Aurora council committee axes 2 proposals, approves another targeting military devices, tear gas

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AURORA | A panel of Aurora City Council members on Thursday nixed two ordinances and approved another aimed at restricting the local police department’s use of chemical agents and heavy equipment that is procured from the military.

Members of the city’s public safety policy committee rejected an initial proposal from Councilperson Juan Marcano that would have prevented Aurora police from using a slew of equipment obtained through the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, which transfers guns, vehicles and other items from the military to local enforcement agencies.

Councilperson Allison Hiltz, who serves as chairperson of the committee, said the initial draft of the ordinance needed further retooling.

“I think this doesn’t go far enough and it doesn’t defer to council,” she said. “I’m not comfortable moving this forward as is.”

Councilpersons Curtis Gardner and Angela Lawson also voted against moving the proposal to the full council. Marcano said he plans to edit the measure and it bring it to the committee again.

The ordinance would have enjoined police from obtaining aircraft, vehicles, a bevy of different caliber firearms, bayonets, camouflage uniforms and grenade launchers from the federal government.

Marcano first introduced the measure last month in a joint statement with Councilpersons Crystal Murillo and Alison Coombs, who both stated support for other aspects of the federal program.

“We encourage and support procurements from the 1033 program that are necessary to increase public safety, for example: foam tankers can and should be utilized by Aurora Fire Rescue in the event of an oil well fire or aircraft crash, and cold weather gear to assist with major inclement weather events,” the trio wrote in a news release. “An MRAP, however, is cumbersome, ineffective, and has no place in our city.”

Marcano’s first draft would have required the department to get rid of its current equipment obtained through the nearly 30-year-old program, including more than 100 M16 rifles, scopes and a heavily armored, mine resistant vehicle known as an MRAP. If passed, City Manager Jim Twombly’s office would have been tasked with overseeing that divestment process.

Local oversight of the 1033 program was the subject of further discussion after Gardner introduced a separate ordinance that could require the full city council to sign off on a wide range of equipment city entities receive from the federal government.

The three members of the committee unanimously approved that measure, sending it to a future study session for discussion by the full council.

Gardner’s proposal requires the passage of a city council resolution for any equipment sought through there 1033 program, the State Homeland Security Program, the Urban Areas Security Initiative and assets through civil or criminal forfeiture.

“What I’m looking to do is really just have accountability to the elected body to approve these things,” Gardner said.

Currently, such procurements are internally handled by Aurora police and the city’s purchasing office. The city was approved to get its mine resistant vehicle, which is largely used to rescue stranded motorists during snowstorms, about six months after Division Chief Ernie Ortiz emailed former chief Dan Oates, stating: “I would like to see the Department request one and use it as a patient extraction vehicle,” according to city documents.

The city has nabbed hundreds of other tools via grant and seizure purchases in recent years, including 300 high-grade bullet proof vests in 2016, four “precision rifles with scopes” in 2018 and 360 foam canisters earlier this year, according to police documents.

A final proposal discussed Thursday calling for a broad ban on the use of tear gas and other chemical agents by local police was eventually halted after extensive debate and protests from Police Chief Vanessa Wilson.

Introduced by Marcano, the proposal asked Twombly’s office to craft a policy banning police officers from using any gases on residents and from using sprayers that aerosolize and spread oleoresin capsicum, or pepper spray, during local protests.

“The usage of chemical weapons and non-targeted irritants are a violation of the Geneva Conventions for warfare and have been linked to hormonal disruptions and more serious reproductive impacts, including miscarriages,” Marcano, Coombs and Murillo wrote in their joint statement issued Aug. 28. “There is no justification for the use of tear gas on civilian populations. Moreover, law enforcement’s continued use of these agents, especially during a public health crisis, is unconscionable.”

Hiltz said the measure was too vague and should take the form of a less-formal resolution, not a city ordinance. She added that while she does not condone any use of pepper spray to control crowds, she believes it’s a more valuable tool than alternatives such as police batons or firearms.

“I do not trust that the default option would be to something less lethal in these situations,” she said. “I think we would see a more cavalier attitude from the officers … And I think there would be more potential for harm.”

Wilson broadly condemned the proposal, saying that officers need a way to defend themselves at a distance from recent tactics used by protesters, such as throwing rocks, hurling liquid-filled bottles and igniting fireworks and other incendiary devices.

“I am very, very concerned about this ordinance,” she said. “ It would leave us to having to use force with batons, putting officers at risk. And using a stick to fight with someone is going to possibly break bones … and with the molotov cocktails, I can’t expect my officers to sit and get set on fire. So lethal force would have to be used at that point.”

Wilson repeatedly pointed to the actions of protesters at a chaotic event June 27 during which officers and local sheriff’s deputies used batons, pepper spray, smoke canisters and foam rounds to disperse a crowd in front of Aurora police headquarters. Wilson has since apologized for the communication breakdown during the surreal scene that unfolded as a violin vigil began and night fell.

In the current draft of Marcano’s proposal, when certain crowd control techniques could be used would be left to the discretion of Wilson and her command staff, who would have to determine if or when events passed certain thresholds for violence, city attorneys said Thursday. Such instances are mapped out in the state’s criminal justice reform legislation, senate bill, 217, passed earlier this year.

“Senate bill 217 already outlines very well when we can use non-lethal force and deadly force,” Wilson said, again voicing her dislike for the proposal.

In a statement, Mayor Mike Coffman defended Wilson’s stance, chastising Marcano’s proposals and supporting the use of chemical agents during protests.

“There are members of our city council who feel that those are military-grade chemical weapons that should never, under any circumstances, be deployed against civilians,” Coffman wrote on Twitter Sept. 8. “I believe that having these additional tools makes it less likely that our police department would ever have to resort to options that could cause physical injury, such as the use of wooden billy clubs, that can cause bone fractures, or rubber bullets, that can cause permanent loss of an eye, to accomplish the same purpose of (dispersing) a crowd (that) is becoming violent.”

Aurora police do not have pepper balls or rubber bullets available in the department’s arsenal, according to Deputy City Manager Jason Batchelor.

Marcano said he plans to provide further clarification to his proposal on chemical agents and reintroduce it as a resolution at an upcoming committee meeting.

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