Second, we face an economic crisis, with many individuals and families now struggling. Finally, we face an intense and important conversation around racial injustices, including concerns around law enforcement-community interactions. During these trying times, the acts and sacrifices of law enforcement professionals continue. I am deeply grateful for your dedication to public service, your commitment to your communities, and your courage.
Let’s take a moment to recognize that the overwhelming majority of women and men in the law enforcement profession do their jobs with respect, compassion, and integrity. You are dedicated, brave people who are called to this profession to serve. As Colorado AG, I recognized a state trooper, Harold Johnson, last fall for his protection of us at the AG’s Office and his exceptional service. This officer, like you all, had other opportunities in life—he used to be a stockbroker—but he felt a greater calling to service and joined law enforcement to serve the public. We need to get that message out and look forward to working with you to communicate that our law enforcement agencies are filled with those inspired to serve and protect the people of Colorado.
Now more than ever, we need you to be there for our communities and for each another. This is a difficult moment for the law enforcement community—one that requires much reflection on what we do right and what we can improve. As our community goes through this process, I want to express my support and appreciation for you and your important work.
This morning, I’m going to talk about Senate Bill 20-217 (“SB 20-217”), and also address ways my office is working to support law enforcement.
Senate Bill 20-217
SB 20-217 is a sweeping criminal justice reform bill that culminated quickly as a response to public demand for change. A critical driver of SB 20-217 was the societal challenge regarding racial inequities rooted in our nation’s history, which compelled the state legislature to act. The long overdue attention of such inequities is now focused on a range of areas, including education, health care, employment, and our criminal justice system. I strongly support having this important conversation and taking appropriate action. By working together to critically evaluate our criminal justice system, we have an opportunity and an obligation to make lasting improvements.
With the mounting public demand for action by the General Assembly and the need for the legislature to adjourn as soon as possible due to COVID-19, the typical legislative process for this bill was accelerated. I recognize that this rapid pace put both your offices, and mine, in a position to very quickly analyze and advocate for changes and improvements to this bill. I want to thank the great number of you who spent so much time and energy on this important effort to reach the bill’s final version. The result is not perfect—and we have new challenges in its implementation—but we ended up in a far better result due to your engagement and the constructive problem solving that took place.
In the remainder of my remarks, let me discuss a few ways that the Peace Officer Standards and Training (“POST”) program will be involved in the implementation of the bill.
Accountability for Non-Compliance
The training responsibility of peace officers is part of how we will continue to work to elevate the standards and professionalism in Colorado law enforcement. Additionally, training provides tools and support to keep peace officers and community members safe. To that end, SB 20-217 provides enhanced authority to both the POST Board and the Department of Law to encourage compliance with training requirements. Prior to SB 20-217, only a law enforcement agency would be penalized for failure to comply with training, and that resulted in the loss of grant funding. Under the new law, individuals can also be held accountable, which should promote compliance. This was a concept the POST Board sought prior to the 2020 legislative session.
SB 20-217 calls on the POST Board to develop a database that identifies peace officers who: (1) are decertified for untruthfulness; (2) repeatedly fail to follow training requirements; (3) are decertified for other reasons; or (4) are terminated for cause.
We are committed to developing this database and will soon reach out to you to discuss how it will operate, and how it can best serve as a resource for you as you hire new officers. We will also seek your input as we develop rules to spell out how the database will operate, the information it contains, and how the information is used. We want this to be a tool that is useful for you, and we will seek your advice and guidance on it as we develop it.
We already have a set of training priorities we are working on, building on our ongoing commitment to performance improvement. Last year, as required by state law, we developed guidance for officers and agencies on the use of the new Extreme Risk Protection Order (“ERPO”). We are now focused on developing new training modules on the investigation and documentation of hate crimes to support better prosecution, supporting training techniques that develop de-escalation strategies (including guidance on experiential learning such as programs like those used in Durango), revisiting and improving our anti-bias training, and providing guidance on how to manage witness identifications appropriately (working with Denver and Mesa County).
SB 20-217 changes our training priorities. In particular, the law’s new use of force guidelines rose to the top of our list. To that end, we quickly got to work developing guidance on how to implement this new law, in accordance with the bill’s effective dates. In the case of the ERPO law, by contrast, we had a six-month window to provide the new guidance. In this case, we had only several weeks to develop the relevant guidance and it is now available. We will continue to work on these materials and improve them over time.
I am sure you have many questions about how the new use of force statute impacts your training and policies. Some local agencies have asked whether we can provide a guidance document to assist local law enforcement. We are looking at whether and how we might do just that. To be clear, the information we would provide would not constitute a formal legal opinion, legal advice, or legal requirements, but rather would be intended to assist you and your agencies as you grapple with questions on how best to implement this new law.
