Newly unearthed audio from the June 2020 legislative session reveals Democrats were already worried about political backlash over their police reform bill in the immediate aftermath of its passage.
Law enforcement and public safety experts blame the law passed in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, particularly the elimination of qualified immunity, for significantly contributing to the ongoing officer shortage and crime surge in Colorado.
The recording comes from the same conversation Peak reported previously, wherein state Senator Pete Lee expressed concern he could face felony charges for lying about his address to establish residency in his El Paso County Senate District.
This previously unreported audio from Lee shows Democrats already worried about backlash over public safety before their police accountability law had even gone into effect.
The audio comes from a conversation with an unidentified female on a WebEx window that Lee left unmuted during the legislative session in June of 2020.
Lee expressed a sense of ambivalence about SB-217, saying he was “really excited” about the police bill, which he called “extraordinary.”
However, he also conceded “I’m really worried about what will no doubt be characterized as overreach by us.”
NEW: Pete Lee told confidant in 2020 he was “really worried” anti-cop law would spark public safety backlash against Democrats:
— CO Peak Politics (@COpeakpolitics) May 11, 2022
The concerns expressed by Lee turned out to be prescient.
The state continues to be in the midst of a drastic officer shortage that has led to increased 911 response times and police have grown more wary of engaging suspects out of fear of being sued.
“The stripping of qualified immunity has made officers fearful of doing their jobs proactively, lest they be personally sued into poverty,” Aurora City Council member Dustin Zvonek recently observed.
That argument is supported by a wide variety of data.
As KRDO reported earlier this year, data from police departments across the state suggests the 2020 law is both driving officers out of their jobs and hurting recruiting.
The state law has sparked heated debate from law enforcement agencies in Colorado. A study with the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police and County Sheriffs of Colorado was published after the law was passed. The study reveals that most law enforcement agencies face officer shortages and believe the new law is attributed to at least some of those officer departures.
“There are varying reasons, but numerous exit interviews suggest that public perception and risks of civil litigation are among the top concerns,” El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder said in the study.
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers suggested the police “backed off” after Floyd’s death and SB-217, leading to a drop in arrests:
Mayor John Suthers said he believes the police backed off after Floyd’s death here and around the country, but that the community is getting back to an appropriate level of policing. Arrests should be rising as the population grows, he said.
“The lack of policing is partly responsible for the skyrocketing crime rates, and hopefully that’s behind us,” he said.
Lee along with his Democrat colleagues have continued their streak of offender-friendly activism in the legislature.
After passing SB-217, Democrats also effectively decriminalized fentanyl possession along with a host of other drugs with another law that went into effect in 2020.
During the current legislative session, Lee adamantly opposed efforts to increase penalties for fentanyl possession and supported amendments that would make it extremely difficult for law enforcement to convict anyone of felony possession.
The Democrats’ fentanyl reform bill is now in a conference committee, where members are considering a new proposal from House Speaker Alec Garnett that, again, seems likely to make it far harder to convict someone of fentanyl possession than most other drugs.
What Democrats ultimately decide to do in their conference committee remains to be seen.
However, if they refuse to reverse the effective decriminalization of fentanyl possession while deaths skyrocket, let’s just say there’s a particular warning about overreach from our good friend Pete Lee that comes to mind.
FULL AUDIO AND TRANSCRIPT:
PETE LEE: On the positive side, is this extraordinary law enforcement accountability and integrity bill. Dang.
LEE: If you’d asked me four months ago, five months ago, if we could’ve gotten through any of those provisions, I would’ve been really skeptical.
WOMAN: Yeah. Yeah, even on the Democratic side.
LEE: Even among the Democratic side, right. So the first day returning I killed three of my criminal justice bills, on the idea well we don’t want to get in any big fights about felony murder right now, and we’re just going to do a simple little agenda.
LEE: All of the sudden, two days later George Floyd is killed and Leroy Garcia – the Black and Brown Caucus, were the sponsors of that bill. Right. Leroy, and Rhonda, and Leslie Herod, and Savannah Gutierrez-Gonzales (Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez) over on the House side. And, we passed it with one dissenting vote in the Senate!
WOMAN: I know, Sonnenberg, he’s the only dissenter.
WOMAN: And for no reason other than, “I live in the country.”
WOMAN: “I’m voting for rural America.” Well, ok, I don’t know what that means.
LEE: Yeah well Crowder who also lives down in the Alamosa area, said you know, we’ve got these problems down in small town America and we need to deal with them there too, so I’m supporting that bill.
LEE: So anyway, there’s the Yin and the Yang. I’m really excited about the police bill, I’m really worried about what will no doubt be characterized as overreach by us.