On the corner of East 12th Street and Main Avenue in Durango, flowers, signs and memorabilia create a memorial for victims of police violence. The corner has seen marches, vigils and discussions about police reform since George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minnesota police in May.
In response, La Plata County officials have begun to look at their own policies. In some ways, they are in line with police reform proposals, but officials say they can always do more.
Many in law enforcement, politics and civil rights advocacy in La Plata County support key police reform measures, like the Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act that passed the state Legislature earlier this week with bipartisan support and awaits Gov. Jared Polis’ signature. But as the county’s initial burst of engagement in the Black Lives Matter movement settles, one local leader, Dwayne Perry Jr., said it is time to turn support into action.
“Moving forward, I expect (Durango) City Council to make decisions that support people of color within this community,” said Perry, who has taken on a leadership role in the local Black Lives Matter movement.
In Denver, protests demanding police reform and accountability shook the state capital. Colorado lawmakers responded by passing one of the most comprehensive police reform packages in the country.
Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, said the Legislature “worked so hard to get so much input,” including from public health and public service workers.
“They were so happy they had been heard,” McLachlan said in an interview. “It made people cry.”
Christian Champagne, district attorney for the 6th Judicial District, said 99% of peace officers are good professionals, but “we cannot ignore the racial disparities that plague the criminal justice system.” He hopes the bill will be a step toward resolving those disparities.
In La Plata County, two of three municipalities and all four law enforcement agencies have issued statements in response to Floyd’s death and policing policies. Hundreds of people have gathered at protests and vigils in Durango, calling for racial equality, police reform and justice for people of color, with few counterprotesters in attendance.
The Durango Herald interviewed more than 15 La Plata County law enforcement officials, city councilors, town trustees and civil rights advocates about policing policy proposals and their vision for the future. Several people of color and advocacy organizations did not respond to interview requests. Some expressed concern about fair media coverage and retribution from community members.
“Small town America is not excused from this situation,” said Barbara Noseworthy, Durango city councilor. “We have to address this systemic racism within our law enforcement on a national and local level. Whether we see it or not here, we still need to be addressing it.”
Approaches to reformOfficials with Durango City Council, Durango Police Department, the Bayfield and Ignacio boards of trustees and the Ignacio Police Department said they broadly supported Colorado’s police accountability bill. Some leaders had concerns.
Colorado’s comprehensive police accountability bill requires officers to wear and record interactions using body cameras. Policing agencies must track and publicly report demographic information of individuals contacted during incidents, including race and ethnicity. Officers can’t use chemical agents, such as tear gas, without warning, or fire projectiles indiscriminately into protesting crowds.
The new bill also requires law enforcement officers to intervene if fellow officers use excessive force. Failure to intervene will be considered a Class 1 misdemeanor, but prosecutors could bring higher charges depending on the evidence.
Durango, Bayfield and Ignacio have already implemented many of the bill’s measures in law enforcement trainings and policies. Some changes could pose staffing and funding challenges, like changing documentation practices and paying for video data storage, law enforcement officials said.
The three municipalities do not allow chokeholds, which the bill banned unless the officer’s life is in danger or certain other criteria are met.
“Those stipulations are still giving police officers loopholes,” Perry said. “They are playing with the wording, and it’s not really giving people of color that vote of confidence in how they’re going about reform.”
The bill dismantles qualified immunity for police officers, a protection that prevents members of the public from suing a police officer for wrongful use of force while on active duty.
In an email to the Herald, Durango Police Department Chief Bob Brammer said he is “gravely concerned and opposed” to efforts to change qualified immunity protections for police officers.
He said he agrees with the International Association of the Chiefs of Police, which has said “the loss of this protection would have a profoundly chilling effect on police officers and limit their ability and willingness to respond to critical incidents without hesitation.”
Several agencies, including the Bayfield Marshal and La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, are supportive of a law enforcement officer’s duty to intervene if another officer is using excessive force.
“It is the duty of all deputies with the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office to preserve life in situations involving use of force,” Sgt. Chris Burke with the Sheriff’s Office wrote in an email to the Herald. “The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office stands with the County Sheriffs of Colorado in revision of this statute.”
Durango, Bayfield and Ignacio have also already implemented most of the eight strategies proposed in Campaign Zero’s “8 Can’t Wait” initiative, another effort pushed by racial equality advocates.
Some protesters and advocates have called for defunding police agencies, or at least decreasing excessive budgets. Durango, Ignacio and Bayfield officials do not support defunding police. Some said they would support re-examining budget allocations.
“We are well ahead of the curve. That’s not to say we can’t do more,” said Durango Mayor Dean Brookie. “In Durango, it’s the opportunity for us to become better educated as a community as to what our current level of policing is.”
Looking aheadIn response to the protests and marches in Durango and Bayfield, local officials have focused on gathering information from community members.
“I’m a white woman with a whole lot of privilege. I haven’t had a negative experience with law enforcement, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist,” Noseworthy said. Most top officials in Bayfield and Durango are white. Ignacio has a more racially diverse town leadership.
“I’m a big believer in continuous improvement. That doesn’t mean we’re critical or things are being done poorly in any way. But there are always ways we can be better,” Noseworthy said.
Several Durango councilors proposed working with the city’s Community Relations Commission and examining personnel complaint processing within the Durango Police Department. The DPD also invited Perry to join its Citizen Review Board, which assesses how the department reviews personnel complaints.
“Essentially, just having a person of color on this board will hold DPD to a higher level of accountability,” Perry said.
In Bayfield, town officials said they are reviewing town policies, including those of the police department, and emphasized listening to the community. The mayor issued a proclamation welcoming peaceful demonstrations, supporting diversity and saying hate ideologies have no place in the town.
“We don’t have those issues come across our desk,” said Trustee Kelly Polites. “I’m not saying they’re not out there. I haven’t heard about them, and I want to hear about them if something like that is occurring.”
Ignacio Mayor Stella Cox said the Board of Trustees had not discussed police reform in response to the nationwide wave of protests or any next steps within the town.
“There is no next step right now. ... Our force isn’t that big. If a complaint came up where there was a policy needing to be addressed, we would address it,” she said.
For Perry, the next steps come down to the budget and local voting.
He would like to see City Council replace police officers with unarmed professionals for non-criminal matters, like those involving mental health, the homeless and school discipline, as a part of police reform.
Perry advocated for more intensive trainings and more strict qualification requirements within law enforcement agencies. Legislation needs to be enacted to address and outlaw systemic racism, he said.
“Ideally, I’d also like to see more people of color involved in political decisions and boards here in Durango. I’d like to see more people of color opening businesses here. That starts with City Council and legislation.”