06-23-20 Capitol

The state capitol building sits in Cheyenne.

CHEYENNE — As a restless nation took to the streets for police reform in 2020, then-statehouse-candidate Karlee Provenza — a Laramie Democrat — traveled the streets of Wyoming’s third-largest city on a campaign of her own.

A PhD candidate in criminal justice at the University of Wyoming, Provenza had a personal relationship with the national conversation on redefining law enforcement. In the wake of the controversial police-involved shooting of mentally ill man Robbie Ramirez in her community in 2018, Provenza organized a police reform group, Albany County for Proper Policing.

On the campaign trail, Provenza pitched voters on a promise of not only delivering a progressive and working-class perspective to the Legislature, but on helping to reform the very thing that spurred her own activism: what she considers an oversight in the system. That oversight, she said, allows officers with patterns of misconduct elsewhere to serve in Wyoming.

This session, Provenza set out to deliver on those promises with House Bill 247 — Law enforcement hiring practices, a bill that would prohibit the hiring of peace officers with a “history of serious misconduct.”

Though counting just two co-sponsors and initially failing a third reading vote in the House of Representatives, Provenza’s bill was recalled and passed by a narrow 31-24 vote to advance to the Senate, marking perhaps one of the most significant police reform actions by the House in more than a decade.

But with HB-247 as the final bill on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s list for the year, its members declined to make a motion on it, effectively killing the bill. Another piece of Provenza-sponsored legislation regarding law enforcement — House Bill 213-Disclosure of peace officer recordings — failed to even get a hearing in the House, dying in her own committee without a vote over concerns about the definition of “serious misconduct,” fears the legislation could create undue bureaucratic burden on departments and other worries. The latter bill would have created a much-needed standard for tracking and releasing records of peace officer conduct in the field, Provenza said, which she said currently does not exist.

In the wake of the bills’ demise, Provenza said the conversation around policing has drastically changed with the larger, national conversations on police accountability in the past year. Those changes, she added, could create new barriers to enacting meaningful reform in Wyoming.

“Before George Floyd — when Robbie Ramirez was killed, and when Albany County for Proper Policing was formed — we had a ton of support from Republicans,” Provenza said in an interview midway through the legislative session. “I’d say 60% to 70% of our base were Republican voters. To me, that conveyed this isn’t a political issue, that it’s a community issue. But then George Floyd happened, and the national conversation really impacted how people looked at police reform in the state of Wyoming. No longer is it a transparency issue that conservatives can get behind — now it’s a racial issue that only liberals can get behind.”

But critics argued there were problems with the bills. The premature release of body cam footage from HB-213 could create a “public trial” without the chance for due process and overrule an existing disclosure protocol already in statute, Wyoming Highway Patrol Col. Kebin Haller said during his March 10 testimony on the bill.

The reasons for opposition to HB-247 were less clear as the bill received little floor debate. However, in committee, lawmakers like Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, expressed concern the bill could create due process issues for law enforcement officers whose licenses are up for revocation — a concern later addressed in an amendment by Rep. Barry Crago, R-Buffalo, at the committee level.

“We don’t get to write law that — without findings — assumes [someone who is under investigation who leaves the force] is a guilty plea,” Oakley said. Criminal justice reform has been a pet topic of the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee in recent years.

In the last several sessions, the committee has examined reforms to sentencing, the severity of criminal penalties and alternatives to incarceration intended to rehabilitate, rather than punish, those who end up behind bars. In many instances, lawmakers have been successful in those ambitions, successfully passing major reforms to the state’s youthful offender program, creating alternatives to incarceration for certain motor vehicle and alcohol crimes, providing quicker pathways for inmates to qualify for parole and making it easier for criminal defendants to qualify for representation by a public defender.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy. This story was edited for space. The full story can be found in its entirety at wyofile.com.

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