Colorado’s New Accountability Bill Has Added Measures to Protect Protestors

The Colorado police accountability bill (SB20-217) was introduced on June 3, barely a week after protests erupted in downtown Denver over police brutality and systemic racism. But, the first version of the bill did not include a few valuable components. During the first state Senate hearing, the addition of some lengthy amendments included one that addressed police violence toward innocent protesters and demonstrators exercising their first amendment rights.

The amendment is summarized below.

The bill states that in response to a protest or demonstration, a law enforcement agency and any person acting on behalf of the law enforcement agency shall not: 

  • Discharge kinetic impact projectiles and all other non or less-lethal projectiles in a manner that targets the head, pelvis or back 
  • Discharge kinetic impact projectiles indiscriminately into a crowd 
  • Use chemical agents or irritants, including pepper spray and tear gas, prior to issuing an order to disperse in a sufficient manner to ensure the order is heard and repeated if necessary, followed by sufficient time and space to allow compliance with the order

This specifically addresses many of the grievances aired through Twitter and other social media outlets during the first week of protests. Peaceful demonstrators — and sometimes even just onlookers or people trying to pass by — were attacked by police officers and other law enforcement officials. Members of media outlets were harassed, protesters were intentionally shot in the head, face or groin and peaceful crowds were dispersed with sudden bursts of tear gas.

But the amendment did not originate in our state legislature. Instead, it came from a federal judge ruling on June 5 which ordered police to temporarily obey the guidelines listed above. Judge R. Brooke Jackson made the decision after four citizens filed a lawsuit against the city of Denver for the police’s behavior. Jackson’s ruling was a sweeping indictment of Denver law enforcement agencies and their response to citizens’ first amendment rights. 

Jackson wrote, “people have an absolute right to demonstrate and protest the actions of governmental officials, including police officers. It is one of the many freedoms on which this country was built.” He went on to recognize the hard work of police officers that is often “thankless” and hoped that the behaviors he was guarding against were only the actions of a minority of DPD. But the rest of his ruling used strong language and examples to put forth the idea that “citizens should never have to fear peaceful protest on the basis of police retaliation, especially not when protesting that very same police violence.” 

The inclusion of this amendment into SB20-217 is important for a few reasons. First, Jackson admitted that his ruling was only a temporary restraining order and therefore might not apply to future protests. Second, Jackson also admitted that “there may later be questions of qualified immunity” if protesters file suits against law enforcement officials or agencies. SB20-217 seeks to end qualified immunity, a tricky clause that allows police officers to get away with a litany of crimes because they are doing their jobs when they commit the crimes and there might not be specific laws against what they did. The catch-22, of course, is that with qualified immunity, there is no chance to create a legal precedent to charge officers in the future with similar crimes.

What You Can Do

SB20-217 passed the Senate with a nearly unanimous vote in favor. On Wednesday, June 10, the bill went through the first reading in the House of Representatives and passed narrowly, 7 to 4. A final vote will most likely be decided on Friday, pending more testimony and amendments. Here are the ways you can comment on the bill.

Contact your representative to vote in favor through this link

Share information about this bill to your friends and family

Publicly thank Senators who passed the bill