AURORA | Aurora officials and the state attorney general on Tuesday unveiled a lengthy agreement that outlines how the city’s police and fire departments will remedy claims that local public safety personnel have regularly used excessive force and broken state and federal law by unfairly targeting minorities.
Attorney general Phil Weiser and City Manager Jim Twombly released the 46-page consent decree following two months of negotiations between state and city attorneys.
Weiser said the purpose of the decree is centered on “rebuilding trust and confidence” between the public and Aurora’s police force. City officials said they’re open to the proposed changes and will remain engaged in the process set out by the attorney general.
“We’re not going to shy away from reform,” Police Chief Vanessa Wilson said.
Slated to be in place for up to five years, the document outlines a slew of amendments to the city’s current policing practices surrounding training, stops, use of force and record-keeping, with a series of deadlines set over the next two years.
“The parties recognize that this decree requires significant and lasting reform at Aurora,” the document filed in Arapahoe County District Court reads. “Aurora has committed to that reform in this decree through, among other things, changing important policies, developing new training materials, and training its personnel on these new policies. In addition, Aurora will operate in a much more transparent manner by changing core processes and sharing more information with the public.”
Highlights of the agreement include:
- The implementation of “specific” guidance on police officers’ use of discretion when interacting with the public.
- Addressing perceived or actual bias in policing.
- Monitoring and changing use-of-force policies and training to protect the public and avoid escalating encounters with residents.
- Increasing the number of minority police officers and firefighters on the respective forces.
- Creating new, transparent systems to collect and monitor data about police interactions with the public.
- Reviewing and create new policies for medics using chemical sedatives.
Some of the most notable changes mentioned in the agreement pertain to the city’s civil service commission, the powerful organ that has sole discretion over hiring, firing and disciplining the majority of Aurora cops and firefighters. Recommendations for the body include expanding diversity among recruits, implementing additional oversight from Human Resources, and negotiating faster turnaround times for disciplinary cases.
An analysis conducted by the city’s civil service commission in 2020 found 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.
The five-person panel is on the precipice of significant turnover following the resignation of a former member early this year, another resignation set to take effect at the end of this week, and the expected departure of Chairperson Jim Weeks at the end of the year.
City council members interviewed one slate of potential replacements at a regular meeting Monday — including two applicants with pending lawsuits against the city — and lawmakers are expected to cast their deciding votes next week.
Following spats over the qualifications of commission candidates raised earlier this year, the voting timeline combined with the other impending departures could result in the commission failing to meet a quorum of three people, potentially halting the hiring process at a time when police personnel are exiting the city at a record rate.
The attorney general’s agreement further lays out a series of stipulations that Aurora fire officials would have to adhere to if they were to again pursue using ketamine in the city. Aurora fire paramedics ceased using the powerful sedative in September 2020, and city council members have signaled a desire to keep the drug off of local apparatuses for the foreseeable future.
Fire Chief Fernando Gray said medics could still use other chemical treatments, including the sedative Versed. According to the new state agreement, use of all sedatives will be under review.
The city has already started implementing some of the recommendations outlined in the court document, including revamping the police department’s force review board and hiring a team of consultants from Boston to further comb through the city’s use of force policies and data.
The clock for instituting the different portions of the agreement varies. Officials have given the city as much as two years to complete additional bias training, but just 90 days to retain an outside consultant to review the city’s civil service commission.
If Aurora institutes all the required training updates before the two-year deadline, an ensuing three-year monitoring window could begin sooner, and the overall agreement could last less than the allotted five years.
A so-called “consent decree monitor,” paid for by the city, will oversee the process of instituting the changes outlined in the report. The monitor, who Aurora officials will be tasked with retaining in the next several weeks, will update the state on the status of the agreement and ongoing changes to policy. If any disputes arise, a judge will be asked to be the final arbiter.
The new monitor will operate separately from a forthcoming independent monitor’s office that will be tasked with serving as an ombudsman for local civil service staffers. City council members agreed to pay three new workers a total of $442,779 to create and run the new office, though details on what the entity may look like remain scant.
“It’s going to be expensive,” Twombly said.
The decree announced Tuesday was the upshot of a year-long investigation led by Weiser’s office that looked into the patterns and practices of Aurora first responders. The results of the probe were announced in September and included evidence that Aurora police use force against people of color about 2.5 times more than on their white counterparts. The inquiry also showed that local officers arrest black residents about twice as much as whites.
Some community activists say they’re wary of the pact.
Candice Bailey, a police reform activist from Aurora, is skeptical because of the deeply rooted problem and the lack of community involvement in the design of the training programs. The issue of race isn’t discussed enough because it’s the “most uncomfortable portion of this.”
“They were dictating what training was going to change our lives,” Bailey said. “Training doesn’t change what we are seeing. Training does not take away a culture.”
Lawyers for Elijah McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, said in a statement that police in the city have been allowed to violate the rights of residents without accountability or consequences for too long but that she was hopeful that the agreement would bring badly needed reform.
“The lawlessness that infected this police department murdered Elijah,” they said.
In court documents, groups like ACLU of Colorado have long asserted that Aurora police unfairly target Black and Latino residents. The department has endured a string of scandals since Wilson took the helm two years ago, including the botched detention of several young Black girls in a parking lot last August, body camera footage that showed an officer ignoring pleas for help from a Black woman who was restrained and inverted in the back of his police car and, more recently, an officer who repeatedly pistol whipped a Black man during an arrest this summer.
“The past couple of years have been a turbulent period for the Aurora Police Department; however, the brave members of this agency continue to proudly pin on their badges every day and serve our community with duty, honor, integrity and accountability,” Wilson said in a statement. “We are committed to embracing organizational change and have already taken essential steps to improve public safety and community relations.”
A representative from the police department’s primary labor union did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Weiser initiated the investigation in summer 2020 after months of protests rocked the zeitgeist and brought renewed attention to the death of Elijah McClain, who died after Aurora authorities wrongfully detained, restrained and sedated him in August 2019. The 23-year-old massage therapist, who was unarmed and never suspected of a crime, died several days later.
The city formally denied the allegations Weiser made in his complaint released earlier this summer, but agreed to move forward with the agreement to curb a lengthy legal battle, the document reads.
“The city denies the claims in the complaint and does not admit liability for any of the allegations made in the complaint,” according to a joint motion. “However, because the city is committed to continuous improvement in the delivery of public safety services, and to avoid protracted and expensive litigation, the city negotiated with the Attorney General to develop this consent decree that the parties believe is fair, reasonable, and in the public interest.”
Weiser’s investigation was initiated under novel police reform legislation passed in Colorado last summer. The newly announced decree is believed to be the first of its kind at the state level in the country. Traditionally, the Department of Justice has overseen such agreements with local police forces.
The city effectively avoided entering a decree with the DOJ in 2013 following a four-year investigation that ultimately determined that allegations of discriminatory hiring in the city were unfounded.
“The last two years have been painful for the entire community and that’s why I want our efforts to have long-lasting success,” Twombly said in a statement. “… It will take all of us to make Aurora the community we all need it and want it to be for many years to come.”