AG intervention demands reform from Aurora police and fire, city chiefs and leaders say it’s happening

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Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser addresses members of the media Sept. 15, 2021, detailing a scathing report about Aurora police and firefighter abusive practice PHOTO BY PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

DENVERAttorney General Phil Weiser on Wednesday released a wide-ranging review of the Aurora police and fire departments, claiming the former has regularly used excessive force and broken state and federal law by unfairly targeting minorities, and the latter has repeatedly misused chemical treatments on patients.

The so-called “patterns and practices” investigation into Aurora’s two public safety agencies is the first of its kind pursued under a bellwether state law passed last summer amid national protests over police brutality.

The probe, first announced last August, claims Aurora police use force against people of color about 2.5 times more than on their white counterparts, and local officers arrest black residents about twice as much as whites. 

In October 2020, the Sentinel reported that slightly less than half of all use of force incidents in the city in 2019 involved a Black subject, though the city’s overall Black population hovers around 16%. Whites make up about 45% of Aurora’s population, and they were involved in about 35% of reported forceful encounters with police in 2019.

“The report released today demonstrates a consistent pattern of illegal behavior by Aurora Police, which can be witnessed at many levels of the department,” Weiser’s office wrote in a statement. “Aurora does not create and oversee appropriate expectations for responsible behavior, which leads to the use of excessive force and the violation of the civil rights of its residents.”

Weiser’s team further found that Aurora Fire paramedics misused ketamine on subjects from January 2019 through 2020, failing to monitor patients who received the powerful sedative and regularly using too much of the drug. Aurora fire stopped using the substance in September 2020. 

The roughly 100-page report relied on some 3 million records, 220 hours of ride alongs with officers, more than 3,000 use-of-force reports from the past five years and dozens of interviews with police and fire officials, the attorney general said.

Weiser’s investigation was announced about two weeks after a state grand jury indicted three Aurora police officers and two Aurora fire paramedics for their actions during the arrest of Elijah McClain, an unarmed Black man who died after first responders detained, restrained and sedated him with ketamine in late August 2019.

Qusair Mohamedbhai, the civil rights attorney who represents McClain’s mother, Sheneen, in ongoing litigation against the city, lauded Weiser’s conclusions and demanded that Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman step down from his post.

“Sheneen McClain, the single parent who raised Elijah, welcomes the findings of the Attorney General’s office,” Mohamedbhai wrote in a statement. “The report confirms what many Aurora residents already know — Aurora’s police department has a long standing culture violence and bias. Ms. McClain demands that Aurora immediately enter into the consent decree and calls for the resignation of Mayor Coffman.”

In an interview with The Sentinel Wednesday afternoon, Sheneen McClain said she wasn’t surprised by Weiser’s findings.

“It’s exactly what I said from the beginning: that Elijah should never have been stopped and that they targeted him because of his skin color,” she said. “Everything that came out in the report goes to prove that the Aurora, Colorado Police Department, fire department and even ambulance department are corrupt … It shows that there are a lot of people that have positions that they shouldn’t have.”

In his own statement released Wednesday, Coffman did not address the calls for his resignation and underscored that Aurora’s public safety officials have already begun work to remedy the local departments.

“Most of the findings are not new and our chiefs of police and fire rescue have been working hard for over a year to address many of them,” Coffman wrote in a message posted to his Twitter account. “I’m confident that the issues raised in the Attorney General’s report, along with the other outside investigations commissioned by our city, will be corrected and that we will achieve an outcome that respects the rights of everyone who lives and works in our diverse community.”

The upshot of the new report will require the city to pay for a new independent monitor that will report to a court official and provide regular updates on the progress of changes. 

City Manager Jim Twombly earlier this year alluded to the establishment of a police monitor in the city, though details on when that office could be stood up have been scant. Police also implemented a new police auditor position last year. 

In a statement on the city’s website, Twombly thanked the AG’s office for its work.

“I greatly value our continued cooperation with them,” he said. “We will work with them to assure the changes we have already made, and will continue to make, are in alignment with their report.”

Weiser said that whatever the city’s new monitor position looks like, his office’s monitor will report progress in an unspecified court venue, meaning there will likely be two independent watchdogs overseeing Aurora police.

The new monitor will operate as part of a consent decree between Weiser’s office and the city, which could require the Department of Law to oversee the city for years to come. The attorney general and the city have two months to sort out details of the arrangement.

If Aurora officials do not reach an agreement with Weiser’s office, the attorney general said prosecutors will go to court to bring the department’s policies up to snuff.

