Colorado Senate Bill 31 would prevent police officers from breaking up a protest unless it meets certain conditions: that there is “an imminent threat of violence or significant property damage from a significant number or percentage of persons acting in concert.”
The Colorado Sun reported that the legislation will significantly impede police’s ability to interfere with protests. The law introduced in February is a response to the wave of protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the death of Elijah McClain in Aurora, Colorado.
It specifies that police may only engage protestors in the case that a “significant” number of protestors acting in unison were threatening violence or “major” property damage.
The proposed legislation also requires police to identify “bad actors” in a demonstration, rather than using efforts to stop the demonstration as a whole.
State Senator Jeff Bridges, who supports the legislation, said, “I think that there is a lack of clarity both for protesters and for police of what is protected speech under the First Amendment.”
Bridges referenced the time police showed up in full riot gear to a peaceful “violin vigil” for McClain, which led to an apology from the city’s police chief, as an example of why the bill was needed.
Rep. Lisa Cutter, a staunch supporter of the bill, says that the purpose of the bill is to clear up any confusion about what is a destructive and what is a peaceful demonstration, so that police can avoid unnecessary force while protecting the peoples’ First Amendment rights.
Public policy director for the ACLU of Colorado, Denise Maes, pointed out the lack of guidance for law enforcement and the public when it comes to expressing their First Amendment rights.
She explained, “There aren’t any laws on the books right now, and for that reason, law enforcement can deem anything to be an unlawful assembly. I think law enforcement should be happy to see (this bill).”
However, some are more cynical about the effects of the bill, including activist and director on the Denver School Board Tay Anderson, who is worried it gives the police too much discretionary power over when to intervene. “I’m supportive of the idea, but I’m concerned about … who makes that call. We know that there are bad actors that try to affiliate themselves with an organization or protest. I don’t necessarily believe we should charge police officers, who are often the ones being protested, (with that).”
Maes clarified that the bill will require police to separate peaceful protestors from agitators so that they can allow the protest to continue uninterrupted, thus protecting demonstrators’ civil liberties.
However, Republicans and the police are skeptical about the bill. Rep. John Cooke, who is also a former Sheriff, explained that the wording of the bill is too vague since phrases “significant number” and “significant percentage” are not well-defined. He said, “The bill is pretty broad, some of the wording. It’s a bad bill.”
The Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police issued a statement saying, “Lawmakers did not seek input from the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police or our partners on this proposal that was introduced today. We are now reviewing it.”