Nearly a year after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked international protests, Colorado Springs is still grappling with police accountability and transparency.
Last month, City Councilor Yolanda Avila moderated a panel about law enforcement reform as part of a symposium organized by the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission and the El Paso County Bar Association. John Suthers, mayor of Colorado Springs; Janice Frazier, chairwoman of the Colorado Springs Law Enforcement Transparency and Accountability Commission; Samorreyan Burney, Fourth Judicial District judge and Josh Tolini, a criminal defense attorney were on the panel.
Colorado Springs saw nearly a week of daily protests in downtown last summer, which added pressure to cries to establish what would become the LETAC. While it is not an oversight body, the LETAC provides recommendations to the Colorado Springs Police Department, and has hosted a number of listening sessions with community members on issues ranging from communication to racial bias, from crisis response to use of force concerns. At the state level, Senate Bill 20-217, which was co-sponsored by Rep. Tony Exum (D-HD17), 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.
The meeting last month was to update the community about progress and to discuss ongoing disparities in the criminal justice system.
Avila is a former criminal defense investigator in California.
“That was eye-opening in its own right,” she said. “While we defended cases, there were places in the county — Irvine, for instance — where if you were pulled over it was ‘driving while Black.’ In Costa Mesa, it was the domestic workers and landscapers ‘walking while brown.’ I worked with amazing, brilliant public defenders, many who went before the California Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme County. One case that stood out was an assault case, very similar to one he 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 amongst the panelists.
“I think transparency is really what is wanted in every community,” said Burney. “As long as law enforcement is transparent about how they’re operating, the public welcomes that, appreciates that type of thing. An increase in diversity in law enforcement is always a good thing. 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.”
Suthers, whose comments were broadly in support of law enforcement, acknowledged what he called “bad apples,” suggesting that technology will aid in police transparency.
“I think we can be aided by technology as we move forward,” he said. “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.”
In January, CSPD launched its data hub, which gives community members access to 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.
“We will be looking at adding more officers, probably a new substation, to deal with the growth of the community,” he said. “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.”