“We’re prepared to seek a court-ordered solution to these problems,” Weiser said.

Aurora police could further enter into a federal consent decree — leading to additional oversight — following the results of a pending federal investigation led by the Department of Justice into the department. However, Weiser said Wednesday that the state decree will likely take the place of a federal oversight agreement so the Department of Justice can use resources elsewhere. 

Consent decrees have traditionally been handled by the federal government, and Weiser said he believes his investigation is likely the first of its kind in the country.

The city effectively avoided entering a decree with the Department of Justice in 2013 following a four-year investigation that ultimately determined that allegations of discriminatory hiring in the city were unfounded. An analysis conducted by the city’s civil service commission last year challenged that idea after finding that in recent years only 1.1% of Black applicants who met the minimum qualifications to be hired onto the city’s police force were admitted to the academy, compared to 4.24% of white applicants, 3% of Hispanic applicants and 3.6% of Asian applicants who make it through the lengthy vetting process.

Weiser’s investigators highlighted those figures in their report.

“This level of racial winnowing can be observed at every step of the process, suggesting bias in Aurora’s recruitment and hiring process,” his office wrote in a statement.

The AG’s office also said the civil service commission “overturns disciplinary actions in high-profile cases in a way that undermines the chief’s authority,” according to the statement. The commission has been a longtime target of criticism from activists.

Lindsay Minter, an Aurora activist and member of the Community Police Task Force, said that she was pleased with the results of the investigation but frustrated that APD had not implemented recommendations from the community before being mandated to.

“They should have listened to us,” she said.

The task force recommended that the department take investigative powers and hiring and firing power away from the civil service commission and create a new police oversight board.

“It would have looked like they were doing something to change the problem instead of all of their actions being reactionary,” she said.

Soon after the press conference, other local leader weighed in on the news.

“Today’s findings laid bare what many in our community know too well: that people of color are often treated differently by law enforcement and subject to abuse,” said Aurora Democratic Congressman Jason Crow.  “I commend the Colorado Attorney General’s office for conducting a thorough investigation. It’s now time for the City of Aurora and law enforcement leaders to engage with the Attorney General and start the process of correcting the issues identified in this investigation.”

Denver state representative Leslie Herod, a primary sponsor of Senate Bill 217, Colorado’s sweeping police reform bill passed last year that paved the way for the investigation, said during a press conference that she was pleased with the investigation.

“Today the attorney general affirmed SB 217 is doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing,” she said.

The investigation shows that “APD has operated in a way that is racist, is particularly racist against Black communities, and inflicts harm on our communities,” she said.

The AG’s investigation should send a lesson to other police department’s across Colorado that “they need to make sure that their practices are safe for the community, otherwise they will be investigated,” she said.

Mari Newman, a civil rights attorney representing Elijah McClain’s father, said she hopes this is just the beginning of what SB 217 can do for Coloradans.

“What we know is we cannot depend on police departments to police themselves. They simply don’t do it,” she said.

Weiser’s investigation was the latest in a string of probes into Aurora police, including a query into McClain’s death released in February and another consultant-led look into the entire department released last month. Both investigations were commissioned by Aurora city management, and both included largely damning information that claimed first responders had no legal grounds to stop McClain.

The report released in August commissioned by 21CP solutions revealed nearly 50 recommendations for the beleaguered department and chided the city’s current methods for punishing officials who break the rules, citing the average 200-day turnaround time between when allegations are levied and a misconduct case is wrapped.

Sheneen McClain lamented that the investigations into Aurora police and her son’s death took more than two years to come to fruition.

“Honestly, it’s just terrible that it took two years for this to be seen,” she said. “I think the fact that it took so long might imply that something else needs to be done as well. The police officers and firefighters and paramedics have proven that they don’t follow the rules. There has to be something else in place to get the bad apples out and allow the good apples to flourish … It’s disappointing and it’s agonizing knowing that so much had to be done just for my son to get his name cleared and for accountability to be put on the police department and fire department.”

In statements on the city’s website, Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson and Aurora Fire Rescue Chief Fernando Gray said they are committed to cooperating with the AG’s office.

“Today is incredibly difficult for not only the Aurora community but this agency,” Wilson said. “We acknowledge there are changes to be made. We will not broad brush this agency or discount the professionalism and integrity that individual officers bring to our community every day. I am proud to say the Aurora Police Department began the implementation of many changes over the last 21 months, while this and other investigations were ongoing.”

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1 month ago

Look at the crime statistics