Aurora’s new chief cites ‘implicit biases,’ seeks to alleviate Black children arrest debacle

Screen grab from a video taken by witness Jennifer Wurtz, and posted to Youtube, depicting Aurora police wrongfully arresting a family with children.

AURORA | A day after Aurora police grabbed national headlines again for a controversy involving officers’ treatment of Black residents, the city’s new police chief said the department will strive to overcome problems like this.

Newly appointed Police Chief Vanessa Wilson spent a second day apologizing to children and family traumatized by how police treated them during a mixed up investigation into a stolen car.

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Police apologized Monday after a group of Black girls were detained, and at least two handcuffed, during a weekend investigation of a stolen car. Officers later determined that the vehicle they were seeking had the same license plate number but was from out-of-state.

Police officials said Wilson has asked that police internal affairs investigate the incident.

She said she wants to empower police to veer away from strict training protocols and think about whether they are acting on their biases.

She said the shocking arrest wouldn’t have happened if officers had used their common sense to respond to what they observed, Wilson said.

“I know that people are angry and disgusted by what they saw. And so am I,” Wilson said. “I also want to tell you that a lot of our own officers are dismayed and angered about why in the world that call went that way.”

Wilson said the mistaken car identity stemmed from an automatic license plate reader that snapped a picture of driver Brittney Gilliam’s car without indicating the plate number was right but the state was wrong. She said the police should have been able to sort it out but were unable to before they attempted to contact the woman driving the car.

Wilson said she’s “heartbroken” that the girls were traumatized by the incident and offered to meet with them to help them understand they should not fear police.

A video taken Sunday by a bystander shows the children, ranging in age from 6 to 17 years old, in a parking lot in Aurora, where there have recently been protests over the death of a Black man stopped by police last year, KUSA-TV reported.

The video shows the 17-year-old and 12-year-old lying on their stomachs with their hands cuffed behind their backs and a 14-year-old girl lying next to the 6-year-old also on their stomachs in a parking lot next to the car. They can be heard crying and screaming as officers stand with their back to the camera. A woman on the other side of the car is shown being led away in handcuffs.

An officer eventually helps the handcuffed 17-year-old and 12-year-old sit up but leaves them sitting with their hands behind their backs.

Police then determined they had stopped the wrong car. It had Colorado license plates but a motorcycle with the same license plate number from Montana was the vehicle that had been reported as stolen on Sunday.

Gilliam, who had taken her nieces, sister and daughter out for a girls’ day at the nail salon, called the officers’ actions a case of police brutality.

“There’s no excuse why you didn’t handle it a different type of way,” Gilliam said. “You could have even told them ‘step off to the side let me ask your mom or your auntie a few questions so we can get this cleared up.’ There was different ways to handle it.”

Wilson agreed, saying that although police were properly trained and in most cases the protocol they followed was important, clearly the circumstances called for setting aside the protocol. With children in the car, police should have sought another way to determine whether the car was or wasn’t stolen.

Jennifer Wurtz, who shot the video, said on camera that the police drew guns as they initially approached the car. After she told the officers that the children were scared and asked to be able to speak to them, she was told to back up 25 feet because she was interfering in their investigation.

In a statement Monday, police said officers are trained to do a “high-risk stop” when stopping a stolen car, which involves drawing weapons, telling occupants to exit the car and lie prone on the ground.

Wilson said officers must be allowed to have discretion to deviate from that procedure based on different scenarios they encounter. She said she had directed her team to look into new practices and training as a result of what happened.

“I have called the family to apologize and to offer any help we can provide, especially for the children who may have been traumatized by yesterday’s events. I have reached out to our victim advocates so we can offer age-appropriate therapy that the city will cover,” she said.

Part of the reason for the mixup may have been that the car was reported as stolen earlier in the year, police said.

The department is under scrutiny for the death of Elijah McClain, a Black man stopped by officers as he walked home from the store last August after someone reported he was suspicious.

Police put him in a chokehold that cuts off blood to the brain and paramedics injected him with ketamine, a sedative. He had a heart attack and was later declared brain dead and taken off life support at a hospital.

While interim chief, Wilson decided that because of implicit bias and racism in the world, officers no longer had to contact a person reported to be suspicious, as McClain was as he walked home from a store last August, if they didn’t see evidence of a crime.

“I have changed the directive on suspicious-person calls so that if someone is called in as suspicious just because of the color of their skin, that officers don’t have to be robotic in their response,” Wilson said.

She noted that residents sometimes complain if they don’t see a police presence after those calls. She said that the community needs to support the shift in policing and that she would defend her officers for using their best judgment.

Wilson said everyone, including police, should be aware of their implicit biases and check themselves to see if they’re acting on them.

“I think the call to action across the nation has been heard loud and clear, not only for me as the chief of Aurora, but other chiefs across the nation,” she said. “And we need to do better, and we need to listen to the community and give them a voice and police them the way they want to be policed.”

Activists and leaders in Colorado say they hope Wilson, who’s been with the department for 23 years, can create meaningful change.

Gov. Jared Polis told reporters Tuesday that he hopes Wilson is ready to work to increase transparency and rebuild trust.

McClain family lawyer Mari Newman said she’s wary of Wilson’s experience within a department riddled with brutality and racism but is also an optimist.

“My hope is that she will prove that she has not just the moral compass but also the fortitude to do the right thing and to overhaul a broken department,” Newman said Tuesday.

Shenika Carter, a community activist, wants Wilson to require anti-racist and anti-oppression training for officers. Carter said the department cannot tolerate any “bad apples” because the actions of those officers can be life or death for people of color. She also wants police to acknowledge that racism exists within the department and the role it played in McClain’s treatment.

“Acknowledge the mistake, acknowledge that he is deceased because of the biases that existed,” she said.

Marc Sears, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police chapter, said Wilson is the right person to lead the department and is free as permanent chief to make the changes she wants without fear of a replacement undoing them.