Westminster city officials on Friday said they intend to follow the state’s new police accountability law, as written, clarifying a statement posted last week on the city’s website that vowed to “defend” Westminster police officers from civil settlements.
“The city intends to support its employees and will continue to defend and indemnify its police officers as required by SB20-217,” said Westminster spokesman Ryan Hegreness, in a statement. “Westminster has always been and remains committed to compliance with SB20-217. The intent of this letter is to express support and our intent to follow the law.”
Officials emphasized they will not defend officers who break the law.
The state’s new police accountability law, SB20-217, makes extensive changes to how law enforcement officers statewide conduct themselves on the job, including allowing them to be held personally accountable for up to $25,000 in civil judgments if they are found to have acted in bad faith in the line of work.
Westminster’s statement, signed by all members of the city council and posted shortly before the July 4 holiday, said, “the City intends to defend and indemnify its police officers for any liability incurred by them including any judgment or settlement entered against them for claims brought pursuant to C.R.S. 13-21-131 (1), unless the police officers are convicted of a criminal violation for the conduct from which the claim arises or otherwise precluded by law.”
C.R.S 13-21-131(1) is part of state statute that covers liability for police officers and was updated to reflect the newly passed state law.
State lawmakers earlier this summer loosened that liability, making it slightly easier for law enforcement officers to have to pay settlements out of their own pockets.
The new law doesn’t require that an officer be convicted of a criminal act to be on the hook for a civil settlements; it states, “if the peace officer's employer determines that the officer did not act upon a good faith and reasonable belief that the action was lawful, then the officer could be held personally liable.”
The bill was passed with broad bipartisan support in the state legislature in the wake of weeks of protests against police brutality across the state.
Since Gov. Jared Polis signed it into law, however, city and county governments across the state have been trying to figure out what it means for the law enforcement officers they employ, according to Westminster Mayor Herb Atchison in a June 22 city council meeting, almost two weeks before the statement was posted.
Atchison told his colleagues in the meeting that he had been on several calls with dozens of mayors across the state, who were concerned about how certain parts of the law would affect officers’ and cities’ liabilities.
“There are a lot of things that are unknown,” Atchison said, according to an archived recording. “One of the big players in this whole conversion is our insurance company being CIRSA. They are also looking at trying to determine as to what does each element of this law say and what does it mean: Can we cover everyone in each instance that’s defined in there and those that aren’t defined?”
CIRSA, the Colorado Intergovernmental Risk Sharing Agency, insures local governments in the case of civil settlements.
Atchison continued, “Believe me we are going to do everything we can to make sure we’re on the right step, that we are protecting our employees and the cities as well.” he said. “We ask that you be patient, this is not something that’s been in our hands for a long time to look at.”
Westminster Councilman David DeMott said he had heard from concerned citizens around increased police officer liability.
“My desire is to make sure we’re protecting our officers that are doing a lawful job in protecting this community,” DeMott said, in the same meeting. “Other law enforcement agencies across the state are saying that they’re going to step up and cover and protect their people. This isn’t that uncommon. School districts do the same thing to protect their people.”
In the south metro area earlier this week, protesters staked out government offices in Greenwood Village, after elected officials there passed a resolution vowing to protect officers “in all cases” from any lawsuit or proceeding brought about from the new police law.
Polis and state Attorney General Phil Weiser both said this week they expect cities and counties to follow the new state law. Weiser said if they don’t, he anticipates lawmakers will introduce clarifying legislation next year.
You are one of the CPR readers who wants to know what is really going on these days. We can help you keep up - The Lookout is a free, daily email newsletter with news and happenings from all over Colorado. Sign up here and we will see you in the morning!