As the nation is gripped in the passion of a fresh new justice movement lashing out against the atrocities of police brutality, there is a grand opportunity for Colorado to take a stand and make a difference.
The tensions between law enforcement agencies and local communities have never been higher in recent memory. That’s so unfortunate since the vast majority of our men and women who protect us do so with honor and a noble sense of service. More importantly, in order to maintain safe and livable communities, we have no choice but to find a way to bridge these differences.
However, we must first face some troubling truths about Colorado. Not unlike Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland or elsewhere, we’ve struggled for some time with similar challenges here in Denver and beyond.
Colorado has some of the highest arrest rates for African Americans in the nation according to a recent USA Today analysis. In Denver, the arrest rate per 1000 non-Black residents was just under 25 percent during 2011-2012. Yet, for black residents – who represent 10 percent of the city’s population – the arrest rate was an eye-popping 91 percent.
The city of Arvada ranks first in the state for its number of black arrests: only one percent of the population is African American (or 962 residents according to the latest Census numbers). Still, nearly half of those residents were incarcerated. Over half of Boulder’s black residents faced arrest in 2011-2012.
We should not tolerate these statistics in Colorado. They should not represent who we are, regardless of color or background. As Chair of the Colorado Black Caucus this is why I, along with Colorado Latino Caucus Chair Joe Salazar (D-Thornton) and other legislators are creating solutions that will make Colorado better for everyone who calls it home.
There has been some conversation about the universal introduction body cameras to policing as President Obama committed federal funds for devices that could bring some relief to thousands of communities nationwide.
But while we support such measures, we also realize that’s a small first step. Body cameras can still be turned off.
We need an aggressive and multi-faceted approach. The National Urban League’s recently released 10 point plan is one such thoughtful approach as it offers a tangible mix of strategies that could strike the right balance between stressed police departments and frustrated communities of color. Some of these approaches could be useful right here in Colorado, whether its mandatory use of body cameras, implementing a new community policing model, revising deadly force policies or comprehensive retraining of all police officers.
There is also a growing need for independent and ongoing reviews of police reports that include thorough demographic breakdowns. There must also be recognition that some police officers involved in misconduct are lying on their reports, so we must implement citizen-driven evaluations that encourage a fair and transparent process. This is where we can institutionalize and aggressively enhance stakeholder interface between commanders, beat supervisors and community leaders so we can collaboratively devise best-practice policing strategy for neighborhoods in need.
That may present an opportunity for Colorado to lead the nation in completely revamping the grand jury process of alleged police misconduct as we know it. Our criminal justice system rightly creates a system where local prosecutors work closely with their law enforcement partners to keep our neighborhoods safe. But, as a way to eliminate bias and favoritism, prosecutors should be completely removed from a grand jury proceeding involving police misconduct and brutality. Instead, court systems should consider independent special prosecutors and concerned community advocates.
And, lastly, Colorado should become the first state in the nation to require a four-year college degree for every police officer on the state and local level. Only one percent of police departments in the country require a four-year college degree. That’s unfortunate. There are so many highly regarded academic institutions in Colorado that could easily partner with law enforcement agencies and providing the intellectual foundation officers need to understand the cultural, political and economic conditions of the communities they patrol.
What we need is an ambitious and holistic framework that attacks the very core of racial profiling and addresses a vein of bigotry infecting police culture. But we must also find a way for protesters to now devise sophisticated and necessary political strategies that will transition this new movement into the critical work of partnering with their elected officials, organizing political action committees, drafting laws and ultimately crafting the policy needed to positively reshape law enforcement.
A defining moment is upon us where we are at the crossroads. We can either let it pass and allow young, unarmed people of color to die – or, we can actually do what it takes to rebuild a lasting, workable trust between our police officers and our fellow black, Latino and other underserved residents. That time is now.
Editor’s note: Angela Williams is a state legislator representing Colorado’s 7th District and is founding chair of the Colorado Black Legislative Caucus.