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Law enforcement internal affairs reports could soon be open to the public

COLORADO SPRINGS- The City of Colorado Springs has paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements related to officer misconduct, but News 5 Investigates found in Colorado the public is often kept in the dark about what, if anything, happens to those officers. Investigative Reporter Patrick Nelson spent weeks looking into a bill making its way through the legislature right now that would allow the public to access completed internal affairs investigations.

If passed, this bill would shed light on how police, police themselves. Law enforcement agencies across the state often withhold internal affairs records meaning the public has no idea whether officers are being held accountable for their actions. The bill has gained both support and opposition. We bring you both sides.

In 2015, two men were pulled over for a traffic stop by Colorado Springs Police Department officers. Benjamin Brown, the driver, was asked to step out of the car and was placed in handcuffs. His brother Ryan pulled out his phone and started recording. The officers then took Ryan from the car and put him in handcuffs as well.

“He was pulled from his vehicle, thrown to the ground, his face was pushed into the snow and his camera was taken out of his hand and thrown onto concrete,” said John Krieger of ACLU Colorado.

This interaction led to a civil rights lawsuit and ultimately the Browns settled with the City of Colorado Springs, the city paying out more than $200,000.

Six months after the settlement with the Browns, another police encounter in Colorado Springs would prompt a new lawsuit.

Tyrrell Clayton was recording video outside of the Falcon Substation in November of 2017 when he was approached by officers who said he was acting suspiciously. The officers took Clayton’s camera and detained him. He sued and the city settled the case for $41,000.

There’s also a case involving Alexis Acker. She was arrested in November 2013, after reportedly interfering with the arrest of her boyfriend, who had a warrant. Acker was taken to Memorial Hospital where surveillance video captured Colorado Springs Police Officer Tyler Walker slamming Acker to the floor. Acker suffered injuries to her face and sued the police department. The city settled for $100,000.

Cases like this now have the attention of state law makers.

“Why can’t we know why the City of Colorado Springs paid out $100,000 to Alexis Acker? We don’t know why and that just builds and breeds mistrust,” said Colorado State Representative Dave Williams a Republican from Colorado Springs.

News 5 Investigative Reporter Patrick Nelson speaks with Colorado State Representative Dave Williams (R-Colorado Springs)

Representative Williams says he’s supporting a bill that would open up this information to the public.

“This is actually a modest bill we are trying to get passed here and again all it does is it allows for these internal affairs investigative reports once they are completed to be opened up to public scrutiny and even with that law enforcement can still redact personal information to make sure we are protecting police officers and no undue harm comes to them,” said Rep. Williams.

Donald Sisson represents the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police, also known as the “FOP”. This organization opposes the bill.

“Sometimes the officer’s right to privacy outweighs the public’s need to know and sometimes it doesn’t and so the FOP’s position is we think the system works perfectly fine,” said Sisson.

News 5 Investigative Reporter Patrick Nelson sits down with Donald Sisson who represents the Colorado chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police.

As it stands now, law enforcement agencies are given wide discretion on what information they don’t have to release to the public. Sisson says if the public doesn’t like it they can take it to court.

“If the judge decides that it should be disclosed, great. but we are standing firm on we should still have, the officer should still have some privacy interest,” said Sisson.

The bill that would open internal affairs reports to the public passed the Colorado House and now heads to the Senate. If passed, the bill would allow the public to inspect completed internal affairs investigations moving forward. Sisson believes internal affairs files should remain confidential and he fears this bill could adversely affect law enforcement’s ability to recruit new officers.

“It’s just becoming harder and harder for police officers to want to remain police officers because they are subject to such scrutiny,” said Sisson.

But lawmakers argue transparency will improve public trust and hold officers more accountable.

“We are raising standards and I think when you serve the community in that way it’s going to attract the best that we have in our community,” said Rep. Williams.

Right now 14 states have laws giving the public access to internal affairs records.

Here is a list of those states:

  • Arizona
  • Connecticut
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Maine
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Tennessee
  • Utah
  • Washington
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin

Will Colorado be next?

We reached out to local law enforcement leaders who say they’d like to wait to see if the bill passes before making a comment.

You can track the bill here: https://leg.colorado.gov/bills/hb19-1119 

Patrick Nelson

Patrick Nelson

Patrick Nelson is an investigative reporter for News 5 in Colorado Springs.
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