Denver suburb passes resolution shielding officers from personal liability portion of Colorado’s new police reform law
Just weeks after Colorado passed a sweeping police reform law, Greenwood Village has approved a measure that ensures its officers aren’t on the hook financially if they mistreat or harm a citizen.
Greenwood Village council members unanimously passed a resolution Monday saying the city will never find its officers acted in bad faith. That effectively shields them from having to face personal financial liability for misconduct on the job — contrary to a key stipulation of Senate Bill 217, which became law last month.
“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 wrote in an email Wednesday. “Nowhere in the law is an employer ever required to make a finding of bad faith.”
Lawmakers who helped write the police reform bill were taken aback by Greenwood Village’s move. Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican, called the resolution an “attempted end run” around a major section of SB 217.
“That’s an abrogation of their responsibility to ensure that their officers act in a good faith and reasonable fashion,” Gardner said Wednesday. “They’re prejudging all the cases out there in the future.”
SB 217 states that police officers in Colorado found to have acted in bad faith or without reasonable belief that what they did was lawful are on the hook for up to $25,000 of their own money in a civil settlement rather than the city picking up the tab.
Gardner said it’s admirable that Greenwood Village, an affluent suburb south of Denver, is affirming its support for its police force, “but for elected officials to say there will never be any case in which they would find an officer acted in bad faith or unreasonably is to suggest that such things never happen.”
Cory Christensen, president of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police and Steamboat Springs’ police chief, said Greenwood Village’s measure “doesn’t seem prudent to me, to be honest.”
“I don’t think that was the intent of SB 217,” he said. “I think the intent of 217 was to give communities the ability to stand behind good officers who act in good faith but it’s also to allow communities to not indemnify officers who act in bad faith. The bigger danger for a municipality is what is the message you’re sending to your community.”
SB 217 passed in record time last month following protests over the brutal videotaped killing of a Black man by a white officer in Minneapolis and renewed scrutiny of police behavior in Colorado. But it raised concerns among members of Colorado’s law enforcement community that the new law could drive officers out of the profession and dissuade would-be recruits from applying.
Aside from reducing protections for officers against lawsuits and civil claims, the new law bans chokeholds, requires officers to wear body cameras, punishes officers who don’t try to stop colleagues from using excessive force, and forbids officers from using deadly force against someone who’s fleeing unless the person poses an immediate risk to the officer or others.
Greenwood Village City Manager John Jackson said his city lost an 18-year veteran officer last week due to concerns over the ramifications of SB 217.
“There’s a lot of fear around this with officers doing their jobs right, and they fear what could happen,” said Jackson, who served as the city’s police chief for nearly seven years. “I do not want people with ill intent in the profession of law enforcement, but what we’re doing is grouping them all together and treating them all the same, when they’re not.
“They feel they can’t be in the profession anymore because of the thousands of contacts that open them up to lawsuits every day.”
Greenwood Village Mayor George Lantz told The Denver Post that the city doesn’t want “our police officers to worry about us throwing them under the bus and subjecting them to personal liability.”
“If they violate a policy, they are subject to disciplinary action like any other employee,” the mayor said. “We wanted them to know we aren’t going to also subject them to personal liability on top of everything else they may face.”
But Mari Newman, an attorney representing Elijah McClain, the Black man killed during an arrest by Aurora police last year, said the personal liability section of the bill was included for a very compelling reason.
“The goal in drafting that was to have officers have some skin in the game to incentivize better behavior,” she said.
Bill co-sponsor Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, a House Democrat from Denver, called Greenwood Village’s action “concerning.” She said the indemnification section in SB 217 is about personal responsibility.
“I think it’s about holding people accountable and responsible for their actions and that people are dying at the hands of people we are trusting to keep us safe,” she said. “Asking taxpayers to pay for these sorts of things that happen — that isn’t fair.”
Colorado cities and counties have just started figuring out how to implement the new law. The day after Greenwood Village passed its measure shielding its officers from legal claims, El Paso County commissioners voted to form a committee tasked with deciding whether the county should cover a portion of legal fees for officers involved in use-of-force cases, according to KDRO-TV in Colorado Springs.
Gardner, the Republican senator who worked on making SB 217 more palatable to Colorado’s law enforcement community, said Greenwood Village’s approach could end up backfiring across the state.
“It invites those on the other side of this debate to put forth legislation next year that is more onerous and difficult for law enforcement,” he said.
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