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Colorado attorney general candidates disagree about why crime is rising

Incumbent Democrat Phil Weiser is facing a challenge from Republican Arapahoe County District Attorney John Kellner
Republican John Kellner (left) is challenging Democratic incumbent Phil Weiser to be Colorado's Attorney General in the state's 2022 elections. (Hart Van Denburg/CPR News)

In the four years since Phil Weiser was elected the state’s attorney general, hundreds of thousands of people across the country, and Colorado, took to the streets demanding law enforcement reform after an unarmed Black man in Minnesota was murdered by police.

But back in 2019, Weiser worked on changing police training and urged the Legislature to pass a law prohibiting law enforcement officers who lie on the job from keeping their licenses.

In other words, Weiser wants people to know his work on this isn’t new.

“This office has been held by Democrats and Republicans, and for 40 years there wasn’t any effort to redesign the academy training,” Weiser said. “It’s a project that’s a demanding one. I think a lot of people would say, why should I go deep into this? By the time this project is done, I’m not going to be attorney general. ... My commitment to this reflects an awareness is how we train peace officers has a dramatic effect on policing.”

Weiser’s political opponent, Republican Arapahoe County District Attorney John Kellner, has worked with law enforcement his entire career and knows them well. He has made fighting crime the mantle of his campaign to unseat Weiser for the statewide office.

“We have so many things to fix and the state's chief law enforcement official, the attorney general, has a tremendous leadership role in leading that charge to make Colorado safer,” Kellner said, at a recent debate in Grand Junction. He noted Colorado’s crime rates are going up more quickly than in other parts of the country. “Think on that, for a second. This isn't COVID related. This is driven by bad statewide laws and policy. And the attorney general can influence what happens.”

Police reform a major issue

In the past two years, the state Legislature has passed a handful of police reform bills since police brutality protests erupted on the streets of Denver and Aurora in 2020.

Law enforcement agencies, too, responded, some announcing plans to add co-responder programs and boost officer training.

And Weiser, who recently struggled with how to answer whether he is the state’s chief law enforcement officer, has tried to do what he can within his office to enact change, while carefully acknowledging that to be a law enforcement officer in 2022 is increasingly difficult.

“We know the public is demanding and expecting more from law enforcement than ever before,” Weiser said, in a recent town hall in Pueblo with law enforcement officials. “And one of the challenges that law enforcement issues are facing is how do we best respond? And one of the responses is going to be training officers.”

Yet on police reform, Kellner and Weiser don’t disagree on much.

Kellner agrees with Weiser’s work enhancing mental health and de-escalation training for law enforcement officers. And if elected, Kellner would not reverse the state-imposed consent decree with the Aurora Police Department after Weiser led an investigation into the agency’s patterns and practices.

“I’m not running for AG to disrupt the system that’s already in place, especially since the city has already agreed to it,” Kellner said.

Kellner would also not interfere with the 32-count indictment filed against three Aurora police officers and two paramedics in Elijah McClain’s death. He did say he would urge the judge in the case to unseal the grand jury investigatory documents.

“Clearly this is something that people care greatly about across this state,” Kellner said. “I think a lot of people, including myself, are frustrated with the inability to see and understand some of the underlying evidence of what changed from that initial determination to where we are now.”

Departments not required to adopt training standards

The state Legislature would have to vote to change police training standards in Colorado. But the Peace Officers Standards and Training board, which is under the attorney general’s office, can create a new curriculum.

Weiser has embraced that role, adding classes on empathy and active bystander training, which gives officers training on when to spot when a work partner may not be in the best place to go to a scene or may not be handling a scene correctly.

“The idea around emotional awareness to me is compelling on multiple fronts,” Weiser said, in a law enforcement town hall. “Can we help other team members by seeing when they’re hurting?”

The problem with all these training blocks is that police departments are not required to adopt them.

All Colorado peace officers have to complete 24 hours of training, 12 of those hours must be “perishable” skills, like driving, firearms and arrest control, and the other 12 hours can be professional development blocks determined by the agencies.

But among agencies, the training requirements are inconsistent.

In Denver, for example, officers must take eight hours of bystander training, two hours of de-escalation training and 40 hours of crisis intervention training. In Adams County, deputies only have to complete the 24 hours required by the state. In Douglas County, Sheriff Tony Spurlock requires at least 55 hours of training of his deputies every year.

Spurlock said policing now is different from it was when he started, and he wants to stress his deputies strengthen “soft skills” on scenes.

“We do that more than we ever do anything else that’s related to lethal skills,” Spurlock said. “Our deputies are going to go to three, four, five calls a day where they’re going to have to de-escalate a situation. The same applies with the deputies working in the jail. Let’s train you not to get into a fight as opposed to train you to fight.”

The AG is not the boss of police and sheriff’s agencies

But because every agency has a different approach, Weiser is careful with how he characterizes his relationships with law enforcement agencies.

At a debate earlier this month, Kellner asked Weiser whether he was the state’s chief law enforcement officer and Weiser said he wasn’t the boss of the state’s prosecutors or police chiefs and that “coach” may be more appropriate.

Republicans have since criticized Weiser for not being more direct. But Weiser has said, constitutionally, the attorney general is not the boss of the state’s 22 elected district attorneys or the hundreds of police chiefs and sheriffs statewide.

“We are in charge of being the lawyer for the state of Colorado,” Weiser said. “The DAs have most of the responsibilities, as you know, to enforce the front line laws. We're partners with them. They don't report to us.”

At a recent forum, a Lowry neighborhood resident stood up and asked Kellner why he talked so much about public safety – particularly since the two of them agree on many other policies, including on water rights.

“I talk about public safety everywhere I go,” Kellner responded. “And I think it’s something Phil has failed to lead on.”

Weiser stood up and quickly rattled off three non-crime issues he cares about.

“No 1, defending civil rights, including reproductive rights,” he said. “Standing up for consumers who are harmed, protecting our land, air and water and a bonus one, the opioid epidemic.”

To read more stories from Colorado Public Radio, visit www.cpr.org.