Policing the police: What accountability for law enforcement looks like in Eagle County
Law enforcement officials say many procedures are already in place as far-reaching state reform bill heads to governor’s desk
Colorado’s new far-reaching police reform bill is a rarity: a significant piece of legislation that achieved widespread bipartisan support while passing in mere days, not weeks or months.
The killing of George Floyd, an unarmed African American man who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, was undoubtedly the catalyst that pushed the bill to passage so quickly, but Rep. Dylan Roberts said the ideas in the new law are ones that state lawmakers have been talking about for years.
And in Roberts’ case, those conversations have been ongoing with law enforcement officials — both in his role as a state lawmaker for Eagle and Routt counties and as a deputy district attorney in Eagle County.
“There’s nothing new in the bill, but putting all of those ideas into one bill and moving it through the legislative process during this session is significant,” Roberts said Friday as the bill was nearing passage in the House. “The pace of the bill is moving fast, but because the ideas are not new, these are conversations that we are having robustly. We’ve made significant changes to the bill since it’s been introduced and the reason it has broad bipartisan support is because we all recognize that the protests outside of this Capitol building are making it very clear that we need to do something.”
Holding police accountable
What exactly does the bill accomplish?
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Among other provisions, it requires all local and Colorado State Patrol officers who interact with the public to wear body cameras by July 1, 2023, and bans the use of chokeholds and carotid holds like the one that killed Floyd. It outlaws police from aiming tear gas or rubber bullets at protesters’ heads, pelvises or backs. It also requires agencies to release body camera footage within 45 days of a questionable police encounter, collect racial data on officers’ encounters with the public and report to the state when officers unholster their weapons, point their weapons at a citizen and use deadly force.
The most contentious piece of the bill, which underwent significant revisions, was the language that allows police officers to be sued for misconduct by getting rid of the qualified immunity defense that protects government workers from lawsuits.
Locally, law enforcement officials said some of the provisions of the bill are already in place in their departments and that use of force is a rare occurrence in Eagle County.
Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek said his biggest concerns with the bill were making sure that it didn’t exempt state agencies like the Colorado State Patrol or the Colorado Bureau of Investigation from provisions like body cameras or being held liable for misconduct.
“We’re all for progress and dealing with systemic issues within agencies, but on this bill itself, there was a lot of concern,” he said. “We were kind of sitting there saying, listen, if it’s good for the goose, it’s good for the gander. It should be equal across the board.”
Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger said local law enforcement agencies are “much more similar than dissimilar” in the way officers are trained. All those agencies use the same organization for their policy manuals, and those manuals are all based on Colorado law.
“We rarely use force here, and when we do, we have a very exacting policy on how to make those split-second decisions,” Henninger said.
Eliminating a ‘patchwork of procedures’
Van Beek said chokeholds had already been banned from use by local deputies, with one exception: an absolute life-or-death situation.
“Either they’re fighting with somebody for their life or they’re defending somebody else — say someone is in the process of trying to kill another person,” van Beek said. “And there’s no other means to get them off. Then they’re allowed to do that. They’re actually looking at taking it off the books, but it hasn’t been applied in many, many years, thankfully.”
The new law, Roberts said, will create uniformity across the state for outlawing such tactics that were still on the books in a number of places.
“I would say it’s fairly widespread,” Roberts said. “The reason we’re doing this in a statewide bill is because we no longer want to have a patchwork of police procedures like that across the state. I think we all uniformly agree that chokeholds are not an acceptable tactic and it should be banned in every single police department across the state.”
In regard to use of force, both Henninger and van Beek said violent interactions between members of law enforcement and the public is very rare in Eagle County. And there were already measures in place for reporting use of force.
At the Vail Police Department, Henninger said those reports are reviewed by everyone in an officer’s chain of command and that Vail police document “all levels of force,” from someone resisting while being handcuffed to resisting while being put into a patrol car. All those reports are reviewed at the end of each year.
On the other hand, a situation can turn dangerous at any time and anywhere, Henninger said.
“You don’t know who’s coming through the valley,” he said.
If a complaint is filed against an officer, that complaint is first investigated by the on-duty sergeant. That complaint can be evaluated up the chain of command. Investigation includes reviewing available camera footage, both from the officer’s body camera and any other surveillance cameras in the area. Witnesses are interviewed, as is the person who filed the complaint, as well as other officers who were on the scene.
A commander reviews all that information, and, “if appropriate,” makes disciplinary recommendations. If an officer’s actions are outside department policy, discipline can ultimately lead to an officer’s termination.
