Civil-rights demonstrations and recall threats be damned, Greenwood Village is doubling down on its vow to work around a key tenet of SB-217, Colorado's new police reform and accountability law: protecting law enforcement officers from having to pay out personally.
"Based on our workforce, training and culture that have existed for a long time in our City, we do not believe that the added potential punishment of a $25,000 judgment will affect their actions one way or another in those few seconds of crisis when officers have to make split-second life or death decisions," the city said in a July 9 statement, offered after the Greenwood Village City Council was deluged with criticism for passing a resolution on July 6 promising to always pick up the tab for police officers who get sued under the new law.
SB-217, which was approved by Colorado lawmakers after thousands of protesters took to the streets across the state to protest racist law enforcement actions, contains a number of groundbreaking reforms. It also ended immunity for law enforcement officers, creating a personal liability of up to $25,000 each for police officers if they're sued and an employer determines that they acted in bad faith or knowingly did something illegal.
The council move didn't sit well with a group of protesters who gathered at Greenwood Village City Hall on July 9.
"This resolution means that a cop can kill someone and won't have to pay a dime of his own money," said Ramsey Headrick, an eighteen-year old senior at Cherry Creek High School who organized the protest.
But the response won't end with demonstrations. Joining in the protest was Billy Wynne, a health-policy consultant who plans on gathering signatures to initiate a recall election of Councilman Dave Bullock; Wynne lives in Bullock's district.
"The people who voted for it need to be held accountable," said Wynne, who noted that he fully supports police officers but doesn't support Bullock's recent action. "What really motivates me, and why I am pursuing a recall on Councilman Bullock in particular, is because, as he said before the vote, this is about more than police work and expressing support for police officers. It’s about sending a message, and that message being that Greenwood Village doesn’t agree with what other cities are doing."
Before voting on July 6, Bullock had offered this statement about the resolution: "I think it also sends a message to, really, the community, the state, the country, that we have a very different attitude toward law enforcement and the rule of law in Greenwood Village. What is happening in many other places across the country. And we don’t need to go into specifics. We’ve all seen them. We all know what’s happening. And so, in addition to showing support to our officers, I also believe that the bigger, broader standpoint [is] we are supporting the rule of law and basically sending a message to our residents that, if you live in this community, our officers are going to do all they can to keep you safe."
As Wynne interprets this statement, Bullock is saying that Greenwood Village doesn't tolerate protests and "the activation and public calls for justice of the black community in particular and other people of color." He "thinks Greenwood Village doesn’t stand with that, addressing those injustices," says Wynne. "I disagree."
The governor of Colorado didn't approve of Greenwood Village going rogue, either. "Bipartisan police reform is the law of Colorado," Jared Polis said in response to a question about the resolution during a July 9 press conference. "That's the law under which our police departments and sheriff departments operate. It was designed to restore trust between communities and law enforcement. It's important for any community to have that trust. We all function under the laws of Colorado, including the changes to civil liability, including the ban on chokeholds, the requirements around video cameras for those officers. All of those are the law of Colorado, and I'm confident that communities across our state will continue to follow the law."
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser also took issue with Greenwood Village's stance.
“If local governments pass resolutions to place a blanket shield for their law enforcement officers, regardless of whether they act in bad faith, they are going against the spirit of SB 20-217 and its goal of accountability for wrongful conduct," Weiser said in a statement released after the council passed the resolution. "I encourage local governments to implement this law as envisioned and find appropriate ways to demonstrate their support and appreciation for responsible law enforcement officers. If they decline to do so, I expect the legislature will take action in January to address this issue."
And that's exactly what could happen next year. Lawmakers who championed SB-217, which received broad bipartisan support, have confirmed that they'll push legislation to close any possible loopholes in the new law, including the one Greenwood Village is attempting to use.
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"If we have cities who want to do a runaround of 217, then we will create stronger legislation to ensure that they are also held accountable for the bad actions of their officers," says Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who was one of the prime sponsors of the bill in the legislature.
Ironically, even if a loophole-free law had been on the books much earlier, it would would not have affected the most controversial police action in recent years in Greenwood Village. In 2015, a SWAT team chasing down a Walmart shoplifter destroyed a house in Greenwood Village where the scofflaw had taken cover; the city offered just $5,000 in compensation to the homeowner, Leo Lech. Although Lech was compensated by his insurance company, he still had to pay out of pocket for the deductible and other costs, and wound up suing Greenwood Village, taking his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear it.
But Lech wouldn't have been able to collect $25,000 from each officer involved in destroying his house, because even his lawyer admitted that they didn't act in bad faith. "No one is questioning whether the police tactics were reasonable," Jeffrey Redfern, a lawyer who represented the Lech family, previously told Westword .
These days, though, reason is not in season in Greenwood Village.