Aurora council member calls for independent review entity to analyze high-profile police incidents

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AURORA | Aurora City Councilwoman Nicole Johnston on Friday unveiled plans for a public process that would ultimately result in a new, independent system to review officer-involved shootings and other controversial police incidents.

Johnston said she plans to pursue either a council ordinance or ballot question to codify a new review structure that would analyze contentious interactions between police and residents. She plans to introduce one of those two proposals within the next six months. 

“I would like both our police and community to feel like we have a fair process to address transparency and accountability,” Johnston, who first announced her plans for the new review entity on the Brother Jeff web series, said in a statement. “ … The community is telling us that they need this.”

Calls for a new, independent review structure in the city have been frequent in recent months following several high-profile cases involving Aurora police.

Johnston said she has spent months looking at similar panels in cities across the country, including Denver, Seattle, Albuquerque and Philadelphia.

It’s unclear who would sit on a prospective police review panel in Aurora, or how the entity would function to oversee contentious police interactions. Johnston said that her feeling so far is to create an entity that provides more than an advisory role. She said police departments with advisory review she’s looked at so far continue to have problems the oversight was created to curtail.

“I don’t want to just check a box,” Johnston said.

Other members of city council were not immediately available to comment on the plan.

Johnston said she plans to hold a series of bi-weekly public meetings starting this month to gauge the population’s appetite for an independent review system. The first meeting will be held at a yet-to-be-announced location before Thanksgiving, and the series will conclude in January.

At the meetings, the councilwoman said she plans to highlight the bevy of current review panels already in place to review internal and external police incidents in Aurora, including the internal affairs bureau, chief review board, excessive use of force review board and the police chief’s Independent Review Board. 

 “Chief (Nick) Metz and APD have a lot of good systems in place that provide transparency,” she said in a statement. “We just need to do a better job of letting our community know about it.”

To that end, Johnston said the city will be unveiling new website features on Nov. 4 that will make information pertaining to the aforementioned panels and boards easier to access.

Johnston said Metz, who is retiring from law enforcement at the end of the year, has been a positive force for the department over the past five years, but that residents need to learn more about specific processes he’s enacted.

“He’s done some good things that were not even part of APD or its culture or processes when he got there, but the community doesn’t know that,” she said. ” … We may end up having an external and internal panel with the same result or findings, but our public needs to feel better about this.”

Marc Sears, president of the local Fraternal of Police union, said he’s open to discussing plans for a new independent review panel, but he would need additional details before supporting or opposing specific proposals.

Johnston added that an additional goal of the upcoming meetings will be to address criticisms that police are withholding information, such as body camera footage, in high-profile incidents. 

Aurora police brass have repeatedly said that investigators are largely barred from releasing such materials at the direction of local district attorneys, who ask law enforcement to keep information private in an effort to preserve jury pools, witness cooperation and other investigatory details.

“I respect that APD is working with the DA to try to have that information be impartial, but the perception is still: law enforcement-related agency overseeing law enforcement agency,” Johnston said. “And when the delay is going on and on and incorrect information is getting out here, that hurts us more than having the process go as is.”

Johnston, who said she would prefer creating a new review entity via a council ordinance instead of a citywide ballot measure, would need a majority of council members — at least six votes — to sign off on any proposed city law.

She said people she’s talked with, however, would go to voters themselves if city lawmakers balk at her proposal or create one that doesn’t go far enough.

Four Aurora Council seats and the mayor’s post are up for grabs on Nov. 5. Johnston is not up for re-election until 2021. Candidates for city council and mayor are generally split as to whether an independent police review would be advisable.