There is great opportunity and even greater danger in burying the Aurora Police Department under a mountain of investigations, lawsuits and reform efforts.
The cumulative focus on one of the nation’s most beleaguered police departments reached a tipping point this week. Consider the embattled Aurora Police Department’s sad curriculum vitae;
• APD is under federal Department of Justice investigation for potential civil rights abuses of Elijah McClain and others. McClain is the 23-year-old unarmed Black man who died six days after officers placed him in a now-banned control hold last August.
• APD is now under a similar investigation by the Colorado Attorney General, made possible by a new Colorado law focusing on police department reforms and accountability. Part of this investigation looks at potential civil rights abuses in light of APD controversies and reports of unequal treatment of minorities, especially Black residents.
• APD is under a separate state investigation, ordered by Gov. Jared Polis, to determine if police wrongfully arrested or handled McClain, having a part in his death.
• One of the police union chiefs, the head of the Fraternal Order of Police, has threatened to sue a local McClain activist over comments she’s made publicly, and some officers say threaten the safety of police and others.
• The city has ordered its own investigation into McClain’s death, hiring a prominent civil rights law firm.
• Prominent city residents have filed a federal civil rights, class action lawsuit against APD for its handling of recent McClain protests.
• Aurora leaders, police officials and rank and file officers are under relentless, worldwide attacks on social media, drawing the ire of dozens of celebrities and millions of people, angry mostly over the death of McClain and more recently, a quagmire created by the erroneous arrest and handcuffing of Black children
• The family of McClain has filed a civil rights lawsuit in Denver federal court, making the case that Aurora has long had a history of mistreating Black people, and that police and firefighters were responsible for McClain’s death.
• The Arapahoe County District Attorney is investigating APD for allegedly mistreating four Black children during a recent, erroneous arrest during a mistaken stolen car fiasco.
• The city has just created a long-awaited police oversight and review task force, which will recommend department changes to the city council.
• The city manager and police chief have announced that a prominent Chicago consultant will review all Aurora police policies and procedures and make a comprehensive recommendation for changes.
• The Colorado Department of Health and Environment is scrutinizing the use of Ketamine — a tranquilizer injected into McClain during his arrest — by Aurora and all state police departments.
• The city appointed a new police chief, Vanessa Wilson, just last week.
• Aurora Police have been the target of numerous recent protests, mostly over the death of McClain, each one creating huge drama and real danger for police, protesters and the community alike. There is a massive protest slated for Aug. 23, to mark the anniversary of McClain’s death at the hands of Aurora police and firefighters.
Besides all this, Aurora Police must continue to run a police department during a catastrophic pandemic that has, in part, led to a huge increase in shootings and other violent and non-violent crimes.
That’s where the real danger lies for Aurora residents and businesses. Even one or two of these monumental inspections would risk citywide distraction and angst. Heaped together, while the city is hobbled by the COVID-19 pandemic and economic calamity, Aurora is on track for calamity as seemingly endless lawsuits, investigations and reviews promise to engulf every minute of the people who need to focus on the safety of the community and officers, and avoiding more self-inflicted damage.
Wilson, an APD veteran elevated to chief just days ago, is a clear asset and not part of the liability of so much change. She has thoughtfully offered credible and meaningful remorse, and she set out immediate instructions to every member of the Aurora Police Department: Use good sense, and act immediately when other officers act inappropriately. Forcing children face down onto an asphalt parking lot under the circumstances created by the mistaken arrest made no sense. Escalating the confrontation with Elijah McClain made no sense. Turning a blind eye to drunken cops on duty makes no sense.
One thing above all has now become the police department’s mission: restoring trust and credibility. Misdeeds, shoddy communication and outright subterfuge, on top of horrific behavior and optics, have destroyed APD’s reputation. As the police department decides how to rebuild, transparency, accountability and truly independent oversight must be the touchstones for how the department rebuilds every day, every week and every month.
The course ahead is daunting and rife with peril, but like other nearly impossible missions, “failure is not an option.”