Boulder County law enforcement eyes measure that could affect internal probes policy

A bill that will open police internal affairs files of completed investigations in Colorado to the public , and it could mean some policy changes for local police departments.

Current state law allows police agencies to release the documents only if they believe they are in the public interest, but most agencies in Colorado rule that the release of those records are “contrary to the public interest.”

While researching a 2018 story for Boulder County officers on the Brady list for findings of untruthfulness, three departments — Boulder, Longmont and Louisville — while the Boulder County Sheriff‘s Office only released a summary after the paper challenged the department‘s decision not to release the report.

“Under the current structure, most records of this nature are not being released, and they should be,” said Sen. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, one of the sponsors of the bill. “That creates some distress between the public and that particular agency.”

Foote said more transparency when it comes to police interaction with the public is good for the community and for departments.

“I think it‘s a win-win,” Foote said. “I think the release of the records is good for the public, and it‘s something that increases transparency and also the trust between the public and the department. And it‘s good for the department for the same reason. I think the department only benefits from having more public trust.”

A similar bill failed last year, but sponsors of the bill worked with police departments this year to make some changes to make the bill more palatable, including increased privacy steps to protect officers.

“We had a bunch of concerns with the original version,” said Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle. “I‘m pretty open to being transparent to the point that we‘re not hurting police officers personally and professionally. I was also really concerned with people cooperating with the investigation knowing they will be made public. Hopefully it‘s been amended to the point where we can protect innocent folks as much as possible.”

But while he had his concerns, Pelle did say he agreed transparency was important in police work.

“I think the more transparent we can be, the greater level of trust we will have with the community,” Pelle said.

One other concession the bill‘s sponsors made is that the bill will not be retroactive, so any investigations completed before the bill was signed will not be subject to the new law.

“That was a pretty big give, actually, between the proponents and the opponents,” Foote said.

The timing could be interesting for a recent Boulder police case in which a black Naropa student was confronted by police while picking up trash on March 1. The Boulder Police Department that was expected to take 30 to 60 days.

A Boulder resident, Mark Gelband, has hired an attorney and requested the immediate release of body camera footage from the incident, but Boulder spokesman Patrick von Keyserling noted Boulder police Chief Greg Testa following the internal investigation.

Testa declined to comment on how the state bill could affect the department because it had not yet been signed.

Longmont Public Safety Chief Mike Butler issued a statement in response to the bill, saying “Longmont public safety already has a group of citizens who review every single internal affairs file. Not only do they review for thoroughness and objectivity, they make recommendations to the public safety chief as to whether the allegations of misconduct should be sustained, not sustained, exonerated or unfounded.”

But Butler added, “If the governor chooses to sign this bill into law, we will comply with the law.”

As for Pelle, he said the sheriff‘s office would review the bill once it is signed to see what sort of policy changes or procedures need to be put in place.

“I don‘t think they‘ll be anything Earth shattering,” Pelle said. “We‘ll comply with (the bill), but we‘ll need a little bit of time to get up to speed.”

Foote said he understood departments might need some time to get procedures in place, but said once the bill was signed all cases completed after that point would be subject to the law. He also noted departments could look to other states or even Denver for examples of agencies that already release their internal records.

“This is not reinventing the wheel,” Foote said. “We‘re trying to learn from what other states are doing and even some other departments in Colorado do. And at the end of the day all of the departments will benefit.”