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Colorado lawmakers at impasse on racial profiling bills

DENVER – Colorado lawmakers tasked with crafting legislation to collect data on racial profiling finished months of work Wednesday by failing to agree on any significant measures to introduce next year.

A committee of six lawmakers agreed only on a measure to let people voluntarily identify their race and ethnicity on their driver’s licenses and identification cards. But that bill was meant to work in conjunction with another proposal that would let law enforcement issue citations electronically to make it easier to compile data.

The impasse by committee members, who have met since late August, shows the difficult time lawmakers have had finding agreement on law-enforcement reforms in the aftermath of high-profile cases of alleged police misconduct around the nation. They have agreed on some ideas, such as encouraging more agencies to use officer-worn cameras and strengthening protections for residents to record police actions, but they have disagreed on others.

Last spring, Democrats wanted to update the state’s standards for what’s considered racial profiling. But Republicans spiked the idea after opposition from law enforcement who worried the new rules would limit their ability to make legitimate stops. Out of that bill’s defeat came the creation of the temporary committee to look at how to collect racial-profiling data.

As it became clear the committee would be agreeing on only one bill, Democrats sounded exasperated. “It’s hard to understand what it means to be racially profiled unless you’ve been racially profiled,” said Rep. Angela Williams, who is black.

The proposal allowing law enforcement to issue tickets electronically would start as a pilot with six agencies and the Colorado State Patrol in a limited capacity, but it was estimated to cost $7.3 million next year. That concerned the three Republicans on the committee who voted against it. They also worried the data collected would be missing historical and demographic patterns for context, a challenge explained by an official with the state’s public safety department.

“If the question you want answered is how many persons of particular races and ethnic backgrounds were given citations, that’s a fairly straightforward thing. But it doesn’t tell us much,” said Jeanne Smith, director of the department’s Division of Criminal Justice. “So if what you want to know is, is this out of sync with not just the population but the neighborhood where the officer is assigned, the traffic patterns in that area, who’s coming in and out, is it a main thoroughfare from another area – that kind of deep analysis, yes, we could find people to do that, but it will take a lot of time, a lot of effort and access to data, some of which currently does not exist.”

Sen. Ellen Roberts, a Republican on the committee, said she realizes racial profiling is a problem and lawmakers are trying to fix it, even if it takes time.

“I mean, what’s your aim? Is it to pass a bill to be able to say we passed a bill? Or are we really trying to right the scales of justice?” she said. “I’d like to think we’re after the second.”

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