AURORA | Concerns about transparency, excessive force and officer-involved shootings by the Aurora Police Department persisted during a town hall meeting on Saturday hosted by the city’s state legislative delegation.
The meeting comes after a spate of recent incidents involving the deaths or injuries of people encountered by Aurora police.
“There is a pattern here that is disturbing,” said ACLU policy director Denise Maes, a panelist for the town hall meeting. Maes pointed out that an existing Aurora Police review board only examines officer-involved cases when either the officer or chief asks for it. That board, which is created by and reports to the chief of police, has met once since September 2018, Maes said. By her count, the city has paid out $5 million for settlements related to police encounters in recent years.
Maes said she supports an independent review system, more transparency and more information supplied to the public.
One police official on the town-meeting panel said much work has been done.
“In the last five years, Chief Nick Metz has put into place several initiatives that increase transparency, but we haven’t done everything that we can do,” said Aurora Deputy Chief Vanessa Wilson.
About 40 community members attended the panel at Mission Viejo Library. Eighteenth Judicial District Deputy District Attorney Matt Maillaro, who is a candidate for district attorney, Maes, Aurora Councilwoman Nicole Johnston and state lawmakers Rep. Janet Buckner, Rep. Mike Weissman and Sen. Rhonda Fields joined Wilson and fielded questions on the panel.
Johnston announced plans Friday for a public process to prompt an independent system to review officer-involved shootings and other controversial police incidents. She told town hall participants that she has at least four votes on the council that support an independent police review system, but she needs six. If she can’t get there following a series of public meetings and talks with stakeholders, which would include police, she’d likely take the issued to voters.
The first such meeting is slated for sometime before Thanksgiving.
Wilson told participants she couldn’t speak for the police department regarding support for a particular plan, but that the department would adhere to legislation or rules set forth by the state and city council. She noted that there is a review system anytime an officer uses force.
Johnston said she’s been researching options for a review system for months prior to the death of Elijah McClain, who died after an encounter with police in August. Still, meeting attendees wanted to know what more the justice system is doing to ensure accountability in the police department.
Several people cited concerns about police body cameras that seem to be shoved aside or thrown from officers during incidents.
Aurora School Board member Kevin Cox said during the meeting perhaps the department should look at using GoPros or working with the manufacturer to ensure that, like guns and other police equipment, a body cam can’t be separated from the officer in the case of an altercation.
“I’m not saying you don’t want them to be secure, but we should have that expectation (that they should be),” he said.
At a recent press conference, Deputy Police Chief Paul O’Keefe said it is not uncommon for the cameras to fall off during encounters with residents.
Wilson said the department is talking to the manufacturer of the cameras.
City council is slated to decide whether to extend a $287,000 contract for its body cameras on Monday. If approved, it would mark the fifth year of a five-year contract with Seattle-based Vievu for additional cameras and software related to the devices.
Police officials have said at recent public meetings that the city is considering pursuing a contract with a new body camera vendor in the near future.
Concerns over whether officers face consequence or are charged with crimes when they use excessive force was also among a top concern during the meeting. Maillaro said every case comes with a different set of circumstances. According to his research from the last five or six years, he said he was able to find about 20 cases where police officers were charged with a crime in the 18th Judicial District. About eight of those were felonies. The rest were more minor and included traffic-related cases, he said.
As in the McClain case, which is still ongoing, police have been adamant that they can’t release any details and are instructed by the district attorney’s office to keep those details private.
“We’re told not to talk about the facts,” Wilson said.
Maillaro said that’s a general suggestion from the DA’s office, to preserve the judicial process, but not a set rule or policy.