Police Accountability Conflict in Colorado
In June of 2020, Colorado state senators and representatives passed a sweeping and bipartisan police reform bill, Senate Bill 20-217 (SB 20-217). Policymakers, lobbyists, and citizens alike estimate that the bill’s passing was an impossible feat prior to the circumstances surrounding the summer of 2020 (Burness and Hindi 2020). Previous efforts to pass police reform and accountability bills have failed to garner bipartisan support, stalled due to opposition from law enforcement-related entities, or been watered down to the point of being completely ineffectual, all of which threatened SB 20-217 as well. Legislators attribute the bill’s success to focusing events like the protests and demonstrations surrounding the police killing of George Floyd and the at-times violent response from police officers (such as the use of tear gas and projectiles). Such focusing events also contributed to increased attention on police reform legislation from associations and organizations. Coalitions on both sides advocated their opposition or support for the bill. Prominent opposing coalitions included the County Sheriffs of Colorado, the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police, and the Police Protective Association. Prominent supporting coalitions included the ACLU, Black Lives Matter 5280, Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, Women’s Lobby of Colorado, and the NAACP.
This paper examines police accountability, conflict, and its surrounding policy subsystem within the Policy Conflict Framework (PCF). Conceptually, PCF centers policy conflict in policy process research. Extant applications of the PCF have largely explored the oil and gas policy subsystem in Colorado (see Heikkila and Weible, 2017; Weible and Heikkila, 2020). This paper seeks to expand the PCF to the crime and policing policy subsystem, which is similarly rife with policy conflict. Through the PCF, this study will explore how policy actors, both for and against SB 20-217, understand, relate to, and shape conflict within police accountability policy.
Semi-structured interviews will be conducted with policy actors in Colorado who supported or opposed SB 20-217, many of whom will also be involved in its implementation (set to be June 2023). Previous legislation aimed at police accountability had largely failed in Colorado, but high-profile incidents of police violence and greater mobilization of proponents of increased police accountability contributed to the passing of SB 20-217. As implementation is still ongoing, conflict about this specific bill and the larger police accountability policy subsystem in Colorado continues. Statewide police accountability discourse serves as an opportune moment to further explore police reform conflict and to expand the Policy Conflict Framework to analysis of another policy subsystem.