What the Rest of America Can Learn From Colorado

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COMMENTARY | One year after widespread protests, state reforms have brought accountability to policing, if not an end to brutality.

This article was originally published in The Atlantic. Sign up for its newsletter.

On the afternoon of july 23, an Army veteran named Kyle Vinson is sitting on a curb in Aurora, Colorado, when two police officers confront him. “Stay down! Roll over on your face,” one of the officers yells. He has his gun drawn. The officer shoves Vinson to the ground and holds him there. “Whoa. What the hell did I do, dude?” Vinson asks. He puts his hands up. The police are responding to a trespassing report and tell Vinson that there is a warrant out for his arrest. A minute later, the officer pistol-whips him. He eventually chokes Vinson to the point where he is gasping for air. While gripping Vinson’s neck, the officer threatens him: “If you move, I’ll shoot you.” By that point, Vinson’s head is covered in his own blood.

What happened to Vinson this past summer—captured on the officer’s own body cam—is an all-too-common experience for Black men in America. What happened in the days that followed, however, was far more unusual. The chief of the Aurora Police Department, Vanessa Wilson, quickly released the officer’s body-cam footage and abjectly apologized to Vinson in a news conference. The officer who brutalized him, John Haubert, was charged with assault and resigned from the police force the same week. Haubert’s partner on the scene, Francine Martinez, was charged under state law with failing to intervene on Vinson’s behalf.

For advocates of police reform in Colorado, the swift response to Vinson’s assault offered unmistakable evidence that a first-in-the-nation law they lobbied to enact last year is working. “What you’re seeing is just a greater willingness to bring criminal charges against police officers,” one of Vinson’s attorneys, Qusair Mohamedbhai, told me. “That’s a direct impact of the legislature passing these bills.”

The Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act, which moved rapidly through Colorado’s Democratic-led legislature while protesters marched outside the state capitol in Denver during a wave of nationwide demonstrations, touches nearly every aspect of policing. It requires officers to wear body cameras at all times and for departments to promptly release footage of incidents. It redefines the use of force by police, stiffens penalties for misconduct, and exposes officers to personal liability if they violate a person’s constitutional rights.

Many of the law’s provisions have yet to fully take effect. But signs of its early impact are everywhere, and nowhere more so than in Aurora, the city of 385,000 residents just east of Denver where 23-year-old Elijah McClain died two summers ago after police forced him to the ground and paramedics injected him with ketamine. The protests that swept the nation after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis brought renewed attention to McClain’s death nearly a year earlier, prompting Colorado lawmakers to act. Governor Jared Polis separately directed the state attorney general, Phil Weiser, to reexamine the McClain case, and earlier this month, Weiser brought charges against five police officers and paramedics in his death. Last week, under authority granted to him by the 2020 law, Weiser issued a 118-page report finding that the Aurora police had engaged in “a pattern and practice of racially biased policing, using excessive force, and failing to record required information when it interacts with the community.” Weiser’s office is now moving to force Aurora to change its policies and subject the city to more state oversight.

Aurora is also the site of the first test of the new law’s provision allowing victims of police violence to sue officers for damages. In January, lawyers filed suit on behalf of Brittany Gilliam against the city of Aurora and the five police officers who last August handcuffed her at gunpoint in front of her children after they wrongly identified the family’s car as stolen.

If the immediate goal of Colorado’s law is to bring more transparency and accountability to law enforcement, then the state’s experience, particularly in Aurora, offers hope to reformers across the country. But on the broader aim of the legislation—to permanently change the culture of policing—the initial impact is hazier. “The honest answer is there’s still a lot to be played out,” Weiser told me. Gilliam may see faster justice in court because of the new law, and the officers who mistreated Vinson are facing consequences they might not have otherwise. Yet the mere fact that these disturbing incidents occurred at all, and that they both involved the troubled police force that inspired the law, is a testament to the limits of its reach. “That’s just the tip of the iceberg. They have been involved in way more incidents than even that,” Gilliam’s lawyer, David Lane, told me of the Aurora police. “They don’t view their duty as to protect and serve—they view their duty as to occupy and intimidate.”

The Aurora Police Department cooperated with Weiser’s investigation and is so far not fighting his push for further reforms. “We acknowledge there are changes to be made,” Wilson, the police chief, said in response to the report. She declined a request to be interviewed for this story. “Chief Wilson is a big proponent of police reform, and moving our agency forward, which she has demonstrated by holding numerous officers accountable to their actions,” Matthew Longshore, a spokesperson for the department, wrote to me in an email.

In his report, Weiser found that the Aurora police were failing to comply with the 2020 law’s requirement that it document every officer interaction with the public and that it was providing inadequate guidance to its officers on when a stop was appropriate. This was the attorney general’s first major investigation of the new law.

If Aurora wasn’t complying, I asked him, did he worry that other departments were ignoring it too? “That’s a very good question,” Weiser replied.

Leslie Herod, the Democratic state representative who helped write the 2020 law, told me she had been pleased by its implementation and its initial impact. More officers have been charged with misconduct since its enactment, she said, and more officers were intervening or reporting misconduct to avoid penalties the law put in place. “I do believe it’s working,” Herod said. “There’s still work to be done, but we’re moving in the right direction.” Reports from multiple Colorado police departments of an exodus of officers partly as a result of the law, she said, was more evidence of its impact. “It’s going to take time to weed these folks out, but we are seeing change,” Herod said.

For Kyle Vinson and Brittany Gilliam, each recovering from the physical and emotional trauma of their encounter with Aurora police, the law has helped bring the promise of justice that could be fulfilled in criminal and civil trials. The true test of Colorado’s reform and of the many other states that have acted to improve policing, however, won’t be determined by courtroom verdicts. Their success or failure will depend on whether, over time, those kinds of charges and lawsuits against badly behaving cops are rendered unnecessary altogether.

This article was originally published in The Atlantic. Sign up for its newsletter.
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