Republican lawmakers have introduced a bill that would make it harder for the public to access completed police internal affairs investigations into officer misconduct less than a year after Gov. Jared Polis signed into law major police transparency reforms.
House Bill 1106 would require people seeking records of completed internal affairs investigations to ask a judge for permission and prove that such a request is in the public’s interest if the police officer was “exonerated” by the law enforcement agency. The bill does not define “exonerated” and that has transparency watchdogs worried.
As a result of a transparency bill passed last session, law enforcement agencies in Colorado currently are required to open files on completed internal affairs investigations into a wide range of police interactions with the public, including alleged incidents of excessive force. Before the 2019 law passed, the press, lawyers and other interested parties had to request permission from a judge for those records, which more often than not resulted in the denial of records.
Rep. Dave Williams, a Republican from Colorado Springs, voted for last year’s police transparency bill. But after having more conversations with people in law enforcement, he said, he now has concerns the law doesn’t do enough to protect police officers falsely accused of misconduct.
“I want to ensure that good cops are not unfairly punished in the court of public opinion,” Williams said.
Transparency advocates worry the bill will gut reforms passed last year and limit access to information on how police departments protect their own. It’s when officers accused of violating department policy are exonerated that the public has a particular right to know why, attorneys say.
If “exonerated” has the effect of meaning “unsubstantiated,” it could close public access to about 90% of internal investigations, said Rebecca Wallace, a staff attorney for ACLU of Colorado.
“Further, many of the IA incidents resulting in a lawsuit and significant monetary settlement were found unsubstantiated by the law enforcement agency,” Wallace said in a comment on a bill amendment last year that would have limited disclosure of records to only “substantiated” complaints. “This shows us that the police are not doing a sufficient job of policing themselves and that law enforcement’s IA determination should not drive the decision of whether to be transparent.”
“When you have one officer or an entire (police) department where there are countless exonerations or unsubstantiated complaints, that always gives rise to questions about that department’s integrity,” said Steve Zansberg, a Denver-based First Amendment attorney who has represented The Colorado Independent. This, he said, is all the more reason to make such investigations available for public inspection.
Williams acknowledged concerns about conflicts of interest within police departments. He said he’s not yet sure whether the current bill strikes the right balance between increasing transparency and protecting police officers.
He said he plans to work with the ACLU, Colorado Press Association and the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police to make changes. The bill was introduced in the House and sent to the Judiciary Committee this week and has yet to be scheduled for a hearing. The bill’s other sponsors include Republican representatives Matt Soper, Steve Humphrey, Andy McKean, Tim Geitner, Shane Sandridge, Larry Liston, and Mark Baisley.
Police transparency issues don’t fall clearly along party lines. Some Democrats voted against last year’s bill and some Republicans voted for it. Gov. Jared Polis was even noncommittal about signing it, though he eventually did, to the relief of transparency advocates.
The legislature is controlled by Democrats, most of whom supported last year’s transparency bill, and the bill doesn’t have any Democratic sponsors.
The Colorado Fraternal Order of Police opposed last year’s transparency bill. The Colorado Independent sought comment from the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police and its comments will be added if provided.
This story was updated at 4:30 on Jan. 15 with a comment from Steve Zansberg.