AURORA | Aurora City Council members held a public conversation with Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson for more than three hours Tuesday, probing Aurora’s top cop on the police response to a demonstration held in honor of Elijah McClain at city hall this weekend.
Wilson and Police Commander Darin Parker explained why and when dozens of officers and sheriff’s deputies clad in tactical gear moved onto the great lawn in front of city hall, deploying batons, smoke canisters and pepper spray, during a violin vigil for McClain Saturday night.
Wilson said officers proceeded onto the lawn to break up a few dozen “agitators” who police said became increasingly aggressive and donned helmets and shields as night fell. Undercover officers dispersed among the demonstrators told Wilson: “They are talking about storming the building,” she said. Wilson said she feared demonstrators would siege or burn Aurora police headquarters, where tens of thousands of pieces of evidence are squirreled away.
“Cases and trials would be lost,” she said.
On Monday, police released a compilation of officers’ body camera footage from Saturday, which showed protestors upending a temporary barricade placed in front of the police station and officers complaining of being struck by rocks and bottles.
“A rock, solely, should not be something we should respond to with force, but when people are taking officers’ batons, trying to disarm them … and throwing things, that was very concerning to me,” Wilson said.
Police said a woman at the demonstration was handing out rocks from a backpack to hurl at officers. Protestors wielding handguns, a hammer and a lacrosse stick also raised tensions, police said.
Wilson, who is currently applying to serve as the city’s full-time chief of police, fought back tears multiple times during the call with council members, which Mayor Mike Coffman scheduled yesterday.
She said she should have communicated with numerous peaceful protestors who became ensnared in police actions as officers swept the crowd from the lawn into the parking lot amid a cacophony of violin music.
“This didn’t have to happen, and I understand your frustration,” she said at the beginning of the meeting. “I take full responsibility for Saturday.”
She again teared up after council members suggested young children were traumatized by the events.
“Those testimonials break my heart as a human being,” Wilson said.
Councilperson Juan Marcano, who attended the demonstrations for several hours, sparred with Wilson and Parker during the meeting, pressing the pair on allegations that police deployed tear gas. Police have repeatedly said no tear gas was used.
“At some point, sir, you’re just going to have to believe us,” Parker told Marcano. “I don’t know what else to tell you.”
Marcano called on the department to release all body camera footage from the event, which totals hundreds of hours of video. Wilson said the full batch of footage is forthcoming.
Police and sheriff’s deputies used their batons and pepper spray, foam rounds and three smoke canisters to disperse the crowd, officials have confirmed. Deputies from the Arapahoe County, Adams County and Jefferson County Sheriff’s Offices assisted Aurora police.
Dozens of residents and activists have condemned the police response at the event, with more than 100 public comments submitted prior to and during the meeting, the vast majority of which lambasted the department’s actions.
“It was the most ridiculous militarized over-reaction I’ve ever seen,” the McClain family’s attorney, Mari Newman, said Tuesday. Newman said McClain’s sisters, ages 22 and 17, were “devastated” that the vigil scheduled in honor of their brother was disrupted by police.
The public meeting began moments after the local U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Denver Division of the FBI announced that both federal agencies and the Department of Justice have been investigating McClain’s death for several months in preparation for a possible civil rights claim.
The federal authorities said they’re also looking into several officers recently placed on leave after it was discovered they posed for photos in the area on Billings Street where McClain was detained on Aug. 24, 2019. McClain, who was unarmed and never suspected of a specific crime, died six days later.
The three officers who stopped McClain after a man called 911 to report him as “suspicious,” have since been re-assigned, but never faced criminal charges related to the incident. The Adams County District Attorney said he couldn’t meet the necessary thresholds needed to net a conviction.
A slew of new investigations into McClain’s death have been announced in recent weeks, including one led by the city and another initiated by state Attorney General Phil Weiser.
An internal affairs investigation into the photo scandal is complete, although Wilson has yet to announce any disciplinary actions against the officers. The timeline regarding when Wilson’s findings will be released remains ambiguous and could be further stymied if the involved officers appeal any of her decisions. Officers have 10 days to appeal any decision Wilson makes with the Cvil Service Commission, which could then move forward with months of its own investigations and considerations.
Council members took no formal action during the meeting Tuesday.