3 years after Colorado’s landmark police reform bill, what’s changed?

Three years after the passage of Colorado’s landmark police accountability bill, officers have been convicted under new laws, a statewide database of officers’ misconduct is publicly available and body camera footage is more readily accessible.

The bill’s final implementation deadline passed Saturday, and lawmakers, law enforcement and advocates are now grappling with a changed political ecosystem around police and criminal justice reform and deciding what’s next.

“We know we haven’t solved all ills with one bill or two bills,” said Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who co-sponsored the bill in 2020. “And we never will, to be honest with you. But we have to keep moving forward on the progress.”

Lawmakers who worked on the bill praised it as instrumental in reforming policing in Colorado while serving as a foundation for subsequent policy changes. Law enforcement leaders, meanwhile, contend the bill has made it more difficult to recruit and retain officers amid an increase in some crimes. But since 2020, broader momentum for criminal justice and police reform has slowed in Colorado, lawmakers and advocates said.

The bill — SB20-217 — was signed 25 days after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd in May 2020. It tackled body cameras and the use of force in a bipartisan fashion, representing one of the first major policy responses undertaken anywhere in the country after the tragedy and amid mass protests in Denver and elsewhere.

While police reform efforts weren’t new, Floyd’s death provided a critical intersection of a movement meeting a moment. Previous reform efforts had stuttered. Sen. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat who was in the House when the bill passed, said the protests and public awareness opened doors to deeper conversations about alternative policing, accountability and de-escalation. Democrats who sponsored the bill were able to gain Republican support, and major law enforcement groups were either involved in its drafting or offered little resistance.

“217 had to pass in that moment,” Herod said. “We had not been able to make very much progress in the movement, so that needed to happen.”

None of the law enforcement leaders with the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police or the County Sheriffs of Colorado agreed to be interviewed for this story. The organizations instead sent a joint statement saying officers remained focused on their jobs “at a time of unprecedented staffing challenges and increasing violent crime.”

Tom Raynes, the executive director of the Colorado District Attorneys Council and a former prosecutor, praised the bill’s requirements around body cameras and use of force. He, like others, said the bill has been a springboard for efforts in subsequent years.

“There were a lot of positives out of 217 that kind of shaped where things have moved forward from that point,” Raynes said. “In the last three years, I would really put Colorado as one of the top five states in terms of ongoing, substantive criminal justice reform legislation.”

Some of the loss of momentum on criminal justice reform is the natural flow of movements, lawmakers and advocates said. Election fears around crime rates and recent reform legislation sparked concern among Democrats last year. But those fears were unfounded, lawmakers said: Colorado Democrats soared to historic wins in November.

But some of the lull, too, is a tension between the broader criminal justice reform movement versus a moment of intense interest spurred by the murder of Floyd, those lawmakers said, and the work required to maintain momentum amid backlash to what passed and resistance to what’s proposed next.

Rep. Jennifer Bacon, a Denver Democrat who was elected in November 2020 and has worked on a slew of criminal justice reform bills, said it still took Floyd dying on camera to spark the bill’s passage. SB20-217 serves as an “anchor,” she said, for more reform, like limitations on lying to children during police interrogations and regulations around eyewitness identifications.

“It’s not one and done,” Bacon said of SB20-217. The fact that the bill hasn’t been rolled back shows the durability of the moment, she said. “But then on the movement side, we can build upon it. But it’s hard.”


Several parts of the bill have already made tangible impacts in Colorado:

  • At least two police officers have been convicted of failing to intervene in another officer’s excessive use of force, which was a crime created under SB20-217
  • Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser has used new powers granted to his office to investigate the Aurora Police Department’s patterns and practices and require the agency to make reforms
  • The Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training Board created a database of all officers in the state who have lied, been de-certified, been the subject of a criminal investigation or fired for cause
  • All agencies completed training on new, stricter use-of-force laws

Through SB20-217, Colorado became the first state to eliminate qualified immunity for police officers. Qualified immunity is a legal defense that states some government officials — including law enforcement — cannot be sued in their individual capacity unless they violated a person’s rights in a manner already determined unconstitutional by the courts.

One of the most controversial sections of the bill allows local governments to decide whether an officer should have to pay up to $25,000 of a settlement or judgment from a lawsuit if the officer acted in bad faith or should have known the action was unlawful. The law change sparked conversations about officers enrolling in insurance programs to shield them from financial liability.

Law enforcement leaders have often cited the changes to qualified immunity and indemnification as reasons they have struggled to recruit and retain officers.

Despite the fear around financial liability, that part of the law hasn’t been utilized yet. No Colorado law enforcement associations or organizations representing local governments were aware of a case where a government decided to make an officer pay.

The number of certified officers leaving positions in Colorado did increase after 2020, according to employment data collected by the Peace Officers Standards and Training Board. Between 2020 and 2013, an average of 1,876 officers left their positions – up from an average of 1,646 in the previous three years.

