EDITORIAL: Aurora Police are wrong — the public does not ‘have to believe’ them, and we shouldn’t

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A tense exchange Tuesday between Aurora City Councilmember Juan Marcano and Aurora Police Commander Darin Parker illustrates the problem the city faces in dealing with its police department.

“At some point, sir, you’re just going to have to believe us,” Parker told Marcano during almost three hours of testimony to city lawmakers about how Aurora police handled and mishandled a marathon Elijah McClain protest on Saturday.

Parker’s point is well taken — and wrong. Aurora doesn’t have to believe the embattled Aurora police department, and Marcano and the rest of the city would be foolish to do so.

Parker does not understand that Aurora police have tragically lost the trust of lawmakers and the public.

They must earn it back, and Aurora must change the police department so the public can see for themselves that Aurora police can be trusted in the future.

For almost three hours Tuesday during an emergency meeting of city lawmakers, top police officials defended their use of force Saturday outside city hall during a marathon protest. The protest was against the police department and their part in the death of Elijah McClain. The young, black massage therapist has become one of the latest in causes célèbre to fight against police brutality and racism.

The largely peaceful and sometimes unruly protest devolved into a public battle between militant demonstrators and police thuggery.

Marcano, who attended the protest, was intent Tuesday on grilling police for their response. He pressed Parker on whether police used canisters of tear gas during the melee, which police have repeatedly denied. What they did use were hand-held tanks of pepper spray, three smoke bombs and batons to force the crowd into submission. Many observers believed the smoke canisters contained tear gas, and Parker, again, insisted it wasn’t.

He told Marcano the city just has to believe the police.

That’s wrong.

Police bungling of the long and complicated McClain protest only served to undermine the public’s trust in the department at a time when job one must be to restore it.

Aurora police will need the sympathy and the support of city council and the public as they face difficult scrutiny of their part in the wanton death of McClain. This week, the FBI announced it has been secretly investigating APD since last year for potential civil rights violations in the McClain case. They made that astonishing announcement, without offering any information about progress in their probe, after news that some Aurora officers are involved in a new scandal surrounding photos taken by cops striking poses of the holds used on McClain in August. 

The McClain melee comes among a bevy of police scandals, including drunken cop coverups, bizarre police shootings, Friday night news dumps, select and misleading information and a long and growing list of issues.

All of this points to one thing that must guide the city in how it now handles its police department: Police cannot police themselves. 

The protest on Saturday was a complicated and obviously dangerous affair from the beginning. After weeks of mushrooming national media coverage of the McClain scandal, Saturday’s protest was ripe for disaster. The community should be thankful more serious tragedies were avoided.

Aurora Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson, other police officials and officers deserve credit for keeping the problematic protest largely calm and peaceful.

Wilson was not only tolerant, but accommodating when protesters marched up a busy avenue to an even busier interstate highway, shutting it down for miles.

Aurora police were stoically patient as a small group of protesters, clearly intent on promoting conflict with police, became riotous vandals.

Sentinel Colorado reporter Quincy Snowdon accurately described the scene as surreal, where those attending a peaceful violin vigil mingled in a space with riot-gear-clad police barking orders to and assaulting angry protesters, all while hundreds of others simply milled about.

While serious mistakes were made, Aurora police generally showed wide restraint.

The first mistake was in how police created a flimsy, ineffective and poorly thought-out barrier between the police headquarters and the rest of the city hall complex.

Made of bike racks and handcuffs, it was a magnet for trouble-making protesters, made worse by stealthy police in riot gear guarding the other side.

The most egregious mistake was to deploy chemical weapons during the crowded and chaotic point where some protesters became dangerous to police, themselves and the public. Armed with large hand-held tanks of pepper spray, they doused protesters, the media and others as they rolled out smoke bombs and shot foam pellets. It was an astonishing mistake that only escalated the tension and violence.

The ghastly use of chemical weapons against citizens was recently forbidden by a federal court for Denver Police, and Aurora police said they were well aware of that court order. In choosing to ignore the wisdom of courts and state lawmakers who understand these weapons and tactics have no business being used by police in crowd control, Aurora police forfeit being wise custodians of that critical decision.

The brutal use of rubber bullets and hand-held tear gas ratcheted the chaos, creating panic and fear among upwards of 2,000 people constrained by the event.

That bungled move was made worse by confusion created by announcements that the protest was now an “unlawful” event. At the same time, just yards away from a police line violently trying to control and maneuver scofflaws, hundreds of people were mesmerized by throngs of violinists, seemingly cordoned by police.

Anyone there was confused as to whether part or all of the event was actually being shut down by police.

In the days after, police have created a brief collage of police body-cam video depicting chaotic and illegal behavior by what appears to be about 30-40 protesters. At the same time, dozens of public-made videos have flooded social media sites revealing what appears to be instances of chaotic bullying by police, hitting protesters and haphazardly trying to control the scene.

Aurora police have given their assessment of the event, and because of the recent history of this department, it cannot and should not be trusted.

Now the city must find a way for an independent query to evaluate how police prepared for the event, including allegations that police agents called parents of young protesters in a clear attempt to frighten them in advance. An independent group must tell the public why Aurora police used chemical weapons against protesters and why chaos and confusion continued as riot-tactics swept through the event late in the day.

The public deserves answers regarding police behavior, and Tuesday’s inquiry by the Aurora City Council did not provide them. The city recently impaneled a task force whose sole purpose is to examine police oversight, and its work has not yet begun.

Without an oversight solution, city lawmakers should appoint an ad-hoc task force of credible, accountable members of the public to review the June 27 police response and make recommendations to lawmakers. The Aurora City Council is poorly suited to emulate a review. It’s a politically polarized bunker, charged with political agendas. 

The more that independent reviews of police actions and decisions align with the police version of events, the faster trust in police can be restored.

But the more police say that the public has no choice but to believe whatever they say, the more Aurora police undermine their own credibility and public safety.