Aurora City Council faction dons pro-police shirts but dodges another protest

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Aurora City Councilman Charlie Richardson argues with members of the audience critical of his wearing a Thin Blue Line Flag t-shirt on the dais. PHOTO BY PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | The latest squabble between two factions of Aurora City Council members comes over t-shirts embellished with a “Thin Blue Line” flag meant to support law enforcement.

Six members — Charlie Richardson, Dave Gruber, Johnny Watson, Francoise Bergan, Marsha Berzins and Bob Roth — sported the t-shirts under suit jackets and blazers at Monday’s city council meeting. 

After the meeting, Gruber and Watson said the shirts were worn simply to support the city’s police officers, not because of any measure that was on the agenda or in light of recent events that have landed protestors in the chamber asking for more police accountability.

“There’s a morale problem,” Watson said of the shirts. 

But others saw the shirts as a symbol of division. 

Arapahoe County Democratic Chairwoman Kristen Mallory said during public comment the shirts were “shameful” and a clear message that those council members don’t support the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“Thin blue line” symbolism, which is defined by Oxford Dictionaries as being “a reference to police…in the context of maintaining order during unrest,” is also sometimes associated with a Blue Lives Matter movement. Mallory said the shirts equate a career choice to race and the consequences that follow. 

Earlier this month, an Aurora City Council was temporarily shut down by protesters who demanded justice for Elijah McClain, who died after an interaction with police this summer. A coroner’s report deemed McClain’s cause of death inconclusive. 

Many expected similar protests this week, which never materialized.

Richardson replied to Mallory’s public comment that Aurora would have the most “anti-police” city council when new members are sworn in next month. Richardson lost a bid for re-election to Juan Marcano in Ward IV.

Councilwoman Allison Hiltz said not all council members were invited to wear the shirts. She called the shirts a use of rhetoric that left-leaning members of the council are anti-police.

“I don’t have on a t-shirt, but I think it’s important that when we’re talking about support for people in this city we do it through policy, and I don’t believe that the insinuation of us on the left are moving further left is indicative of being anti-police,” she said at the end of the meeting. “I don’t think wanting to engage the community and having additional conversations about how we can do better is being anti-police…So I just want to make it very clear that I think for all of us that weren’t offered a t-shirt or told about a t-shirt or provided a t-shirt that does not mean we don’t support our police department. But we have some serious issues that we need to address…”

During the meeting, council members unanimously agreed to a one-time contribution increase to police pensions. Pay and benefits have been at the center of conversations of why police officers and firefighters are increasingly leaving Aurora for neighboring Denver. City staff said five police officers have left Aurora this year.

Richardson attempted to permanently increase the contributions. City council only agreed to a one-time bump from 10.5 percent to 12 percent. Many who voted against Richardson’s proposed amendment cited budgetary concerns. 

Each year the city budget must be balanced, but projections so far don’t show a balanced budget beyond 2020, according to city staff.