SB 20-217 Challenges
I recognize that this legislation was passed quickly and imposes a range of challenging requirements on local governments and law enforcement agencies. Most notably, the mandate to adopt body cameras, implement new reporting requirements, and adapt to a new system for state liability for unlawful actions by law enforcement will be challenging. Of particular concern to me is the requirement to adopt body cameras without any funding to do so. As you may recall from discussions around pre-trial reform, I am committed to moving from an ability-to-pay model of cash bail to a risk assessment model. But I don’t believe that the right path forward involves an unfunded mandate, which can be a formidable burden on all agencies, especially our rural and smaller agencies. That same concern holds here; as such, I will continue to push the legislature to provide funding for body cameras. Moreover, the Department of Law has prioritized body camera funding as a valued and appropriate use of the funds our office has from criminal forfeitures.
Recruitment into Law Enforcement and Academy Curricular Reform
As we all appreciate, it is crucial for public safety that we continue to attract and recruit qualified individuals into law enforcement. I, for one, am concerned that this work is getting harder. To support such efforts, I am glad to report that the General Assembly enacted one of my top priorities, House Bill 20-1229, which gives the POST Board flexibility to provide scholarships to attend a law enforcement training academy to small and rural agencies from POST’s grant funds. More broadly, the AG’s Office is interested in looking for opportunities to acknowledge the important work of law enforcement and to emphasize how law enforcement officials serve and protect our communities.
Re-Imagining Peace Officer Training
This past spring, the General Assembly authorized us to develop a job task analysis (or “JTA”), specifying the set of core competencies that all peace officers need to be successful. By starting from first principles, we can evaluate what areas of competency today’s officers need and use that work to guide both the academy training and our ongoing training. After we develop this JTA, we will be in a position to start working on a curriculum built to develop those competencies, ideally, through experiential learning opportunities, with the ultimate goal of better preparing our recruits for the real life situations, and the decisions they will have to make, in the field. As you have thoughts or suggestions on this score, please be in touch with Bo Bourgerie, our POST Board Director, or your fellow sheriff POST Board members, including our Vice-chair Sheriff Tony Spurlock, Sheriff Sean Mobley, Sheriff Anthony Mazzola, Sheriff Robert Jackson, Sheriff Steve Nowlin, and Sheriff Justin Smith.
Over the months and years ahead, we will explore options for how we might partner with a training academy to pilot and test new curricular innovations to develop critical competencies. Indeed, out of the conversation about how we improve police-community relations, the Colorado Community College System chancellor reached out to me, indicating his interest in elevating the quality of the academies housed at the community colleges. We welcome this conversation and, indeed, would partner with him in making a commitment to excellence by such programs. Just recently, I enjoyed a visit out at Colorado Mesa University, which is partnering with local law enforcement in sponsoring a police academy in Grand Junction
Finally, I want to spend a moment acknowledging the pressures and strains that officers face. Last year, as we all know, more officers perished by suicide than on the job—dying on account of their own struggles and at their own hands. According to Blue H.E.L.P., a nonprofit that tracks suicides of police and sheriff’s deputies, at least 215 law enforcement officers across the country died by suicide in 2019—and at least 12 of those suicides were reported here in Colorado. This is a great challenge for us to address— supporting those who lay themselves on the line for their communities and ensuring they have the resources and support they so desperately need. This calls out for engagement, more mental health awareness, and more resources. This acute need is on our minds and will remain a priority in the years to come.
More Work to Come
Like all legislation, we are going to discover problems and challenges that require fixing and improvement. As I said earlier, I recognize that the final version of SB 20-217, which made many important reforms, still has issues that need to be addressed. To that end, my team is already engaging in conversations with the General Assembly on what needs to be corrected, refined, fixed, or improved with this bill. And if you have suggestions on how we might do that, I want to hear your ideas. Not just on SB 20-217, but on pre-trial reform, the opioid epidemic, or any other topics, I can assure you that I will also be open to listening and discussing issues, and looking for ways we can work together to serve the people of Colorado.
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This moment is indeed a challenge to our law enforcement community. I am confident that, together, we will build a future of more trust and collaboration across law enforcement and all communities. I am grateful to all of you who serve our communities as peace officers; I value each of you; and I appreciate the work you and your officers and staffs do every day on behalf of the people of Colorado. Your dedication to protecting public safety, supporting crime victims, and improving our criminal justice system is a tribute to our state. I look forward to working with you as we advance this mission.
Thanks for your leadership. I look forward to our continued work together.