In 2010, deputies choked and killed street-preacher Marvin Booker in the Denver jail. Last year, his family won a $4.6 million civil settlement from the city. Today, House lawmakers gave initial approval to bills that would ban chokeholds and allow for special judicial review of police brutality cases.
The chokehold ban passed with little discussion after lawmakers added an amendment to allow officers to use the tactic in life-or-death situations. The bill that makes it easier for communities to question when a police shooting is not criminally charged launched a heated debate.
Currently, any citizen can go to a judge and protest a state prosecutor’s decision not to bring criminal charges in any case, even if police are not directly involved. The judge must then decide if a prosecutor’s decision was “arbitrary.”
Reps. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, and Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village, said that standard doesn’t make sense for cases of police misconduct that have resulted in death or severe bodily harm. The bill proposes a new standard for challenging a prosecutor’s choice: “abuse of discretion.”
“The abuse of discretion standard is neither higher nor lower than than [the current standards]. It is different and more appropriate in a politicized case,” said Kagan. “The question in a highly politicized case is ‘Did you yield to improper influences.’ That question, in legal terms, is abuse of discretion.”
Bill opponents worried it would lower the standard for bringing a police brutality case to criminal trial and that communities would feel betrayed if the case then failed to hold up in court.
“I agree that when you have a police shooting that passions rise very quickly on both sides, and it does tend to become politicized,” said Rep. Terri Carver, R-Colorado Springs. “But respectfully, I think changing the standard [for judicial review of a case] makes the process more politicized, not less.”
Opponents suggested that the root issue is instead transparency and that citizens simply need to be made more aware of the existing option to challenge a prosecutor’s decision. Salazar, who works as a civil rights lawyer when not in the legislature, vehemently disagreed.
“The current standard is impossibly high. That’s why you don’t see cases going to court,” said Salazar. “The impossible standard can never be met. If you recall the Booker case, the jury [in the civil case] was appalled, absolutely appalled, that no [criminal] prosecution was brought. The man was, on video tape for over two minutes, strangled to death.”
Warning: security footage of Booker assault below is graphic.
“What we are saying is we are not going to make it impossible for people to challenge why a prosecution wasn’t brought,” said Salazar. “That’s good governance. That’s good transparency. That’s allowing our court process to work.”
The reforms will come up for a final vote in the House next week.
Rep Kagan argues for special prosecution review in police misconduct cases. – Tessa Cheek