A survey of 232 officers released in 2022 found that concerns about SB20-217 and other legislative changes were the top reason for officers leaving their jobs.

Paul Pazen, who was Denver police chief from 2018 to 2022, said the bill may not have been the sole reason officers left, but it was a contributing factor. Criticism of police from elected leaders and calls to defund or abolish the department also hurt morale, he said. Officers outside of Colorado are hesitant to move here and lose qualified immunity, he said, and officers already here are taking jobs elsewhere.

SB20-217 was crafted and passed too quickly, he said.

“If doing what Colorado did was such a great idea, why didn’t it catch on?” Pazen said.

While dozens of other state legislatures have considered bills to end or limit the qualified immunity defense for police officers, few have passed. Only New Mexico and Connecticut have passed laws limiting the use of the legal defense, and those laws are not as far-reaching as Colorado’s.

Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican who voted for the bill and co-sponsored a follow-up measure in 2021, also cast the bill as negatively affecting police recruitment. He said the bill was “very much a product of that moment,” meaning its proximity to Floyd’s death, and that he doesn’t think the law would have passed as it had otherwise.

He said he “wasn’t sure I can answer” when asked if he’d vote for it again now. He worked on the bill and supported it so his voice — and that of other Republicans — were included. The discussions around the drafting of the bill, Gardner said, were the toughest he’s had over the 15 sessions he’s spent at the Capitol.

“At this place, at this time, at this moment and in good faith discussions with my co-sponsors, this is what we needed to do,” he said.

Bacon said the finger shouldn’t be pointed at reform-minded lawmakers and advocates responding to a pattern of behavior. The suggestion, she said, just “confirms that we have a problem.”

“When you see a man kill a man on camera and the whole world sees it, (police) did that,” she said of a negative public perception of law enforcement. “That’s no one else’s fault. And they have to come to terms with that.”

This is the tension of movement versus moment, she said: Yes, SB20-217 passed just weeks after Floyd’s death beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. But that doesn’t mean it was a reaction to one incident, Bacon said. Suggesting otherwise is an attempt to reduce a years-long movement to a singular, tragedy-driven burst.

“It has been a decade of talking about the tolerance of the brutality toward our bodies,” Bacon said. “What happened was not a moment. And what 217 is not is a knee-jerk reaction. It was things that people have been fighting for for decades.”

Trusting footage

The full impacts of the most tangible change — and the most expensive — are yet to be seen. While many agencies in the state, including the Denver Police Department, already had body cameras, many did not. Large agencies such as the Colorado State Patrol, the Lakewood Police Department and the Adams County Sheriff’s Office did not use the cameras until after the passage of SB20-217.

The state of Colorado awarded more than $4.9 million to law enforcement agencies across the state to help them purchase body cameras and storage to comply with the mandate, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Safety.

It’s unclear whether all 237 agencies in the state have complied, however, because nobody in the state government was tasked with enforcing the mandate.

The ubiquity of body cameras — and guidance around when and how footage is released — has been critical, lawmakers said. Herod, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the equipment has allowed for people to get justice that previously wasn’t available. Earlier this month, for instance, the Loveland Police Department released footage showing a now-fired officer hitting a 59-year-old woman who’d been taken to the hospital for evaluation, according to the Loveland Reporter-Herald.

The deadlines mandating the release of body camera footage within 21 days has also forced change within departments. The Aurora Police Department released footage of an officer fatally shooting 14-year-old Jor’Dell Richardson seven days after the June 1 shooting. After Elijah McClain died in the custody of Aurora police and paramedics, the city waited nearly three months to release footage of the violent arrest.

The availability of body-cam footage can also contradict law enforcement descriptions of incidents and refute standard narratives that are often driven by racial bias, lawmakers said. For example, one day after a Clear Creek County Sheriff’s Office deputy shot and killed 21-year-old Christian Glass, the agency issued a news release characterizing Glass as “argumentative and uncooperative,” while claiming that law enforcement officers did everything they could to help him. Body camera footage released later contradicted the account.

The final piece of SB20-217 yet to become public is the result of mandated data collection. The law requires every department in the state to collect data on all uses of force where an officer seriously injures or kills someone; data on all instances where an officer resigned while under internal investigation; and detailed data on all law enforcement contacts.

The data will for the first time offer statewide insights on the demographics of people being injured by police as well as detailed data on who police are stopping and the outcomes of those contacts. Previously, comprehensive and accurate information about even fatal police shootings in Colorado was nonexistent.

The new data will fill a “huge gap,” said Taylor Pendergrass, director of advocacy and strategic alliances at the ACLU of Colorado.

“There just is no real way to identify patterns of systemic racial bias or to answer even questions as simple as how are police officers spending their time,” he said. “Without data, there’s just no way for the public and, to an extent, for the police chiefs to know how their departments are operating and where there might be red flags and problems that need to be addressed.”

