Colo. town will shield police from 'personal liability' portion of police reform law

Greenwood Village stated the town would in all cases defend any police officer in any suit or proceeding brought under Senate Bill 217

By John Aguilar
The Denver Post

DENVER — Colorado’s attorney general, Phil Weiser, warned local governments Thursday that they need to follow the intent of the state’s new police reform law or expect that “the legislature will take action in January to address this issue” — a threat echoed by a key state lawmaker.

Backlash has been swift since The Denver Post reported Wednesday that Greenwood Village’s elected leaders had passed a resolution stating that the city would “in all cases defend any police officer in any suit or proceeding brought under (Senate Bill 217) and pay or indemnify its police officers against all expenses” incurred from a legal challenge to officer conduct.

A crowd protests Greenwood Village's resolution shielding law enforcement from the state's new police reform law on July 9, 2020. Image: Twitter
A crowd protests Greenwood Village's resolution shielding law enforcement from the state's new police reform law on July 9, 2020. Image: Twitter

The suburb south of Denver, through its attorney and mayor, told The Post that it would never find a police officer to have acted in bad faith. Greenwood Village is seeking to protect its officers from personal liability even in cases when officers knowingly behave unlawfully — in contradiction to the new police reform law, which says officers can be on the hook for up to $25,000.

“The reason we passed this resolution is to tell officers that we, as the employer, will not make a finding of bad faith against them so as to trigger that portion of the bill,” Greenwood Village Mayor George Lantz told The Post in an email Wednesday. “We do not want our police officers to worry about us throwing them under the bus and subjecting them to personal liability.”

But holding officers personally accountable when they use excessive force or engage in some other form of wrongful conduct is a major stipulation in the bill, which became law last month after several weeks of street protests over the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police.

State Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, called Greenwood Village’s resolution an “egregious” policy.

“I do believe that if we have cities saying they are clearly going to have their officers’ backs no matter what — even if they act in bad faith — then we as a legislature need to hold them accountable and their officers accountable,” said Herod, a primary sponsor of the police reform bill. “We will close every loophole that any city can find on 217.”

She had this advice for other cities and counties in Colorado: “Don’t attempt to end-run the law.”

Comments criticizing the city’s action have flooded social media, and a protest took place Thursday afternoon in front of the Greenwood Village City Hall. More than 100 people showed up, many of them students from Cherry Creek High School.

They demanded that the council rescind its resolution from Monday night. Some held signs reading “Cops should have full personal liability” and “Your cops are no different — hold police accountable.”

The crowd then marched up and down South Quebec Street chanting and holding signs, backing up traffic for blocks. There was no visible police presence during the protest.

Greenwood Village released a statement Thursday saying that it already practices many of the elements of SB 217, including a ban on chokeholds, a prohibition on chases that don’t involve an immediate threat to human life and a requirement for intervention by fellow officers when a colleague engages in excessive force.

The affluent and mostly white city, part of which sits in the Denver Tech Center, noted that “other municipalities may have different cultures, training and problems that we do not face.”

“We will not judge the efforts of other cities to do what they believe best for their citizens, but based on our workforce, our training and our culture, we do not believe that the potential financial penalties of our police officers in Greenwood Village will make any measurable difference in whether they will act in a professional or criminal way,” the statement read. “However, the principle behind such penalties can destroy the will of our officers to serve the people that they have sworn to protect.”

The statement noted that the city had already lost a veteran officer concerned about the impacts of the new law.

“Other officers who are also risking their lives on a day to day basis seeing municipalities who want to defund their efforts calls into question for them whether it is really worth protecting people who don’t want them,” the city said.

The state attorney general urged communities to find other ways to show their support for law enforcement.

“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.

Denise Maes, public policy director for the ACLU of Colorado, said there isn’t much Weiser can do about Greenwood Village’s handling of SB 217 because there’s no pending case alleging police brutality in the city of 16,000.

“No one would have standing right now,” she said.

Maes said it’s one thing for a community to express support for its police force, but it’s another to commit to a policy of never finding officers in the wrong no matter what.

“This sort of talk by city governments is concerning — that they are prejudging cases before they even have the facts before them,” she said. “It tells us and Greenwood Village residents where their priorities are — and that is appalling.”

©2020 The Denver Post

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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