- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Grand Junction’s The Daily Sentinel, April 1, on Indiana’s “religious freedom” legislation:

This is the fallout we warned against. Colorado could be right there with Indiana as a target of boycotts and derision over so-called “religious freedom” legislation.

Fortunately, Colorado lawmakers avoided the controversy now swirling in Indiana by killing two bills at the committee level. Indiana lawmakers, on the other hand, are hastily considering revisions to the newly minted Religious Freedom Restoration Act to specify that the law doesn’t allow businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

The recalibrated stance is the result of swift blowback. Charles Barkley called for the NCAA to move the Final Four from host city Indianapolis and the popular roots-rock group Wilco canceled an upcoming Indiana concert in protest of the new law. Other groups are calling on a tourism boycott of the Hoosier State.

But that’s a knee-jerk reaction. The Indiana law is modeled after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which passed 97-3 in the U.S. Senate. President Bill Clinton signed it into law in 1993. It would come into prominence two decades later when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld religious liberty in the Hobby Lobby case, which resurrected concerns about the government infringing on deeply held religious beliefs.

The Indianapolis Star’s editorial board called on Gov. Mike Pence and lawmakers to balance the RFRA with a law prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing, education and public accommodation on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

We opposed the two Colorado bills that addressed religious freedom because critics said they were so broadly written that anyone could claim their religious beliefs allow them to pick and choose which laws they want to follow.

But Indiana’s law “only provides a mechanism to address (discrimination) claims, not a license for private parties to deny services,” Indiana Gov. Mike Pence wrote in an op-ed published in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal. “Even a claim involving private individuals under RFRA must show that one’s religious beliefs were ‘substantially burdened’ and not in service to a broader government interest - which preventing discrimination certainly is. The government has the explicit power under the law to step in and defend such interests.”

The federal RFRA had the backing of constitutional scholars who acknowledged the importance of protecting the First Amendment’s free exercise clause. In the ensuing two decades, wide bipartisan support for religious freedom has given way to polarizing views, largely on the strength of the gay rights movement.

New York Times columnist David Brooks notes in column at the bottom of the page that balancing religious liberty and civil rights is a noble cause and that religious liberty is a value “deserving our deepest respect.”

Indiana went about the issue in more circumspect fashion than Colorado did, but you wouldn’t know it by the results. If Colorado lawmakers persist in pursuing a similar law, hopefully they’ll model the federal RFRA, which requires courts to administer a balancing test when reviewing cases that engender the free exercise of religion.

Editorial: www.gjsentinel.com/opinion/

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The Aurora Sentinel, April 1, on investigating police shootings:

State lawmakers have rightly made clear that two things are critical when it comes to preserving public trust in police departments: autonomy and transparency.

A committee of the Colorado state Senate this week gave a strong bipartisan thumbs-up to a measure that would require police and sheriff agencies across the state to have plans in place to protect police integrity in the rare case of an officer-involved shooting. Senate Bill 15-219 would require police departments to create plans that would immediately bring in an outside police agency if an officer shoots a civilian. In addition, the bill would require a district attorney investigating the shooting to make public a complete report if no charges are filed against a cop involved in a shooting, explaining why the incident was justified.

The bill was just one of several that focus on police rules, training and behavior in light of controversial police-shooting incidents in Ferguson, Missouri and across the country. Sadly, just such an incident occurred in Aurora on March 6. Veteran Aurora SWAT team officer Paul Jerothe shot and killed parolee Naeschylus Vinzant near an north Aurora elementary school when something went wrong during Vinzant’s arrest. Police have revealed almost no details about what prompted Jerothe to shoot Vinzant, who was unarmed and black. Police have only refuted claims that Vinzant was handcuffed at the time of the shooting. The case is now in the hands of the Jefferson County district attorney’s office, who won’t comment on the matter.

Police and prosecutors say they can’t comment to preserve the integrity of the case. The problem is that a long, secret investigation only impugns the results. If the JeffCo DA were to rule that the shooting was justified, even clear details of such a decision would be clouded by two critical problems: The initial investigation was done by Aurora police, and it has been shrouded in secrecy. In contrast, details of shootings not involving police officers are almost always timely and prolific.

State lawmakers see the value of transparency, expediency and autonomy. So, too, should Aurora police and lawmakers.

Currently, city officials are creating a new police oversight committee, which would neither be independent, autonomous nor transparent. While such a group, led by a paid employee, might provide valuable feedback to city officials, it would do little or nothing to invite confidence in any ombudsman work the panel might do. This state Senate measure is promising because it is built to promote public trust by incorporating independence and transparency.

