Protestors nationwide have called for increased accountability for law enforcement, reforms to policing and re-evaluations of existing policies in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Following such protests within Colorado, Governor Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 217 (SB 217) into law on June 19 in an effort to increase law enforcement accountabilbity throughout the state. The conversation about police reform is also taking place locally.
Follwing an address to Leadville City Council at their June 15 meeting that called attention to, and for the reform of, local policing practices, council hosted a work session with the Leadville Police Department (LPD) on June 23.
The requested reforms, which include the banning of high-speed pursuits in city limits and the use of chokeholds by LPD officers except in cases where deadly force is warranted, served as the impetus for Chief of Police Saige Bertolas and Corporal Justin Collins to address those in attendance and explain the department’s use-of-force policy.
Bertolas and Collins delivered a presentation that reviewed the use-of-force policy currently used by LPD, addressed concerns voiced by members of the public and fielded questions from members of council about public concerns about police use-of-force policies.
In light of local protests and pushes for police reform, the Herald acquired copies of the use-of-force policies that the LPD and Lake County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO) use to assess when, and to what degree, local law enforcement officers can use force while on the job.
Both local law enforcement agencies currently use nearly identical use-of-force policies provided the privately owned company Lexipol. Lexipol provides policy to over 3,500 public agencies including police and fire departments and corrections agencies, and additional services, such as training, grant sourcing and industry news, to a total of 8,100 agencies, Shannon Pieper, senior director of marketing communications at Lexipol told the Herald.
The company did not specify how many agencies in Colorado subscribe to their services or use policies provided by the group, but, according to Undersheriff Jacob Freidenberger, the tool is not uncommon in law enforcement agencies across the state.
The policies dictate when and how officers and deputies can use pain compliance methods, carotid-control neck holds and deadly force. None of these measures are forbidden under the current policies, and the appropriate use of each practice is determined by a set of standards that the officer using the force must evaluate based on what they reasonably believe is necessary in the moment.
The term “reasonable” frequently appears throughout the Lexipol-constructed policies that LPD and LCSO rely on, both in regards to the amount of force used and the officer’s discretion in applying such force.
In applying these standards, the policy relies on a 1989 Supreme Court ruling, Graham v. Connor. Through that ruling, the standard of a reasonable officer, and their ability to determine what amount and type of force is needed in a given scenario, was established following accusations of police brutality. It is has since been used in officer-involved cases that make it to court.
While Graham v. Connor has remained a standard since the ruling, laws around police interactions and responsibilities change regularly. Many of the supplemental materials Lexipol offers through its website feature advice for how agencies can respond to shifts in the law to minimize their liability and, as a result, reduce the amount of money agencies have to pay in settlements.
And while the policies bought by public entities from Lexipol are pre-made to adhere to state and federal laws, agencies do have the ability to customize and tailor the policies.
“We encourage agencies to review the policies before implementing them and make customizations appropriate to reflect the needs and values of their agency and their communities,” Pieper said.
Freidenberger confirmed that the service allows for modification of policies, but went on to say that agencies are advised, in Lexipol’s online platform, that certain elements of policy should not be altered in an effort to assure compliance.
Agency-specific practices, like vacation time, are highly modifiable, while Lexipol recommends against altering other elements, like pieces of the use-of-force policy based in state and federal law, he said.
Throughout the June 22 work session, the use-of-force policy was referenced by council members, Bertolas, Collins and public participants, with some of the proposed reforms targeting the current language of the policy.
The state-level changes brought on by SB 217, which require Colorado law enforcement agencies to adopt policies requiring non-violent intervention before applying force, will impact policing in Leadville mostly at an administrative level, Bertolas said.
Many of the specific accountability measures mandated under SB 217, such as acquiring equipment like body-worn cameras for officers, will become the work of local law enforcement administrators, Bertolas said.
As requirements for law enforcement officers evolve at the state level, Lexipol remains the framework through which these policies are constructed.