George Brauchler, the term-limited district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, and Patrick Neville, a survivor of the Columbine shootings and the current Colorado House minority leader, are speaking out against any reductions in police budgets in the face of what Brauchler characterizes as "surging crime" and Neville describes as another “summer of violence.”
On June 30, both Brauchler and Neville reviewed the state's new bipartisan police reform legislation, the Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act, on a webinar hosted by the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University that was moderated by Jeff Hunt, CCU vice president of public policy and director of the Centennial Institute.
Brauchler said he's already seeing a “crime wave” crashing into Colorado, which he attributes to Governor Jared Polis’s public-health orders. Citing data from his jurisdiction, the DA noted that at this time last year, Aurora had four homicides; today it has twenty, a 500 percent increase. “You combine that with things like motor vehicle theft, which has surged since the governor’s stay-at-home order, and there is a lawlessness out there that is more and more pervasive,” he explained.
That's why supporting law enforcement officers is more important than ever, especially as social justice protests have surged over the past month, Brauchler continued: “We’ve got the cops on their heels. All we hear is, ‘It’s okay — the spray paint and the glass and the damage — because that’s property and we’re talking about people, and they’re super angry, so let’s just let it go.’ That is only going to make the rest of this year and next year suck even more for public safety."
Neville, who was in on initial discussions of the police-reform bill, said he wouldn't have endorsed it without certain amendments, but he ultimately supported it, as did the vast majority of the state's legislators. Even so, the law primarily addresses a “big-city” problem, he explained, adding that many of the state's police departments won’t be affected by it. “Most of the police forces out there are doing what’s in this bill as passed,” he said. “By and large, if there were any issues, it was usually in Denver and Aurora, places like that.”
Hunt raised concerns about costs inherent in the measure, including a new mandate that all local and state police officers must wear body cameras by 2023. Neville said that the decision to give departments a year to acquire equipment was a way of helping them collect the necessary funds, but Brauchler pointed out that video storage could be an added, unanticipated expense. “Just because of the sheer advances in technology, the amount of space that has to be taken up in storage, I’d say we average close to $200,000 a year in extra storage that we need for all of this video and some other digital things,” he said.
While the law also removes qualified immunity protection for officers, Neville pointed to an amendment that added some protection: “A peace officer's employer shall indemnify its peace officers for any liability incurred by the police officer and for any judgement or settlement entered against the peace officer...except that if the peace officer's employer determines the officer did not act upon a good faith and reasonable belief that the action was lawful, then the peace officer is personally liable for 5% of the judgment or $25,000, whichever is less.”
The "good faith and reasonable belief" part of this section should help prevent a flood of frivolous lawsuits and civil rights claims, he explained. "A police officer could be doing something criminal, but as long as there’s reasonable belief to believe that’s not criminal, it still doesn’t even apply to him to get sued in his personal capacity.”
But Brauchler called the removal of a qualified defense as an “I hate cops approach,” noting that cops are no more prone to making mistakes than are doctors or state officials, including governors. “We’re going to have to fend off a lot more lawsuits,” he said. “My guess is that 99 percent of those things are going to be bogus, and the cities and their insurance policies — or if they’re self-insured, taxpayers — are going to cover the cost of all this stuff. That’s going to be a big deal.”
Brauchler's biggest concern, though, is that by making it easier to sue them, officers might be more reluctant to do their duty in matters of life or death. Veteran cops would also be more likely to take early retirement, he added, and young cops wary of being held liable, being disrespected and “spit on.”
Brauchler said that a few “bad apples” and exaggerated media attention are affecting how all law enforcement agencies are viewed. “You’re going to see more and more good people leaving or refusing to come in, and it’s going to have a spiral effect," he explained. "We’re going to have less good people training less good people."
Both men agreed that the law's new criminal charge for officers who don't stop a fellow officer from using excessive force, for a “failure to intervene," has received broad support among police officials. “What I heard from all the law enforcement officers is that they were supportive of this," Neville said. "They want to feel like all police officers have the ability to intervene and not be pressured by other police officers to not intervene.”
The law also calls for the establishment of a database of fired, decertified or untruthful officers starting January 1, 2022; this makes due process for officers critical, Brauchler said. “I don’t want to see something so loosey-goosey that if a chief of police or some other commander takes a personal dislike to an officer, they can put something in place that means that person’s career is over,” he explained.
As a DA, Brauchler was adamantly against the provision in the new law that gives the state attorney general the authority to prosecute persistently bad departments and officers; he compared directing crime-specific issues to the AG’s office to asking a podiatrist to do brain surgery. “The AG’s office is no place to usurp local control over crime in law enforcement,” he said. “With all due respect to the AG, this was a guy who campaigned on the irrelevance of having knowledge and expertise in criminal justice.
“We ought to be very, very concerned about the impact that the mob can have on a prosecutor who is politically minded instead of justice-minded,” Brauchler added.
As an example, he cited the Elijah McClain case; after millions of people signed a petition on Change.org, Governor Jared Polis decided to ask the Colorado AG's office to investigate. "The flaw in the system is to accept the idea that if enough people in the system say someone should be prosecuted, then they should be prosecuted. That just isn’t ethical,” Brauchler said. (While Colorado AG Phil Weiser is now investigating Aurora's handling of Elijah McClain's death, the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and the Denver Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation are also reviewing the facts of the case, and have been since last year.)
Neville, too, said he's bothered by the power of political pressure. Back in January, he noted, protesters interrupted the governor’s State of the State speech and the Denver district attorney decided not to prosecute them. How, he asked, is this different from not prosecuting the Aurora police officers involved in the Elijah McClain case?
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“We like to criticize Dave Young [DA for the 17th District] for not prosecuting, but then on the other hand we see when Beth McCann, a liberal DA, doesn’t prosecute people for a crime, they’re cheering that,” he said. “It’s rather disturbing."
Both Brauchler and Neville told Hunt that they're weary of how law enforcement officers are being viewed right now. “We demand a lot from them, and then to make laws like this which have such an initial negative connotation to them, negative intent...how many cops right now are cursing the guy from Minneapolis because of what he has done to their profession, even more than already existed?” Brauchler asked.
What’s bothering law enforcement officials most right now is the negative attitude they're feeling from the public, Neville added. With crime rising, he said, “We have to do our part, when we see a police officer, to thank them, to be respectful. ... If we have a chance to talk good about law enforcement, we should be doing that.”
Hunt concluded the discussion with this: “We need to back the blue when we can, and support them for the good work they do in our community.”