INDEPENDENT INQUIRY: Aurora leaders, residents discuss police oversight following officer-involved deaths

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Screen shot from Aurora Police press conference and body cam video regarding the officer-involved death of Elijah McClain

AURORA | Sheneen McClain thinks her late son would have been impressed with the assemblage of people at Aurora’s Restoration Christian Fellowship Tuesday night.

“I know that Elijah is looking down and he’s like, ‘Pretty good turnout!'” she said with a grin.

McClain was one of the some 60 teachers, policymakers, elected officials, candidates, retirees and activists who gathered at the church on East Sixth Avenue for an informal discussion on how residents can improve their relationship with Aurora police by way of possible new legislation, oversight and training.

The event was the first in a planned series of community conversations intended to eventually result in the creation of an independent entity to monitor the city’s police department, possibly mirroring the Office of the Independent Monitor in Denver.

City Council member Nicole Johnston last month announced her intention to pursue either a ballot question or city ordinance to create a new, independent review structure that could analyze contentious interactions between police and residents. She said community meetings like the one held Dec. 10 are the first part of the policy process.

“This is the first of many conversations,” she said told attendees Tuesday.

Outcry against Aurora police and other area law enforcement entities has been frequent in recent months following the death of McClain’s son, 23-year-old Elijah McClain, in late August. Aurora officers detained Elijah at about 10:40 p.m. as he was walking home from a north Aurora convenience store Aug. 24, claiming he looked suspicious because he was wearing a ski mask. Though he was unarmed and not suspected of any specific crime, the interaction between Elijah and officers quickly became violent, ending with the man being sedated with ketamine and transported to an area hospital where he died several days later.

The District Attorney tasked with legally analyzing the case, Dave Young, last month announced he did not have grounds to pursue charges against the involved officers or invoke a grand jury in the case, a move that prompted protests in front of the Aurora Municipal Center and at city council meetings.

Though no representatives from the police department, fire department of local district attorney’s offices attended the event at Restoration Christian Tuesday, Johnston said she was encouraged by the number of fellow lawmakers and city officials who have publicly and privately expressed their support for her efforts. City Manager Jim Twombly and city council members Alison Coombs, Angela Lawson, Crystal Murillo, Curtis Gardner and Juan Marcano all attended the event.

“I’ve heard from every council member and the mayor that this is a priority,” Johnston said.

She added that representatives from the local police and fire departments as well as district attorneys were slated to attend a previously scheduled meeting that was cancelled due to weather last month. She said all of those entities have agreed to attend one of the forthcoming community meetings to provide information and answer questions.

“APD has been very open and accommodating,” Johnston said of her conversations with Aurora police.

At the meeting Tuesday, several residents voiced their frustrations with the Aurora Fire Department’s use of ketamine on Elijah, and the propensity for police officers’ body cameras to become dislodged during arrests. All three officers who immediately interacted with Elijah had their cameras come off, per body camera footage of the event.

City council recently extended the city’s contract with its current body camera vendor, Axon/Vievu, for an additional year, though officials have said they do not intend to renew that contract in 2020.

“People want answers, people want clarity and we want to hold the officials accountable,” said Topazz McBride, a pastor at Restoration Christian Fellowship.

Because of that, Johnston said the community meeting process may result in additional proposed policy changes in the future.

“It’s going to go beyond independent oversight,” she said. ” … That’s one of the end goals, but what I’m hearing form the community is there needs to be more — whether it’s de-escalation (tactics), use of ketamine, use of body cams — that’s all outside of the independent oversight purview, but as this point, we’re open to all of that.”

For her part, Sheneen McClain said she found the meeting encouraging.

“It’s good to see that there’s actually good people out here,” she said. “I’m glad I got to see it and I’m glad I got see the range of colors here, you know, the rainbow. The unity in this community is amazing.”

Johnston said the next meeting in the series will be held sometime in early January.