EDITORIAL: Don’t vandalize Aurora’s moment to seize police reform and justice for Elijah McClain

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Thanks to the determination of thousands of local protesters and activist leaders, change and a new chance for justice will come for Elijah McClain and others who have suffered wrongly at the hands of Aurora police, prosecutors and others.

Going far beyond protesting and illegally obstructing police from protecting the community, however, will only thwart that goal. The opportunity for real change is here. All efforts must now focus on seizing it.

For weeks, protesters in downtown Denver, at the state Capitol and in Aurora have drawn desperately needed attention to the plight of those hurt by systemic problems in police departments across the state. The ruthless murder of George Floyd was a catalyst across the nation, and here, to scrutinize longstanding dysfunctions in police agencies. It is only because of the sustained energy of recent protesters that lawmakers and officials from the governor’s office on down have responded with changes in laws and mechanisms for reform.

Like so many others, Aurora’s police department is deeply troubled by repeated incidents of racism, undue police-union influence, department obfuscation and entrenched arrogance. Aurora suffers greatly because of the police department’s lack of transparency and accountability. At the same time, the department is teaming with passionate, talented and righteous peace officers who are critically needed to serve residents and be elevated as department leaders.

It’s time for Aurora, and all of Colorado, to turn unprecedented public outrage  into formalized police scrutiny, analysis and reform.

Twice, however, this historical consensus was nearly jeopardized by small groups of protesters who clearly moved outside the law. They’ve endangered themselves, fellow activists and the very change everyone seeks and the moment demands.

During the first major protest in Aurora on June 27, focusing on the death of Elijah McClain, about two-dozen protesters, out of thousands, vandalized barriers and attempted to rush a police line. Police wrongly deployed chemical weapons, escalating the dangerous situation and fueling allegations of police being a horde of militarized thugs. The skirmish undermined a stunning picture of unity in the region to scrutinize Aurora police and ensure that a truly independent review of McClain’s death moves forward.

That consensus for radical change has never been more critical. Friday, activists staged an equally powerful protest and march against the beleaguered Aurora police department. Earlier that day, the police department was humiliated by addressing the sick and inexplicable antics of three police officers who mocked McClain’s death in a bizarre selfie photo shoot. Early the next morning, the demonstration changed before dawn. A relatively few remaining protesters began building barriers to prevent access to and from a police substation, which was the target of protesters.

It was a dangerous stunt that goes far beyond peaceful and effective “occupation” of the site. the scheme could have prevented nearby residents in need from getting speedy help from police. Aurora has seen a flood of shooting deaths and other violence in the last several weeks. And no one needs to be reminded we are all in the thick of a horrific pandemic. Aurora needs its police department now. 

Wisely, police early Saturday did not deploy chemical weapons against protesters, and the situation was defused.

Activists and all of Aurora should continue on with protests, demands and every legal means of keeping the public’s attention focused on problems in the police department and the new investigations into McClain’s death. It’s critical now that protesters and activists protect their cause by preventing dangerous distractions from undermining the goal: sweeping change.

Just a few weeks ago, Colorado enacted a bevy of new laws that restrict police powers and officer immunity after wrongful deaths and other abuses. This new law creates a level of police transparency completely new to Colorado.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser has eagerly taken up the McClain case, promising a substantial and meaningful inspection of the controversy. At the same time, Aurora, too, has pushed to empower an independent review of McClain’s death and how the case was handled.

Aurora has also just created a new task force, stocked with credible members of the community, charged with exploring issues surrounding the McClain death and focusing hard on reforms needed to address a bevy of problems inside the department. Top among the goals is the need to create a system that provides truly independent review of controversial police incidents.

All of this is happening in Aurora at the same time the city searches for a new chief of police. Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson has given every indication she would be a positive and critically needed force for reform. She has been astonishingly frank and sympathetic to the message and demands of activists and protesters. Wilson has repeatedly shown the sincerity and credibility this moment in Aurora’s history demands.

It’s time to set all of these new forces and opportunities in motion and continue pushing for a police department that actively roots out overt and subtle forms of racism and corruption and is accountable on all levels to the public — not itself.

Protests and activists have set the stage for long overdue police reform, it’s time to move ahead to create a department that’s provably worthy of the public’s trust.