La Plata County law enforcement agencies say they are well on their way to meeting new police reform policies passed by the Colorado Legislature in June.
The reform law was prompted by the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police and the worldwide protests that followed. Local agencies met the requirements in the law’s first deadline this September with minimal impacts to their budgets or time, but officials expect higher costs in the future.
“It’s hard. It makes us tend to be a little defensive sometimes and say, ‘Wait, we’re doing things the right way.’ But maybe we’re not,” said Lt. Pat Downs with the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office. “Maybe we think we’re doing things the right way, but the perception is a different thing. That’s something we’re willing to understand.”
The Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act, or Senate Bill 217, required immediate changes to policing practices, like banning chokeholds. It removed qualified immunity, which shielded officers from personal liability for their professional actions. It said officers can face criminal charges if they fail to intervene when another officer was using excessive force. The first deadline for reforms arrived Sept. 1, but other changes will arrive in phases.
Law enforcement agencies bristled at the law’s speedy passage and some changes, particularly the qualified immunity policy, according to news reports. Supporters of the legislation saw it as a way to hold law enforcement accountable when criminal action takes place on the part of officers and a way to make policing more transparent through reporting requirements.
In La Plata County, the law remains unpopular with law enforcement, according to several agency representatives.
“With the unknown personal liability, there’s been some stress. At the same time, we understand it. It’s our job to create public safety,” said Durango Deputy Chief Brice Current, adding that the officers were ready to move forward and focus on that job.
First steps of reformLocal law enforcement agencies say they were already doing many of the measures called for in the reform bill, but needed to tweak some policies or do short trainings in advance of the September deadline.
The Durango Police Department issued new business cards that included a website for public complaints. Staff members created a form officers must use to gather newly required demographic information while in the field. The state will begin compiling such information from all agencies and report it to the public in 2023.
Officers received training on the new law and its requirements, like when to keep body-worn cameras on and new restrictions on the use of deadly force. The main costs included time to create the training and time for staff members to participate in the training.
“We’ve become professionals at doing more with less ... we always have been,” Current said. “We’re trying to be more efficient.”
The Sheriff’s Office focused on the same changes: creating a paper form for data collection, training staff members and bringing in authors of the bill to explain it. Costs include staff time to create demographic forms, supplies to print them and possibly some overtime expenses, Downs said.
The Ignacio Police Department went through its policies to make sure they were up to date and explained updates during weekly in-service meetings. Chief Kirk Phillips said training took less than two hours. The policy updates were easy because the law enforcement policy program, Lexipol, sent notices for what needed to be changed.
The Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act forced every agency in the state to re-examine policies, Phillips said, adding that his agency was already practicing most of the required changes.
The Bayfield Marshal’s Office declined an interview for this story.
The biggest and most expensive changes are yet to come, law enforcement agencies say. Body-worn camera requirements, which have a 2023 deadline, are required for any certified officer who interacts with the public.
Durango plans to spend $40,000 to $60,000 for cameras and add a new staff position, costing $75,000, to redact footage when necessary.
The Sheriff’s Office spent $7,800 on video redaction software and plans to purchase 15 new cameras. Ignacio, the smallest of the three agencies, simply spent $300 to increase its data storage.
“I don’t care if you’re a rural agency or a metro agency. The cost comparison is about the same,” said Cmdr. Ray Shupe with DPD. “The financial impact of this, and it’s unfunded from the state, is going to be huge for every agency across the state.”
However, the officials were mainly concerned about the qualified immunity policy, which stressed current officers and could affect recruiting efforts.
All three agencies said it was good to review their policies and do some self-examination. Durango officers are ready to move forward and do what they need to do to do their jobs, Current said.
Said Downs: “We’re trying to hold everyone to a higher standard. We’re trying to improve policing in the state of Colorado. If this bill does that ... I’m all for that. We’re moving along, doing the best we can.”