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Colorado And Virginia Are Among The Few States To Take Steps Toward Police Reform

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

After months of protests over police violence against Black people, many states are looking at how to reform law enforcement. Just yesterday in Wisconsin, police shot a Black man named Jacob Blake seven times in the back. Protests and clashes lasted through the night. Now the state Legislature there is planning a special session for next week. And we will hear from Kenosha, Wis., in another part of the program. Right now, we're going to talk about two states where police reform efforts are already underway - Colorado and Virginia. Allison Sherry of Colorado Public Radio joins us from Denver, and Whittney Evans of member station VPM in Virginia joins us from Richmond.

Glad to have you both here.

WHITTNEY EVANS, BYLINE: Hello.

ALLISON SHERRY, BYLINE: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Allison, let's start with you in Colorado. Lawmakers there passed a major police reform bill in June. Tell us about what it does.

SHERRY: Colorado's new law is pretty broad in terms of the reforms, and I'll just hit on a few of them. One is the state started down the road into really crafting strict rules on when officers can use force against citizens - particularly lethal force - like what circumstances have to happen for them to pull out a gun or use a carotid hold on someone's neck during an arrest. And I think some advocates were hoping it would be stronger. But it's a start of stricter rules on that front.

Two, this new law makes it easier for people to sue individual police officers. Officers found to have acted in bad faith could be on the hook for up to $25,000 in a civil settlement. And finally, a few other things quickly - Colorado's new law requires body cameras statewide, and it will require police officers to be more transparent and report to the attorney general about when and who they stop and when they use force on the job. So there'll eventually be a database of how cops across the state are conducting themselves.

SHAPIRO: So a pretty sweeping set of changes there in Colorado. What about in Virginia? Whittney, you're in that state where Democratic lawmakers are in the middle of debating pretty significant police reform. What does it look like? How does it compare to what we just heard from Colorado?

EVANS: Right. So the House and Senate are both - they largely agree on legislation that would hold law enforcement more accountable, and they want more local civilian oversight of police departments. They've also introduced bills to require law enforcement have the same standards and training statewide and bills that ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants like what were used in the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

SHAPIRO: Now, you said they largely agree - the House and Senate. But I understand there's some sticking points. What are they?

EVANS: Right. So like Colorado, the House wants to do away with qualified immunity, which is the law that Allison mentioned earlier, and it shields police officers from being sued. Senate leaders say that issue is just too complicated. They're not going to take it up. And then the Senate wants to reduce the penalty for assaulting a police officer. Data shows in Virginia that most of the time, police aren't injured in these cases. But that's not on the agenda in the House.

SHAPIRO: And how much are these proposed changes the direct result of pressure from the protests that we've seen all summer, Whittney?

EVANS: I think it's important to note that two years ago, the community was demanding change after Richmond police shot and killed a 24-year-old Black man named Marcus-David Peters. Peters was a high school biology teacher who appeared to be having a psychiatric episode when he was naked, unarmed and charging police on a freeway on-ramp. Advocates called for what's called a Marcus Alert system, which would make mental health professionals first responders in these cases, with police as backup.

Lawmakers had two years to do this, and they never did. And now they're finally taking it up in the special session. The Democratic-led General Assembly was in session earlier this year after taking control for the first time in two decades. And they largely punted police reform to 2021, but it's clear the protests moved that deadline up.

SHAPIRO: Interesting. So it's been percolating and got a recent push. What about in Colorado, Allison? I know that there's been a lot of attention there on the case of Elijah McClain, who died in police custody last year.

SHERRY: Yes. In fact, today is the one-year anniversary of when Elijah McClain was arrested by police. And just to quickly sum up that story, McClain was 23, walking home from a convenience store at night when police were called on a suspicious person because McClain was reportedly wearing a ski mask. Officers attempted to detain him, placed him in two carotid holds. He fainted and vomited, and then he was administered a large dose of ketamine by paramedics.

SHAPIRO: Ketamine, a sedative.

SHERRY: And - yes. Right. And he went into cardiac arrest in the ambulance and died a few days later. McClain was never suspected of any crime. And there was some local coverage of this incident at the time, but George Floyd's death in Minnesota really got, you know, McClain's story out there. There was more renewed attention.

And he was the inspiration of a lot of the police brutality protests in Colorado in the late spring and early summer. And those protests were ongoing literally right outside the state Capitol building right when lawmakers came back after being adjourned early because of COVID. I mean, you could hear the chants out the window. Elijah McClain's parents were there. And this is his mother, Sheneen McClain, speaking to lawmakers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHENEEN MCCLAIN: I'm not saying all police officers are bad, but the ones that are good cannot keep allowing the bad ones to get away with murder, plain and simple.

SHERRY: So I think some lawmakers saw and heard this moment, seized on it in an attempt to pass sweeping police legislation in Colorado. And I covered the debates, and even some of the more conservative Republicans - one state senator is a former sheriff, for example - heard what people were saying in the Capitol and certainly outside the Capitol and felt like they needed to get behind the change.

SHAPIRO: Both of you are describing at the state level a movement that we are seeing across the country. And so I wonder where you both see these laws - or proposals, in the case of Virginia - going. What influence do you think they may have on other parts of the country? Allison, you want to go first?

SHERRY: Sure. Yeah. Some of the reforms are starting to take place now in Colorado. Police are mid-training across the state. One notable thing is that the state attorney general has launched his own investigation into the practices at the Aurora Police Department, which is the agency involved in McClain's arrest. And this is a new power for the state attorney general, thanks to that new legislation. And to speak more widely, I guess, you know, this police reform movement across the country is taking place in dozens of states. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 30 states have taken up or proposed some kind of police reform.

And I also want to say briefly - you know, not to toss cold water on all of this, but people have asked whether this is going to fundamentally change policing in my state. And I think the answer is we'll see. You know, we'll have to see whether police face discipline for not using force correctly, for example. We have to see what the new data show and - what the new data they're now required to report shows about trends and how officers conduct themselves. I think policing as a culture is pretty entrenched, and it's going to take a lot - probably more than just even new state laws - to change it fundamentally.

SHAPIRO: And what about in Virginia, Whittney, where this is still up for debate?

EVANS: Many of these bills are working their way through committee. Some of them have already passed. Again, Democrats are in control, and they mostly agree on major policy changes. Meanwhile, Republicans are pushing back on virtually every one of these reforms, which they say are anti-police and will make Virginia less safe. But Democratic state Sen. Mamie Locke responded to those criticisms last week at the start of the special session.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAMIE LOCKE: We want our communities to be safe. But at the same time, we want those communities to be fair, and we want those communities to be just. What happened to George Floyd was not just.

EVANS: So some longtime activists say the policy changes being presented don't go far enough, but most say they're a good start for the state. Many of these reforms will simply bring Virginia in line with other states.

SHAPIRO: That's Whittney Evans of member station VPM in Richmond, Va., and Allison Sherry of Colorado Public Radio in Denver.

Thank you both for talking with us today.

EVANS: Thank you.

SHERRY: Anytime.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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