More than 200 law enforcement officers across Colorado resigned or retired in the weeks after Gov. Jared Polis enacted sweeping police reforms by signing Senate Bill 217 into law on June 19, according to state data.
Though it’s unclear how many of the separations are the direct result of the new law — with its striking implications that include officers’ personal financial liability for their actions — interviews with chiefs of police and union officials suggest a number of them are, and the state’s largest police organization has launched a survey to find out.
Between June 13, the day the legislature passed the bill, and Aug. 7, agencies statewide reported 241 officers have left their department, including those who were fired, according to the Colorado Police Officer Standards and Training board that certifies them. The number includes sworn police officers and sheriff’s deputies, as well as some officers who are not POST-certified.
Law enforcement agencies are required to notify POST within 15 days of an officer’s separation, but not the reason behind it or the position they held, so it’s possible some officers merely transferred to another department within the state, officials say.
“No doubt there’s an impact (from SB 217), but we can’t put numbers on it yet,” said Mike Violette, executive director of the Colorado State Fraternal Order of Police and a Denver sheriff’s deputy. “We’re hearing the officers are concerned about being in the profession and what’s happening. That’s why we running a statewide survey: to find out.”
Individually, police departments say since the bill became law, they’ve had more than the normal number of resignations and retirements, but none is able to conclude it’s the direct result of SB 217. The number of separations since the bill became law is slightly higher than the average number POST usually sees over the same time period, officials said. The state attorney general’s office declined to provide specific numbers.
Some numbers reported by POST differed from what agencies told The Denver Post when contacted because the state’s tally includes firings. For instance, the Aurora Police Department said it had six resignations and nine retirements since the middle of June, but POST reported the agency had 20 departures, which included five officer firings.
The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department reported 11 resignations and six retirements in that time frame, second-highest total among all agencies statewide, and POST reported a total of 19 separations, including two jailers. A JCSD spokesman said each officer who left was asked to volunteer whether SB 217 was a factor in their decision, and five said it was.
“I’ve talked to many officers who are concerned about this bill and what it looks like the impact will be to them,” said Aurora police Officer Judy Lutkin, a 30-year veteran who is president of the Aurora Police Association. “We’re scrambling to figure out the insurance bit, to prevent officers from losing their houses when they’re acting in good faith. I’m looking to retire and I don’t want to have to leave, but I don’t want myself and my family at risk.”
“Some personal skin in the game”
At issue is a provision within SB 217 that allows for officers to be sued personally and held liable for 5% of any judgment or settlement against them or $25,000, whichever is less. Wiped away was a long-standing provision of qualified immunity, which means an officer acting under the authority of a government couldn’t be sued personally.
Other provisions within the new law also have officers talking — required body cameras, a requirement to intervene on another officer using excessive force or face misdemeanor charges, the barring of chokeholds — but none is as disconcerting as the financial liability.
“When SB 217 was passed, it put some (officers) over the edge to take (early retirement),” said Lt. Bob Shaffer of the Loveland Police Department, where five officers have retired. “There is a significant fear of being vulnerable and unsupported that is causing a lot of officers to, at a minimum, consider leaving employment and moving out of the state entirely.”
Shaffer said as many as 10 officers in the Loveland department had said they intended to retire as a result of the new law.
“A lot of officers talk a big game, but when it really comes down to it, they are loyal, dedicated, and know that, in the end, they’re doing what they need to be doing,” he said.
Called the Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act, the bill came quickly after bands of protesters marched and collected in front of the state Capitol, demanding justice for George Floyd, a Black man killed by Minneapolis police. Those demonstrations flared into confrontations with police that included tear gas, pepper balls and foam bullets. They also expanded to demand similar justice for Elijah McClain, a Black man who died last year after Aurora police put him in a chokehold and paramedics injected him with a heavy sedative.
The law, written by Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who chairs the state’s Black Democratic Legislative Caucus, was the first nationally to give victims of police violence the right to sue an officer directly.
“If they’re leaving because of this accountability, then maybe it’s time to think of a new profession,” Herod told The Denver Post. “It should be that an officer has some personal skin in the game.”
The financial liability was initially set to be $100,000, but it was toned down as the bill moved through the legislature in about two weeks.
“It’s the ability to second-guess an officer and basically make them liable, and if you get hit with that, you’re fired,” said Denver Detective Nick Rogers, president of the Denver Police Protective Association and a 35-year veteran of the department, most of them as a narcotics detective. “If you were acting in good faith the day before 217 started, and you do the same after, it’s not magically a mistake now. What does change is the city is basically having to decide when and if an officer is not acting in good faith.”
That risk, along with a dramatic shift in the public protests against police, has given Rogers pause about continuing his career for as long as he had planned.
“I have decided to leave myself, perhaps in a year or two rather than the four or so I had planned on,” he said. “Being a cop isn’t the same as it was yesterday. My profession changed on me; I didn’t change on my profession. To me, I didn’t quit on society; it quit on me.”
Herod said the intent of SB 217 is to make policing a respectable profession so that officers can rely on the public’s confidence and respect.
“The support isn’t there and law enforcement isn’t respected as it once was, and we need to change that,” she said. “We want the community to have faith in them again.”
“Who wants to be a cop any longer?”
The concern is also about hiring new officers to fill in the spots of those who are leaving, according to Steamboat Springs Police Chief Cory Christensen, who is president of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police.
“I do hear from the other chiefs that they have officers leaving the profession altogether or are seeking law enforcement opportunities outside the state because of 217,” Christensen said.
The real impact, he said, won’t come for months since it takes time to hire new officers and for those leaving to find new jobs.
“Job postings are for 30 or 45 days, we run a variety of tests and background checks, so we’re not really going to see the reality until about January,” he said. “Folks are looking and we won’t see the outcome of those searches, them leaving a department, until they find the jobs.”
Recruitment has been tough, he said, and the current climate surrounding police work isn’t making it easier.
“Someone not in the profession isn’t really paying attention to 217 yet, but they are seeing how police are treated and how policing is viewed in general,” Christiansen said. “And recovering from COVID-19 has hurt us all. It’s not been easy.”
Violette agreed: “To see an exodus of any sort because of politics is not good, but add in the bigger overriding problems of recruitment. Who wants to be a cop any longer?”
Rogers said the legislation punishes good officers as well as those who deserve it.
“We went from 100% love in the community during this pandemic, then overnight all of us became the devil and we didn’t deserve it,” he said. “Get the dirty ones out, get rid of them, but 99.9% of us are good. Society screwed all the good cops and it’s not right.”
Some cities, such as Greenwood Village, have stepped in to let officers know the city will cover any personal liability exposure created by SB 217.
Herod said it’s her intent — and she says she’s got the support — to close that loophole.
“It’s the intent to ensure the law is clear, and if we need to put in additional enforcement for skin in the game, it will be there,” Herod said.