Aurora police chief fields questions about shootings, body cams and officer conduct

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AURORA | Community focus on Aurora police began Tuesday, less than 24 hours after city lawmakers agreed to create a task force focusing on the role of law enforcers.

Dozens of residents spent nearly two hours  listening to presentations from Aurora police brass on use of force, body cameras, internal discipline and training.

The community meeting at city hall featured Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson and her command staff, marking the third in a series of city-sponsored gatherings intended to smooth relations between Aurora police and residents.

Spearheaded by Councilwoman Nicole Johnston, the meetings were prompted by several high-profile, police-involved deaths and shootings last year. A litany of ensuing incidents, including the investigation of an officer found passed out drunk on-duty and the abrupt resignation of a deputy chief last week, have continuously thrust the department into the limelight.

Wilson, who took the reins of the department after former chief Nick Metz retired at the end of 2019, alluded to the rash of turbulent incidents in her opening remarks and vowed to mend the frayed community tethers through transparency and improved accountability.

“I get that you’re angry, and I know that you’re frustrated,” she said. ” … I just apologize for those shortcomings, and say that moving forward, we’re going to do better.”

Wilson pointed to a revamped substance abuse policy, a new violent crime task force and novel youth advisory team as bellwethers of change.

Hashim Coates, a political strategist who attended both previous meetings hosted by the city, said while he appreciated Wilson’s increased transparency, he found the evening’s program weak on substance.

“It was an ‘A’ because it hasn’t happened before, but it was a ‘C’ for what it provided,” Coates said.

Wilson and her command staff spent more than an hour rehashing department training policies on implicit bias, criminal profiling and ongoing issues with the department’s body-worn cameras.

Aurora officials again confirmed that they’re stuck with their current body cameras until a contract expires at the end of the year. Officers faced blowback regarding the cameras’ efficacy last year after three different officers had their cameras become dislodged while detaining 23-year-old Elijah McClain in August. McClain died several days after the interaction with police.

Even after police made an emergency purchase of hundreds of new chest holsters for the cameras earlier this year, Police Lieutenant Marty Garland said at least six of the new mounts have already broken, causing the cameras to again come off.

“Obviously, that’s extremely frustrating,” Wilson said.

Police received an $850,000 federal grant last year to help offset the expected cost increase tied to the purchase of new cameras in the coming years.

Wilson also provided details on the department’s nearly 30 officer-involved shootings in the past five years, giving a brief synopsis of the seven such shootings in 2015, six in 2016, three in 2017, eight in 2018 and five last year. The overwhelming majority of the people shot by police were armed with guns during the encounters, though one man who was shot last year was unarmed, as was another in 2017, and another in 2015.

Those statistics do not include the death of McClain last August, nor the death of 32-year-old David Baker in December 2018, police officials said. Both men died shortly after being detained by police, though no shots were fired.

Wilson, who plans to apply for the position of full-time chief later this spring, also fielded questions from audience members regarding trust, a perceived uptick in violent crime and officer discipline. She encouraged residents to report both malfeasance and standout conduct from officers.

“If you have a bad interaction with one of my employees, whether they’re sworn or not sworn, the only way I’m going to know about it is if you let me know,” she said. “And I know a lot of times people say, ‘It’s going to fall on deaf ears, it’s going to fall through the cracks, you don’t care.’ Well, I’m telling you here today that I do care.

“If I have somebody on the force that is out there that is not representing duty, honor and integrity, the things that we need in this community, I don’t want them here any longer … On the flip side, this is a very difficult time for our agency, so if you do have an officer that’s doing it right, I’d appreciate you letting me know.”

Commander Marcus Dudley said residents can file complaints on the Aurora police website, by requesting to speak with a supervisor while at a crime scene, by calling internal affairs at 303-739-6072, going to police headquarters on East Alameda Parkway or heading to the District 2 Station at 6 Abilene St.

Omar Montgomery, president of the Aurora chapter of the NAACP, lauded Wilson’s engagement Tuesday evening, but encouraged city staff to host more meetings at other sites around town.

“We’re happy to see meetings like this,” Montgomery said. “Now we also what to see some of these things in different wards. We want to see it in Ward I, Ward VI, Ward V, Ward III so that those voices that can’t get to the city building are able to voice their concerns about public safety.”

City staffers are planning additional meetings with representatives from Aurora Fire Rescue, the city-contracted ambulance provider and local district attorney’s offices. Those meetings are tentatively slated for late March.

In the meantime, the city will assemble a new law enforcement task force charged with advising council members of how to improve the local police department. The group is slated to comprise nine to 13 members and include representatives from the NAACP, police unions, both local school districts, legal workers and other groups.

Applications for the panel can be accessed via the city website, auroragov.org, and must be submitted by Feb. 21.