AURORA | After Elijah McClain’s 2019 death pushed the Aurora Police Department into the national spotlight, the department is once again under scrutiny for a shocking police-use-of-force incident, throwing its efforts to rebuild trust with the community into turmoil.
Some say it’s an all-too-familiar situation.
“I’m living in Groundhog Day,” local activist Candice Bailey and city council hopeful told the Sentinel. “I feel like we all are.”
On Monday, police officials announced that charges had been filed against two of its own officers in connection with an arrest made on Friday of a man with an outstanding felony warrant. The arrest was made during a call regarding trespassing, police said.
According to court documents released Tuesday, Officer John Haubert was seen in police body camera footage strangling, pistol-whipping and repeatedly threatening to shoot Kyle Vinson, the unarmed man he was taking into custody.
Images from body camera footage show Haubert repeatedly striking Vinson’s head with the butt of his department-provided gun and squeeze his throat, causing the man to cry, beg for his life and nearly faint, according to an arrest affidavit.
“This is not the Aurora police department,” Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson said at a Tuesday news conference. “This was criminal.”
Haubert faces charges of attempted first-degree assault, second-degree assault, felony menacing, official oppression and first-degree official misconduct, according to his affidavit. Haubert’s lawyer, Reid Elkus, has vowed to “zealously defend” him.
The other officer at the scene, Francine Martinez, is facing misdemeanor charges of failure to intervene and failure to report use of force by a peace officer, according to an arrest affidavit.
Local politicians expressed shock about the incident and said it reflects the necessity of the criminal justice reform bills passed over the last two legislative sessions.
“All the legislation we passed this year was crucial,” said state Sen. Janet Buckner, D-Aurora.
Buckner said she was grateful for Wilson’s quick and transparent response, but she was disturbed by the video of the arrest.
“This can’t keep happening,” she said.
Among the spate of criminal justice reform bills passed in Colorado during the past two years was one that requires officers to intervene when seeing use of excessive force by colleagues and to report such cases to superiors. State representative Leslie Herod, who was key to getting the bill passed, told Fox 31 Denver that APD’s response “shows that our law is working, and it is quite frankly doing more than I thought it would be doing, which is changing the culture in some of these departments.”
Rep. Jason Crow said in a statement that he was “outraged” by the body camera footage of the arrest and looks forward to “a full and transparent investigation.”
“Our communities are still mourning the loss of George Floyd, Daunte Wright, Elijah McClain, Breonna Taylor, and so many others whose lives have been cut short by police brutality,” Crow said. “That Kyle Vinson was able to survive this encounter does not make it any less abhorrent and unacceptable.”
For Bailey, the situation reflects what she feels is a double standard. Bailey is currently suing the city for the right to run for city council, which she is barred from doing under city charter due to a felony conviction on her record.
Haubert pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor weapons charge in October of 2009 for being drunk with a gun, according to court documents, and was later hired by APD. He was originally charged with felony menacing, according to police and court records.
Bailey also said that because there is still no resolution regarding McClain’s case it has sent a message to police officers in Colorado that they are free to continue using force on suspects. The case has turned down for charged against police by the 17th Judicial District attorney. It’s been taken up by the state attorney general but there has been no word on whether the case will be reopened.
“That has proven to be detrimental to our community,” she said.
Several Aurora city council members addressed the incident on social media. At-large councilman Dave Gruber tweeted that he was “appalled” by Haubert’s behavior and praised Wilson for her quick action.
Others said they will continue to push for reforms.
“I have & will continue to look at what we can do as city council to hold police accountable & change the culture that spurs police brutality,” Ward I Councilperson Crystal Murillo said on twitter.
Ryan Ross, one of two candidates for an open seat on the council, said that he was horrified by the video of the attack and believe it rises to the level of a hate crime.
“I don’t understand how you brutally hit someone 13 or 14 times with the butt of a gun,” he said. “It was beyond violent, it was barbaric.”
Ross said he would like to see the city council be more intentional about following up on recommendations from Aurora’s Community Police Task Force, and that it needs to address both the issue of police reform as well as rising violent crime rates in the city.
“It’s not an ‘or’ thing, it’s an ‘and’ thing,” he said.
The other candidate, Steve Sundberg, could not be reached by the Sentinel as of Thursday afternoon.
Mayor Mike Coffman tweeted that it would be inappropriate for him to comment on the incident “until the internal affairs investigation is complete and made public.”
The firm representing Vinson criticized Coffman for declining to comment, saying that there is a “failure of leadership at the highest level of Aurora.” Vinson is being represented by the Aurora civil rights law firm of Qusair and Rathod Mohamedbhai, who have represented a number of victims of police violence and their families, including Elijah McClain’s mother Sheneen McClain.
“Mayor Mike Coffman’s failure to take a position, apologize to Mr. Vinson, or even comment on this heinous act of violence is barbarous and utterly unjustifiable,” the firm said in a statement. “Not only is Mayor Coffman standing in the way of police reform, his silence is actively perpetuating the systemic culture of violence at the Aurora Police Department. The time has come for a leader who will stand up for communities of color and stand against police violence. We therefore call on Mayor Coffman to resign immediately.”
“This isn’t about just Elijah or just about Kyle. This is about the community at whole,” said Lindsay Minter, a high school track coach and member of the city’s police task force. “When I talk to the kids that I coach, they’re always like ‘If you come into Aurora, you leave on probation.’ Period. They don’t feel safe.”
Mari Newman, the lawyer for Elijah McClain’s father and estate, said she represented the family of a young Black man, Jamaal Bonner, who was fatally shot three times in the back by Aurora police nearly 20 years ago. The case resulted in a settlement in which police agreed to change training and recruitment tactics and to make sure their force looked “more like the community they’re policing,” she said.
“Despite these legally binding commitments that the city of Aurora made, they have gone on to continue to brutalize Black and brown bodies for decades,” Newman said.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the correct spelling of Rep. Janet Buckner.