That’s rare. Henninger said an officer is disciplined for use of force “at most” every five years or so.
All that is covered in the department’s annual report.
Henninger said officers can, and do, make mistakes.
“We all have buttons that get pushed,” he said. “We can let our emotions get the better of us.”
Van Beek said duty to report and duty to intervene — both measures mandated in the new bill — are procedures that are already in place in Eagle County.
And, in recent years, any disciplining or termination of deputies hasn’t been the result of anything related to any kind of use of force.
“We had some complaints, we looked into them and they weren’t use of force,” he said. “We’ve done it all the way from the scope of, your officer was very short and curt with me all the way up from that, but we’ve had none terminated for that. We’ve had some disciplinary actions from things internally and personnel reasons, along those lines, but nothing that has to do with violence or using the use of force in any way, shape or form.”
The same goes for complaints related to anything race-related, van Beek said.
“We’ve had people accuse my officers of being a–holes and things along those lines, but we’ve looked into every one of the allegations and there have been nothing,” van Beek said.
Van Beek also mentioned that previous laws have made it harder for bad officers to get hired by another agency.
“A law already passed a few years ago that says I have an obligation, say if (Eagle Police) Chief (Joe) Staufer wants to hire one of the people I let go, I have a duty and responsibility to let him know both the good and bad,” van Beek said. “It used to be kind of the tradition of, let’s get rid of the bad seed, we’ll let him go down the road, we’ll give him a rating review, and once somebody else hires him, he’s no longer our problem. But law enforcement has been doing that for several years. So we’re just eliminating potentially bad seeds.”
Roberts echoed that statement, adding that “what I’ve heard consistently from Sheriff van Beek to Chief Daly to Chief Henninger is that nobody hates a bad cop more than a good cop.”
Among the calls for reform nationwide has been a demand to end “us vs. them” policing — a problem that starts in the way officers are trained.
In Vail, Henninger said the primary focus of officer training is de-escalating situations. That’s been the case for “many years,” Henninger said.
There’s a crisis intervention team to handle training including de-escalation tactics, procedures and policies.
For cases such as drunk and disorderly incidents, there isn’t specific training, but officers and commanders talk about how to control various situtions. Those incidents can be complicated by the size and intoxication level of a suspect, the presence of other officers and other factors.
Officers are trained to use the “minimum necessary amount of force,” Henninger said. Those tactics include verbal orders, pressure-point holds, hand and knee strikes and the use of tools including tasers, batons and spray.
All officers go to the police academy. That training includes a lot of scenario-based training, Henninger said. Training continues when rookie officers are hired by an agency.
“It’s incumbent on us how to use that training,” Henninger said.
All Vail police officers get 40 hours of training every spring and fall. Henninger said a lot of training is on the basics. Additionally, all officers try to get to the shooting range at least three times per year, and not just for target practice. Training includes scenarios designed specifically for the use of deadly force.
During the winter, officers will train on a firearms simulator to further reinforce the nearly-instant decision making required when an officer uses a firearm.
Henninger said he isn’t aware of any fatal use of force by Vail officers. At one point, more than 20 years ago, before Henninger came to Vail, an officer did take a shot at a fleeing drug dealer.
“We’ve put down injured deer, but otherwise, there’s nothing,” Henninger said.
A reflection of the community
As for diversity, and deputies living in the communities they patrol, van Beek said he’s proud of his department’s makeup. Minority deputies make up about 30% of the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office force, and about 30% of deputies are female.
Eagle County, acccording to the most recent census estimates, has a population that is nearly 67% white with Hispanic or Latino residents making up nearly 30%.
And as for living in the community where they police, van Beek said the driving force behind deputies living in neighboring counties is purely cost of living.
“Anecdotally, there are a lot of minority police officers in Eagle County and across the state,” Roberts said. “But could there be more? Sure.”
Roberts said he also constantly hears from local law enforcement officials about the hiring challenges and retention in Eagle County — a problem that certainly isn’t unique to law enforcement. But he doesn’t see the new accountability bill making those struggles worse.
“I know the chiefs well and I talk to them about their hiring struggles all the time, so, that being said, I certainly have a personal perspective on this, and I don’t believe that this bill is going to, the way that we’ve amended it, going to discourage people from going into law enforcement,” he said. “I think the reforms, while they may be wide-sweeping, they are reasonable and I’ve been at the table amending this bill with the input of law enforcement from Eagle County and across the state so that they can make this work for them.”
Scott Miller contributed reporting to this story. Reporting from The Associated Press and The Colorado Sun was also used.