Other measures being considered by the state also would go far in ensuring that the well-deserved trust enjoyed by Aurora police and many other Colorado police agencies doesn’t erode like it has in other places across the country. Measures that require police training and transparency protocols only serve to make the public and peace officers more safe and confident in the unprecedented power and responsibility they’re entrusted with.

We encourage the full state Senate and state House to pass this and other measures. And we encourage Aurora police and administrative officials to rethink the current oversight plan and instead model one on the critical goals of this and other state laws.

In Aurora’s current tragic police-shooting incident and others, it would be invaluable to have an outside police agency openly explain to the public why such a tragic shooting was justified, and then have that determination backed up by a detailed judicial district report exonerating an officer.

Both the public and police officers involved in these tragedies deserve nothing less.

Editorial: https://tinyurl.com/nop7tmk

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Grand Junction’s The Daily Sentinel, March 31, on body cameras:

The Fruita Police Department is taking a deliberate approach to outfitting its patrol officers with body cameras.

This is smart on many levels. Before committing the department to an expensive investment in technology, Police Chief Judy Macy wants some real-world data about how the cameras affect job performance and whether they improve public safety.

And she’s not springing this on an unsuspecting public. Macy could have rolled out the cameras without fanfare and probably been rewarded with a gotcha moment. Instead, she’s made citizens aware of a camera testing program - to run from now until the end of the year - and invited direct feedback to her email address, [email protected]

Two officers will wear two different models of cameras, each with its own benefits and drawbacks. That will provide some guidance on the sheer technical capabilities of the cameras.

More importantly, the two officers will be able to gauge how wearing the camera affects their interactions with the public.

Some people have questioned why a small police department like Fruita’s would want or need to have access to such technology. We think this is one of the more valuable aspects of this experiment. A large, urban police force that regularly sees officers in confrontational situations with guns drawn is a more obvious choice to test body cameras.

But video cameras are ubiquitous. Anyone who owns a smartphone has the ability to record police interactions with a built-in video camera. Macy has wisely acknowledged that if the public is going to be recording, then the officers might want to understand and use the technology to their benefit. And this applies to small police departments, too.

A test period will allow Macy to see how the video footage is archived and tagged as evidence and to gauge a host of other practical considerations. She’s drafted a policy that directs officers to turn the cameras on during “enforcement-related” contacts, but gives them some latitude to turn them off to preserve trust with victims.

The cameras have the potential to prove or disprove claims of misconduct, which could be an important factor in a cost-benefit analysis. If the cameras can save the city from defending an expensive lawsuit, they might pay for themselves quickly.

Or they may prove to be a headache. One of Macy’s biggest concerns is that the footage is subject to disclosure under the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act. She deserves credit for wading into murky waters and putting those misgivings aside to learn whether the cameras can be a beneficial tool. Fruita is embracing the cameras as a means of building better criminal cases.

If body-worn cameras are the wave of the future, Fruita will be ahead of the game. If it’s just a fad, as some have contended, then Fruita will have helped make that determination. Either way, Macy and her small department should be commended for accepting a big challenge.

Editorial: https://tinyurl.com/l6d546v

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Loveland Reporter Herald-Herald, March 28, on national park maintenance:

This year, Rocky Mountain National Park celebrates its 100th birthday.

It’s unfortunate that in some spots, the age will definitely show.

According to a report released this month by the National Parks Service, Rocky Mountain National Park has $67.7 million in deferred maintenance costs that have accumulated through years of neglect and austerity.

A crown jewel of the parks system handed down by early 20th century preservationists hasn’t collected dust in the past 100 years from neglect; no, this jewel is worn around the edges because of the millions of visitors it receives every year.

According to the Denver Post, some of the costs being put off include a new roof at the Kawuneeche Visitor Center on the west side of the park, the boardwalk around Lily Lake near Estes Park and a host of improvements to restrooms at campgrounds throughout the park.

It’s not just Rocky Mountain National Park suffering from the funding backlog, either. In Colorado, Mesa Verde has more than $60 million in deferred maintenance costs. Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona has $150 million in costs, and perhaps most shocking, Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park has $633 million in backlog projects.

Many of the improvements throughout the National Park System were built at times when there was plenty of labor, such as through the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression or when soldiers returned from World War II.

There are many looming issues before our federal government, including the high cost of entitlement spending and a backlog of transportation system maintenance. The national debt means we cannot merely borrow our way out of this problem. A good chunk of the solution will have to come from users.

These gifts to future generations should be considered only temporarily in the stewardship of current generations. When we pass them off to our children and grandchildren, they should be looked at as assets and treasures, not pits of decay.

Editorial: https://tinyurl.com/lplt949

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