Colorado law would call a Denver study, the Aurora Police protest response to Aurora

DENVER | Colorado lawmakers are considering bill that would convene a law enforcement response study and training to protect the rights of the First Amendment and ensure peaceful demonstrations.

The move comes after activists outraged the Denver and Aurora police response to the racial justice protests last summer over the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Elijah McClain in Aurora.

The largely peaceful demonstrations in Denver and Aurora in late May and early June were met with tear gas and hundreds of arrests. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed lawsuits against the city on behalf of Black Lives Matter 5280 and several protesters allegedly injured by police.

An amendment proposed by one of the bill’s sponsors, Democratic Senator Jeff Bridges, at the Senate Judicial Committee hearing Thursday, amended the bill that would originally have prohibited officials from declaring protests unlawful unless a significant number of demonstrators threatened immediate property damage or personal injury.

The bill now requires a Colorado State Patrol-led study group to evaluate law enforcement responses to protests, improve communications between organizers and authorities, and investigate costs and insurance for property and personal injury.

The research would also aim to “identify methods of distinguishing between legitimate protesters and outside agitators involved in unlawful acts and harm,” the amendment said.

“What we saw in all of Colorado’s cities was basically ad hoc and arbitrary for law enforcement to see something as an ‘illegal gathering’. And that notion was in no way consistent, ”said Denise Mayes, director of public order for the ACLU in Colorado.

The Colorado Statute provides a definition of what counts as riot, but does not define a lawful or unlawful gathering, which is why the ACLU is supporting the establishment of a study group to look into these issues, Mayes said.

The group would also assess and reinforce law enforcement training requirements in elevation rights, crowd control, stress management and other skills to ensure peaceful demonstrations. The bill would require the group to submit its findings and recommendations to lawmakers on or before January 1, 2022.

Steve Garcia, a major with Colorado State Patrol, said the agency would involve law enforcement, district attorneys, and protest and community leaders in the discussions.

Democratic Senator Julie Gonzales, vice chair of the committee, asked why State Patrol should lead the study, given that the bill and amendment were introduced “in response to those who criticized law enforcement”.

In response, Garcia said the study would assess issues that help create “procedural justice” that includes voice, respect, trustworthiness and neutrality. By allowing law enforcement to have the conversation, Garcia said it would help repair police legitimacy by allowing more direct community engagement.

Gonzales also withdrew the content of the study, noting that there had been talks about the role of law enforcement in the community, extremism, and the role of the First Amendment – but none had directed these issues inward.

“Where is the place to discuss extremism within law enforcement?” She said. “I’m asking the question because parishioners came to me last summer to have the talks about Three Percenters who were in the National Guard and Three Percenters who were in law enforcement.”

The Three Percenters are an anti-government militia group that was part of the extremists who stormed the Capitol on January 6th.

Stephen Schulz, president of the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police, said he did not know whether law enforcement extremism would be included in the State Patrol-led study.

Gonzales also asked the witnesses if it was an issue to talk about.

“If there are any bad actors in law enforcement … if preferred, these will be investigated by the authorities and matters will be dealt with as they should be,” said Schulz. “When it comes to law enforcement extremism, I have no answer.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee presented the bill on Thursday and will be voted on at a future meeting.

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Nieberg is a corps member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a not-for-profit national utility that places journalists on local newsrooms to cover undercover issues.

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