Colo. Sheriff

El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder in a 2015 file photo. (Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette)

The El Paso County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to create a commission to assess if the county would indemnify a sheriff’s office employee when facing a civil lawsuit.

El Paso is the first county in the state to create such a commission in response to a provision of Colorado’s sweeping police reform bill, Sheriff Bill Elder said. Senate Bill 217, which Gov. Jared Polis signed last month, prohibits local officers’ qualified immunity in civil court cases when it is determined the officer clearly violated a person’s constitutional rights.

The commission could decide to indemnify the employee unless the peace officer did not act in good faith and there was a belief the officer violated the law. If so, the officer would be personally liable for up to $25,000 or 5% of the total judgement, whichever is less, according to the resolution.

Typically, if a lawsuit claims damages of $25,000 or more, the case is presented to the board of commissioners, which then votes on whether to indemnify the sheriff's department employee.

The new commission would be made up of the sheriff or a representative from the sheriff’s office, a county commissioner, a representative from the county administrator’s office, a representative from the county attorney’s office, and two representatives of the county’s human resources and risk management department, according to the resolution.

“I think the establishment of a board like this … is clearly a much more open and transparent process than a unilateral decision that could be made by one individual,” County Commissioner Stan VanderWerf said.

The creation of the commission will not preclude the sheriff’s office from looking at a deputy’s “willful and wanton disregard” of the law, Elder said.

“The 800,000-plus cops do a great job at what they do and the 1% that don’t, give us all a black eye,” he said of the law enforcement officers across the country.

“We will deal with those individuals, but it is my hope that the overwhelming silent majority of our community...that support what it is that the men and women of law enforcement do across this country, stand up and become more vocal than ever before," Elder said. "Because I can tell you that the morale of law enforcement today is in the toilet."

Protests against police brutality and institutional racism have been held across the country, including in Colorado Springs, since the Memorial Day death of a black Minnesota man, George Floyd, while he was in the custody of white police officers.

Elder said the commission would reassure the sheriff's department employees.

“To have them come to work every day under the fear of being sued individually with a $25,000 cap and not have their boss and this board understand that we’re going to do everything we can to indemnify them, is troubling.”

The commission is to present a plan on how it will evaluate the claims and present it to the board of commissioners for approval, El Paso County Attorney Diana May said.

“We feel that this is the best way to make sure that an independent and very objective decision is made on a very important issues that is very important to not only the Sheriff’s Office, but individual law enforcement officers,” May said.

Reach Olivia at olivia.prentzel@gazette.com.

Twitter: @oliviaprentzel

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