Eagle County’s top cops endorse letter urging action from Congress
Letter from international group: ’It is beyond time to act’ on federal police accountability legislation
The International Association of Chiefs of Police is appealing to Congress to pass federal police reform legislation. The valley’s top law enforcement officials say it’s past time for action.
The association recently sent a letter, titled “It is beyond time,” to Congress, and members are lobbying federal representatives.
“Over the last seven years, communities and police departments have struggled over the difficult questions central to police reform efforts — when it is appropriate to use force, how should officers and agencies be held accountable, what should the community’s role be in police policy and oversight, and what roles must other agencies play in public safety,” the letter states. The letter adds that during this period, “the United States Congress has done nothing.”
The letter goes on to make several recommendations, including:
- Mandating participation in the National Use of Force Database.
- Developing national standards for discipline and termination of officers.
- Mandating participation in the National Police Officer Decertification Database.
- Enhancing police leadership and culture.
The letter notes that some congressional leaders, including Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat, and Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican, are working on compromise solutions.
Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger said he’s spoken with Sen. Michael Bennet’s staff about a criminal justice act currently before Congress, and has offered advice about how the police chiefs’ association may be able to help.
Henninger is a member of the association’s executive board, is currently the group’s first vice president and will assume the presidency of the group in September of this year.
Henninger said one bill currently before Congress is “70% fine.” But, he added, “people who don’t do the job are writing laws.”
That can be a problem, he added.
Colorado Senate Bill 217, passed in 2020, has “already had an effect on the profession,” Henninger said.
That bill requires body-worn cameras for all patrol officers and creates a state database of many law enforcement actions including “all data related to contacts conducted by (a department’s) peace officers.”
The law also lays out conditions in which an officer can lose his or her certification. It also lays out possible personal liability of up to $25,000 for officers determined in court to have acted negligently or outside the law.
Henninger said a bill this year, Senate Bill 62, further limits police action and what can cause a suspect to be jailed. The bill also aims to reduce jail populations.
That bill could have serious unintended consequences, Henninger said.
“There has to be consequences for behavior,” Henninger said. “It seems like we’re forgetting the victims.”
Concern about ‘over-legislating’
Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek is also a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
“Over-legislating is a concern for us,” van Beek said, adding that reform will be difficult, “but it can be done.”
There are “very few” law enforcement chiefs who don’t agree that “some changes” need to be made regarding police work, van Beek said, adding that local police are making positive changes.
“We’re in the forefront of getting some things done,” van Beek said, noting that local police work with Eagle Valley Behavioral Health to try to ensure people in crisis get treatment instead of incarceration.
Police have to recruit from the human population, and that means there are imperfect candidates for law enforcement jobs.
“You do have knuckleheads” in police forces, van Beek said, adding it can be “extremely difficult” to remove bad officers due to department policy, or labor organizations.
Avon Police Chief Greg Daly is also an association member. He said he’s “fully in support” of the association’s letter to Congress.
“It’s an exciting time to push for needed change across the nation,” Daly said.
Daly said last year’s Senate Bill 217 made Colorado “one of the first states to take such expansive steps toward accountability.”
But, he added, it’s “ssad to see some of these things are driven by tragedy … and it’s taken criminal events (by police) for changes to take place on a national level.”
Daly is a native of Ireland, which is where his police career began. That small nation has a national police force. Daly in his U.S. career has worked for agencies that are locally controlled.
Daly sees pros and cons to both systems. A federal system, especially in a country the size of the United States, can’t account for differences in communities.
‘Culture of accountability’ needed
But communities need to ensure they’re building a culture of accountability in local police agencies, Daly said. That starts with hiring practices and vetting potential officers.
Daly said Avon Police representatives make in-person visits to communities where a candidate has worked. That vetting will include talking, in person, to a candidate’s current and former neighbors.
“We have to hire the best, ethical people,” Daly said. “If they aren’t ethical from the get-go, they never will be.”
That focus on accountability continues after an officer is hired, Daly added.
Daly added that the mostly appropriate attention on police misconduct misses a lot of the good done by officers working locally.
Daly noted that Avon now has six Hispanic officers, nearly one-third of all patrol officers. All are either fluent or functional in Spanish, and that’s important, since Avon’s population is about half Hispanic.
Other people in the department are also either fluent or functional in Spanish, Daly said.
And while big-city officers are generally buried in calls, Daly said local officers have time to spend more time with people.
Having a burger with residents at The Aspens mobile home park in town can go a long way toward building trust with the public, he said.
But, Daly added, if an officer makes a mistake — and it happens — the department needs to act.
“If we mess up, we’ll take accountability,” Daly said. If that doesn’t happen at other departments, Daly said changes in culture “should have happened years ago.”
It’s available on the website of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.