The Colorado Department of Public Safety plans to compile that data and release a report by the end of July, spokeswoman Paula Vargas said.

Despite the reforms in SB20-217, the number of people killed by police in Colorado every year has not changed. Police shot and killed 36 people in 2019 and 42 in 2020, according to the Washington Post’s database of fatal shootings. Colorado law enforcement shot and killed 41 people in 2021 and 40 in 2022.


SB20-217 was a sweeping accountability measure and notable victory after other reform efforts had stalled or been shelved, including in the months before SB20-217 passed. But lawmakers maintain it’s not enough, and the legislature has considered dozens of other policy changes in the years since, including setting aside millions in grants for law enforcement and bumping the Department of Corrections’ budget toward $1 billion.

“I feel like we’re never doing enough. That’s just where I’m at,” said Coleman, the Democratic senator. “… I don’t feel like we’re doing enough when it comes to preventative measures. We’re 50th. We’re 50 out of 50 (states, in terms of criminal justice reform). We’re not No. 1, we’re not No. 2, we’re not No. 3. We’re at the end. That’s not true, I know it, but that’s how I feel. Because there’s still people hurting.”

Herod, the House Democrat who co-sponsored SB20-217, said reform-minded lawmakers and their allies are in a more “defensive” posture now. The law enforcement lobby has regained its footing after 2020, lawmakers and advocates have said.

In some cases, legislators have changed their tactics. In 2022, a bill to limit police lying to children during interrogations died amid law enforcement opposition. This year, Bacon and other lawmakers brought it back, but with a key rhetorical change: They framed the bill not as a response to lying police but as a way to build trust between law enforcement and communities. This time, the bill passed.

But sometimes even changing tactics hasn’t been enough. Coleman said Democrats broadly hadn’t unified around a criminal justice reform platform. One of his bills this year — to limit arrests of kids under 13 — stalled in the state Senate, despite Coleman and his fellow Democratic sponsor, Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, securing two conservative co-sponsors.

Police chiefs came out hard against the bill: Led by interim Aurora Chief Art Acevedo, they held a news conference in the Capitol in the waning days of the session and warned that the bill would empower crime lords to dispatch armed kids onto Colorado’s streets. Coleman said he’d never seen so many police and district attorneys outside the Senate chamber.

“I know that they’re powerful, I’ll say that,” he said of the law enforcement lobby. “I know they have a lot of power and influence.”

In the wake of the 2020 protests, that lobby’s influence “took a shot” in the Capitol, said Raynes, of the district attorneys council. But that’s changed, he and lawmakers said. He told The Denver Post last year that “elections, crime rate, the drug crisis of fentanyl” had combined to “foster a more balanced analysis and decision-making process.” He said this time around that a more “collaborative” approach had helped rebuild trust in the legislature.

After extensive lobbying, Coleman’s juvenile arrest bill was gutted of its core goal — raising the age of arrest — and turned into a study, plus money for social services.

Raynes pushed back on the idea that reform efforts have hit a lull. This past session, he said, lawmakers passed bills to limit no-knock warrants and to codify Miranda rights into state law, plus ongoing work around reclassifying felonies and bail reform. He lamented the end of the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, which has worked on reform bills and was allowed to expire by legislators in May.

Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat who also co-sponsored the reform bill three years ago, agreed and said she thought reform efforts had become more calculated, rather than defensive. She sponsored the no-knock measure signed into law this year and said it was a direct result of SB20-217’s passage. More collaboration and deliberation isn’t a loss, she said.

“There’s been a lot of momentum since George Floyd, I don’t think it’s waned at all,” Raynes said. “We expanded post-conviction DNA testing this year. There’s a lot of stuff going on. I really don’t see the momentum slowing. So we’ll see — this session (in 2024) may be different because people… either get very aggressive or very tentative because it’s an election year.”

Pazen urged more transparency and accountability for other parts of the criminal legal system: judges, prosecutors and prisons. If police officers who make split-second decisions in the field can no longer use qualified immunity as a defense, neither should other government officials who generally have more time to make decisions, he said.

Christie Donner, the executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, said she had more support for certain prison reforms 24 years ago than she does now, and she called the legislature’s broader position “schizophrenic.” That’s perhaps most evident when it comes to drug policy: The House this year passed a bill to allow safe drug-use sites to open. The Senate passed a bill to tighten criminal penalties on drug dealers. The bills passed their respective chambers and then died when they crossed over.

Bacon said she wouldn’t call it “schizophrenic” but agreed that Democratic lawmakers weren’t unified on a criminal justice strategy. Achieving that and maintaining momentum is the work now, she and others said. It shouldn’t take the loss of a human life to foster change.

“The success of 217 is we have a starting place,” Bacon said. “We can’t go backward now.”

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