Aurora police reform task force members say Coffman ‘bullied’ them into quitting lawsuit against police

Police officers and sheriffs deputies in riot gear forced protestors from The Great Lawn, claiming unlawful assembly, June 27, 2020, at the Aurora Municipal Center. Thousands gathered to protest and pay tribute to Elijah McClain, who died last year after an encounter with three officers from the Aurora Police Department.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Editor’s note: After publication, Councilmember Nicole Johnston spoke on the record about her concerns with Coffman’s phone calls to two activists. 

AURORA | Two local activists and some city council members are assailing Mayor Mike Coffman after he asked the activists to quit a federal lawsuit against police for its role in a chaotic June Elijah McClain protest.

The two members of Aurora’s nascent community task force on police reform said they felt threatened last month when Coffman asked them to quit a federal class action lawsuit against police stemming from a June 27 protest involving anti-riot tactics.

“It was definitely an aggressive move, and it really did shock me,” activist Lindsay Minter said of the phone call. 

Minter and Pastor Thomas Mayes, both members of the city’s Community Police Task Force, said Coffman asked them in separate phone calls in August to pull their names from the lawsuit. The new committee was created earlier this year to review police practices and make reform recommendations to city lawmakers. 

That’s concerned some city council members, who say Coffman wrongly gave the impression he was acting on behalf of the city council or the city government.

The lawsuit claims police officers violated demonstrators’ rights when they deployed pepper spray, smoke canisters and foam rounds on people gathered at the Aurora Municipal Center on June 27 during a violin vigil for McClain. 

Minter and Mayes are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which seeks compensatory damages “for emotional distress, humiliation, loss of enjoyment of life and other pain and suffering,” incurred when police dispersed the crowds, according to the complaint. 

In August, Coffman phoned the two task force members and told them there was a conflict of interest between their roles in the lawsuit and their membership on the board, according to Mayes and Minter. 

The task force is a key part of the city’s effort to reform the Aurora Police Department amidst relentless scandals and the death of McClain, the young Black man, after an encounter with police and first responders last year. 

Coffman told the Sentinel in a statement he felt justified in contacting Minter and Mayes regarding what he says is a conflict of interest for both. He said he was “surprised to learn” that two task force members were involved “in a lawsuit against the Aurora Police Department over operational issues that could also be part of the task force’s agenda.” 

“I called both of them to discuss the importance of their work on the task force and whether it would raise concerns if the task force decided to work on policy recommendations over some of the same issues that they are suing the police department over,” he said. 

Coffman said the calls “ended well.”

He did not respond to repeated requests for clarification from the Sentinel about whether he insinuated the task members would lose their seats if they didn’t drop their names from the lawsuit. 

Both Mayes and Minter said the mayor tried to bully them into removing themselves from the lawsuit or the task force. 

“I interpreted his call as a veiled threat to remove myself from the task force and/or drop my name from the lawsuit,” Mayes said in an email. He added that, when he joined the task force, he didn’t give the city or APD carte blanche to violate his civil rights. 

Neither Minter nor Mayes say they believe there is a conflict of interest between their roles on the task force and in the lawsuit, and neither have removed themselves from the lawsuit. 

Mari Newman, of the Denver law firm Kilmer, Lane and Newman, is representing Minter, Mayes and others in the lawsuit. Newman has been an outspoken critic of the Aurora Police Department and represents McClain’s family in lawsuits and actions against Aurora and its police department.

She said Coffman’s phone calls amounted to “illegal retaliation” for Minter and Mayes exercising their first amendment rights. 

“I think it shows that the City of Aurora and in particular, Aurora’s mayor, have an utter disregard for their citizen’s First Amendment rights,” Newman said. “Rather than allowing very involved community leaders to speak out when their government violates their civil rights and other people’s civil rights, Mayor Coffman sought to punish them and silence them by removing them from a task force that was very important to them.”

City Councilmember Nicole Johnston told the Sentinel she was concerned that Coffman had apparently acted alone and made the phone calls without consulting other city lawmakers.

“While I would like to work out issues from the June 27 protest through better communication and policy changes, I respect Ms. Minter and Dr. Mayes’ first amendment rights,” Johnston said in an email. “It is very upsetting and unacceptable that they have felt bullied. They both have been important voices for police reform and I do not want them to step down. I strongly support them being on the task force. Having their ideas and feedback is critical for making effective change. “

There has been no draft or adopted positions by the council on the lawsuit. City councilmembers said the council has not formally broached the topic in public or closed meetings.

Another city lawmaker, who would not speak on the record, said Coffman’s decisions were “inappropriate” and possibly illegal, even if he only asked that the task force members consider alternatives. 

The two task force members said they were first contacted by a secretary in the mayor’s office, who scheduled the phone call with Coffman. Mayes said that process suggested the mayor was acting in an official capacity, adding to what he said was intimidation. 

The role of Aurora’s mayor is somewhat undefined and is often described as a “figurehead.” The city is run by a city manager, who is appointed by the city council. The city council normally makes decisions together, by resolution or ordinance.

Observers said the police response to the June vigil for McClain plunged the otherwise peaceful gathering of musicians and mourners into chaos

Mayes, who is the pastor of Aurora’s Living Water Christian Center, said in July he wasn’t personally pepper-sprayed or otherwise injured by police officers while he attended the violin vigil. But he said he was angry with the law enforcement response to what he characterized as a peaceful gathering.

“You are shooting pepper spray, and smoke, and you have children there,” Mayes said of the police actions. “That collateral damage, to me, was unforgivable.”

Then-Interim police Chief Vanessa Wilson, who was since appointed to the Chief’s position, later apologized to lawmakers for the police response. 

A slew of sheriff’s deputies from Adams, Arapahoe and Jefferson counties are also named as defendants in the suit. Attorneys also called for injunctive relief that would bar Aurora police from using pepper spray and projectiles against future protesters. 

This month, a city council committee shot down a proposal to limit police deploying tear gas and other chemical agents during demonstrations. The proposal, submitted by Councilmember Juan Marcano, stemmed in part from the police response on June 27.