On June 19, at the height of protests in Denver and elsewhere over civil rights and the killing of George Floyd, Gov. Jared Polis signed into law a package of police accountability measures, governing and mandating the use of body cameras and the release of that information; regarding the collection and release of data about police use of force; prohibiting certain law enforcement actions in response to protests; and, among still other things, declaring an end to qualified immunity for police officers in some circumstances, meaning officers can be held personally liable for their actions.
This was a landmark act among all the states and an unusually timely and solid response by the state Legislature and the governor to the problems the country has seen. But that last provision, about ending qualified immunity, is going down as well in a few quarters as an emetic.
Under the new law, officers who act in bad faith could owe up to $25,000 in civil settlements. Until now, their cities or towns would pay that.
On July 6, the city council of Greenwood Village, an affluent suburb of Denver, unanimously passed a resolution that its city will never find its officers have acted in bad faith. Speaking of bad faith, the council seems to want to legislate with magical thinking. And it is not just the councilors.
“The intent of Council’s resolution was simply to inform its officers that as their employer, they would not make such a (bad-faith) finding no matter what,” Greenwood Village city attorney Tonya Haas Davidson said in an email to The Denver Post. “Nowhere in the law is an employer ever required to make a finding of bad faith.”
This is like saying there is no place in the law in Greenwood Village where Greenwood Village is required to find that its employees are stealing from the city or harassing one another, and telling the employees to act accordingly.
Greenwood Village City Manager John Jackson, its former police chief, told the Post his city had already lost a veteran police officer because of the new law, which, in his mind, apparently justified the council’s action.
We anticipate there may be a few officers around the state who do not want to remain with Colorado police departments and be held to a higher or costlier standard. There are two in Durango, as the Herald reported Friday. But this is not an indictment of the new law. These departments will recruit new officers to take their places, good people, we hope, who want to work in an environment of greater accountability, where they can conceivably do even more good.
Naturally and rightfully in the summer of 2020, the acts of the Greenwood Village council did not escape the notice of protesters. On Monday, hundreds of people gathered in the park behind Greenwoood Village City Hall to hear a protest concert by Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats and Wesley Schultz of The Lumineers, called a “march and play-in for justice.” State Sen. Jeff Bridges, of Greenwood Village, said “Our officers must be exemplary, not exempt.”
The state’s new law “is one of the most important anti-racist bills in state history, and it passed with unanimous, bipartisan support,” Bridges told the Post. “Saying parts of it don’t apply to the city I live in undermines the bill and sends a very dangerous message to communities of color.”
The musicians are threatening to organize a boycott of Greenwood Village if the city does not back down, aimed at the city’s Fiddler’s Green Amphitheater – which, under the circumstances, seems like an honorable tactic.
City councils do not get to choose which state laws and reforms they will enforce any more than police departments do, even if they make the former police chief the city manager, and even if they insist, dubiously, that they only have the best intentions.