Advocates push for police reform after summer of unrest

ABC News examines police reform in a new video series "My America."

October 1, 2020, 6:06 AM

Delisha Searcy has been pleading for police reform for more than a year after her 19-year-old son, De'Von Bailey, was shot in the back by officers in Colorado.

"I'm looking for in this election, people that are going to take Black Lives Matter seriously, not just, you know, put a little banner up and say, 'Black Lives Matter,'" she told ABC News. "What are you doing? What are you actually doing?"

Like many activists across the country, Searcy raised her voice about injustices in policing and was on hand when the state's governor, Jared Polis, signed into a law a comprehensive police reform package this summer.

While some police brass and others have criticized the new rules in Colorado as too restrictive, many policy experts say police departments need to take a hard look at their tactics if they want to achieve better policing in their communities.

Police reform has become one of the central issues of the protest movement and civil unrest that has sprung up around the country in the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police. There have been calls to disband or reorganize departments, ban controversial tactics like chokeholds and invest more funding in non-law enforcement interventions amid growing anger over the disproportionate negative impact policing has on people of color.

Nearly a third (30%) of registered voters cited criminal justice and policing or race relations as the most important issue in deciding their vote for president, according to a September poll by KFF Health Tracking.

ABC News is examining the issue of police reform as part of its "My America" video series, which showcases issues that are key to the electorate in the run-up to the 2020 election.

Delisha Searcy, mother of De'Von Bailey, at podium, speaks at a news conference in front of the Colorado Springs Police Department Police Operations Center, Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019, in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette via AP

For Searcy, the question of police accountability has remained on her mind since the August 2019 incident where her son was killed.

Colorado Springs officers stopped Bailey while they investigated a reported armed robbery call. The report was eventually determined to be false. As Bailey ran away from officers while being questioned, he was shot in the back, police said. A gun was found in the waistband of his shorts, according to police.

At the time, under Colorado law, officers were allowed to shoot suspects allegedly connected to violent incidents if they "reasonably believe that it is necessary" to defend themselves or others from harm. The law also gave them the right to shoot suspects linked to a felony with a deadly weapon to prevent the suspect from escaping.

"How could you literally take your gun out, not even give him a warning and say, 'If you don't stop, I'm going to shoot,'" Searcy asked. "It made me feel like you don't have respect for life. You don't care. You shouldn't be doing your job."

Sgt. Alan Van't Land and Officer Blake Evenson, the police officers involved, were exonerated by a grand jury, which found the shooting justifiable under the law, and the state district attorney chose not to pursue additional charges. The two officers are still on the force, but are named in a lawsuit filed by Bailey's family.

The suit contends the officers had no right to open fire since he posed no threat. A spokesperson for the Colorado Springs Police Department told ABC News that it does not comment on ongoing litigation.

The teen's death ignited new protests against police violence against the Black community, protests that increased following Floyd's death in May. It was with this public outcry that Colorado state leaders began to work on police reform.

Over the summer, the state passed several reform packages including mandatory body cameras for every officer in the state, an end to qualified immunity, allowing people to sue officers as individuals for up to $25,000 and a ban on chokeholds.

Colorado Rep. Leslie Herod, a Democrat, told ABC News that her colleagues on both sides of the aisle wanted to address the public's concerns.

We had letters from across Colorado, emails from across Colorado. Republicans say, 'I'm getting e-mails on this thing. Let's make this workable. You know, I want to vote 'yes.' Get me [too],'" she told ABC News.

Not everyone in the state, however, was happy with the changes.

Colorado Sen. John Cooke, who voted in favor of the legislation, told ABC News he had concerns about how it could affect the future of police forces. A former sheriff, Cooke said he would think twice about going into law enforcement because of the new restrictions and other prospective officers are thinking the same.

"It's only a few people here, a few bad apples, so to speak, in the law enforcement community. That makes it bad for everybody," he said.

Simon Balto, professor and historian at the University of Iowa, told ABC News that the analogy doesn't always work to describe the problem.

"If you are imagining it to be a system, an institution that equitably keeps all people safe, it just simply doesn't that doesn't track," he told ABC News.

People react as police officers discharge tear gas next to the Colorado State Capitol as protests against the death of George Floyd continue for a third night on May 30, 2020, in Denver.
Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

Balto noted the defund the police argument that has arisen from the protests doesn't necessarily mean cutting back on resources for problem-solving, rather it means putting them in sectors that can bring about comprehensive change.

"If we can invest in people, invest in communities, give people the things that they need to make sure that their material needs are met, then a world without police or at least without the police as currently conceived is imminently possible," he said.

Colorado is one of the places in the country that have moved swiftly to enact police reforms aimed at curbing violence committed by officers. In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, the city council voted in June to ban chokeholds and "warrior style training," while in New York City, leaders removed a billion dollars from the police budget by removing two NYPD training classes and diverting command of school safety officers to the Department of Education.

Denver police officer Nate Magee chants with protesters marching during the fifth consecutive day of demonstrations in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd on June 1, 2020, in Denver.
Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images, File

Elected officials all over the country have pushed to put more reforms in place.

Searcy said the changes in Colorado are a step in the right direction, but she's afraid that the momentum for change has slowed recently. She hopes that more people continue to raise their voices and leaders come up with solutions that truly curb police violence.

"I don't understand why it takes people being slaughtered or choked out for X amount of minutes for us to do something," she said.

ABC News' Carol McKinley contributed to this report.

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