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Colorado considers additional police oversight

Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, carries his 8-month-old daughter, Blake, while his wife, Lynne, looks on as the family enters the House of Representatives in the Colorado Capitol in Denver. Melton and other Democrats are spearheading a package of legislation aimed at expanding oversight over Colorado law enforcement and placing limits on their power, a response to incidents of alleged excessive force nationally and in the state.

DENVER – Democrats are spearheading a package of legislation aimed at expanding oversight of Colorado law enforcement and placing limits on their power, a response to allegations of excessive force both in the state and nationally.

The proposals include collecting demographic data on arrests, banning the use of chokeholds, increasing the use of body cameras, and appointing a special prosecutor to review decisions not to charge an officer when deadly force is used or excessive force is alleged. In all, Democrats are considering at least seven proposals, most of which are expected to be introduced this month.

Law-enforcement groups have expressed opposition on the data-collection bill, which is the only one that’s been filed, calling it an unfunded mandate. In a letter to lawmakers, the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police said they “recognize that recent events throughout the country make it more important than ever to continue to find ways to build trust with our citizens.” The group added, however, that it “will not support legislation that is punitive, ill considered, or which negatively impacts the safety or due process of our citizens or officers.”

Colorado is the latest state to join the debate about what restrictions, if any, are needed in the aftermath of the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18 year old who was killed during a confrontation with a white officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. The death of Eric Garner after he was placed in a chokehold by a New York police officer added tension to an already-heated debate.

At least a dozen states have proposed legislation this year that mandate or expand the use of body cameras. Lawmakers in other states have also considered the use of special prosecutors in deadly force cases.

In Colorado, there’s been public unrest over the fatal police shooting in January of 17-year-old Jessica Hernandez. Authorities say Hernandez was in a stolen car that she drove toward an officer trying to talk to her. Two officers fired at Hernandez, and the case is under investigation.

Before that, there was community outcry over the 2010 death of Marvin Booker, a black homeless street preacher in custody at Denver’s county jail. Deputies shocked him with a stun gun while he was handcuffed and put him in a sleeper hold to try to control him. His family said Booker, 56, was frail and had a heart condition.

Democrats pushing the bills in Colorado control only one of the two statehouse chambers, the House, so the chances of their proposals advancing are unclear.

Collecting data on arrests and the disposition of cases, Democrats say, will help determine whether minority groups are disproportionately targeted by police and the judicial system. But it’s unknown how the proposal will be funded.

Denver Rep. Daniel Kagan, a Democrat sponsoring the bill on special prosecutors and expanding the use of body cameras, said he’s not implying there are problems with charging decisions now.

“But there is potential for mistrust when the police are the objects of investigation by the district attorney who works so closely with the police,” he said.

Other bills include:

Eliminating a five-year sentencing minimum for second-degree assault on law-enforcement officers. Judges would still have the discretion to sentence someone to five years, said Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora. But he’s concerned that currently people feel pressured to plead guilty to a lower charge, even when they believe they’re innocent, to avoid a five-year sentence.

Forbidding law enforcement from confiscating recording devices during police-citizen confrontations unless there’s a warrant or permission from the owner of the recording.

Some Republicans wonder whether law-enforcement reform is something that should be addressed in Colorado now.

“I’m a little concerned that we’re taking a broad brush to situations that may only apply to one or two bad apples in the department across the state,” said Rep. Polly Lawrence, R-Littleton. “And I’m concerned that we’re taking really extreme situations that happened outside of Colorado and applying them to law-enforcement agencies in our state.”

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