Nearly a year after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer sparked international protests, the city of Colorado Springs, advocacy groups and the Colorado Springs Department are continuing to define police reform.
In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, Colorado Springs saw nearly a week of daily protests downtown, which added pressure to cries for the establishment of what would become the Colorado Springs Law Enforcement Transparency and Accountability Commission (LETAC). Though not an oversight or regulatory body involved in personnel decisions or discipline, the LETAC provides recommendations to Colorado Springs Police Department, and has hosted a number of listening sessions with community members on issues like communication, racial bias, crisis response and use of force.
Late last month, District 4 City Councilor Yolanda Avila moderated a panel discussion on police reform as part of a law enforcement reform symposium organized by the Pikes Peak Justice & Peace Commission and the El Paso County Bar Association. The May 21 panel included Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers; Janice Frazier, chair of the LETAC; El Paso County Court Judge Samorreyan Burney; and Josh Tolini, a criminal defense attorney.
At the state level, Senate Bill 20-217, which was co-sponsored by Rep. Tony Exum (D-HD17) among many others, introduced a wide range of law enforcement reforms, such as mandating the use of body-worn cameras and ending qualified immunity for law enforcement officers.
Avila said her experience as a criminal defense investigator in California raised concerns about disparities in the criminal justice system. “That was eye-opening in its own right,” she said, noting incidents of racial profiling. “I worked with amazing, brilliant public defenders, many who went before the California Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court. One case that stood out was an assault case, very similar to one [a public defender] had lost, and this time he came up to me and said ‘I’m going to win this case.’ I said, ‘Really? You’re confident about that. Why?’ He said, ‘The person I’m representing is white.’ I really got the idea of the racial disparities and what happens.”
Transparency was a recurring theme among the panelists. “I think transparency is really what is wanted in every community,” said Burney. “I think as long as law enforcement is transparent about how they’re operating, the public welcomes that, appreciates that type of thing. I think with some changes that have been made, with the addition of body-worn cameras, we’re seeing those types of welcome changes. I think an increase in diversity in law enforcement is always a good thing. I think as we increase diversity across the board in law enforcement you’ll see welcome change and recognition of some changes that need to be made.”
Frazier noted that transparency is a main focus of the LETAC. “I’d like to stress the importance of transparency and accountability,” she said. “This is why we are hosting these listening and learning sessions to give CSPD and local law enforcement an opportunity to inform us as a commission and inform our community as to its policies and procedures. We also provide an opportunity for our citizens to make comments, ask questions or even make remarks about policing and public safety.”
Suthers, whose comments were broadly in support of law enforcement, though acknowledging what he called “bad apples,” suggested that technology will aid in police transparency. “I think there’s a growing emphasis and opportunity to look at analytics, and yes, police officers across the board, even if they’re good officers, draw complaints, but analytics can allow us to determine what officers are getting disproportionate numbers of complaints and what for and other sorts of behaviors that are out of the mainstream in terms of good police. I think that will be a big emphasis of the police department as we are able to take advantage of increasing analytic capabilities.”
In January, CSPD launched its data hub at policedata.coloradosprings.gov, which allows community members to access information about traffic safety, demographics of sworn employees, officer-involved shootings, arrests and more.
Suthers also noted that despite calls to “defund the police,” Colorado Springs will likely need more police officers, citing high levels of attrition among senior officers and recent annexations and growth. “We will be looking at adding more officers, probably a new substation, to deal with the growth of the community,” he said. “I think one of the things LETAC will look at is the advantages of community policing. With the police levels we have right now, about 85 percent of the day of all police officers are responding to calls, responding to incidents. They have very little time to do what we traditionally think about in terms of community policing or community relations. I really do believe the reality is we’re going to need more police officers.”