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Over A Dozen Officers Have Been Charged Since Colorado Passed Its Police Reform Laws

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In Colorado, a little more than a year after the state legislature passed a broad police reform bill, even the fiercest police critics say the culture is changing. The state has charged more than a dozen cops with crimes for on-duty conduct since the law passed. Colorado Public Radio's Allison Sherry has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter.

ALLISON SHERRY, BYLINE: It was the summer of 2020 in Denver. Protests against police violence were raging, and the state legislature met for a shortened session due to COVID. The one major thing on the agenda - sweeping police reform.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The Finance Committee will come back to order.

SHERRY: The new law, Senate Bill 217, signed by Democratic Governor Jared Polis, bans chokeholds, makes it easier for people to sue police officers, and makes it a crime for cops not to report misconduct when they see it on the job. That last part was inspired by the case of 23-year-old Black massage therapist Elijah McClain. He died after he was violently arrested while walking home from a store. Qusair Mohamedbhai is his family's lawyer.

QUSAIR MOHAMEDBHAI: Elijah has changed hearts and minds on both sides of the aisle. And what he has accomplished is truly remarkable.

SHERRY: McClain's case highlighted what can happen when officers make mistakes. His death was almost a full year before George Floyd's murder in Minnesota, but the police protest movement catapulted Colorado's Legislature to act. State Representative Leslie Herod sponsored the bill.

LESLIE HEROD: Our police accountability bill is working. Officers are being charged. It is unfortunate that citizens have to go through such traumatic experiences for us to be able to test out this law.

SHERRY: Earlier this month, the three officers and two paramedics involved in McClain's arrest were indicted by the state attorney general. Those officers now face manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide charges. Sheneen McClain is Elijah's mother.

SHENEEN MCCLAIN: I'm happy for my son's justice. I'm happy that Elijah's getting his justice.

SHERRY: But beyond the McClain prosecutions, district attorneys across the state have filed seven charges in the last year for failure to intervene - that is, not stopping misconduct on the job. Another prosecutor filed strangulation charges against an officer for using a chokehold during an arrest. These are now banned. Several other cops have been charged with assault for using too much force. District Attorney Heidi McCollum represents a mountainous area west of Denver. She says law enforcement scrutiny is higher than it was before.

HEIDI MCCOLLUM: We are all hyper-vigilant now in observing what officers do while they are on duty, especially when it involves any kind of use of force.

SHERRY: McCollum recently filed charges against a law enforcement officer for using too much force when he tased a 75-year-old man, leaving him with a brain bleed. Asked if she would have filed these charges before the law passed, before the police brutality movement, and...

MCCOLLUM: In a perfect world, I would like to say yes, we would have acted in the same way. That being said, I don't know that it would have been brought to my attention.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We're going to talk about the officers that were arrested regarding...

SHERRY: Vanessa Wilson is the police chief of the Aurora Police Department, which is about to be forced by a consent decree to change policies, training and hiring because of McClain's death. Even amid all this scrutiny, just in July, two officers were involved in another violent arrest of an unarmed Black homeless man stopped on a trespassing charge. But within a week, prosecutors filed criminal charges against those officers, and Chief Wilson held this press conference, playing the disturbing body camera footage to reporters. She said recently, none of this would have happened without the state's new laws.

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VANESSA WILSON: It empowers me as the chief of police to be able to be transparent with my community.

SHERRY: It's relatively early in this movement, and Colorado is only one state, but activists say these actions around police accountability for on-duty conduct are hopeful signs that perhaps a larger cultural shift is at play.

For NPR news, I'm Allison Sherry in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.