EDITORIAL: Local lawmakers must lead a new path for Aurora’s broken police department

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Aurora Police body cam screen grabs that investigators say show Aurora Police Officer John Haubert pistol whipping and strangling a trespassing suspect July 23, 2012. Haubert and another officer face felony charges in the incident. On Sept. 15, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser issued a scathing report after a year-long investigation into whether Aurora police and firefighters abused residents cops and rescuers encountered, especially people of color.

The crossroads came to Aurora this week.

After years of demands by community activists, the opinion page of Sentinel Colorado, and even some city lawmakers and police, Colorado’s attorney general illustrated in a new investigation just how broken and dangerous the Aurora Police Department has become.

“The report released today demonstrates a consistent pattern of illegal behavior by Aurora Police, which can be witnessed at many levels of the department,” Weiser’s office wrote in a statement. “Aurora does not create and oversee appropriate expectations for responsible behavior, which leads to the use of excessive force and the violation of the civil rights of its residents.”

While the most infamous recent case of abuse involves the death of Elijah McClain, the so-called “patterns and practices” investigation into the Aurora police and fire departments makes clear that systemic and organizational defects inside the departments have long exacerbated the abuse of people these agencies come in contact with, especially minorities.

The AG investigation confirmed:

• Aurora police use force against people of color 2.5 times more often than white people

• Black residents are arrested by Aurora police about twice the rate of white residents

In October 2020, The Sentinel reported that slightly less than half of all use of force incidents in the city in 2019 involved a Black subject, though the city’s overall Black population hovers around 16%, reporter Quincy Snowdon reported today. Whites make up about 45% of Aurora’s population, and they were involved in about 35% of reported forceful encounters with police in 2019.

In addition, Weiser’s team concluded that Aurora Fire paramedics repeatedly misused ketamine in 2019 and 2020, failing to oversee patients injected with the powerful sedative. Medics were eventually barred from using the sedative after controversy rose to the state level over the death of McClain.

Two weeks ago, a grand jury, led by Weiser’s office, issued felony indictments against three Aurora police officers and two firefighter medics in the death of McClain.

All of this comes after repeated, various, official sanctions by Aurora police officials and internal boards and former district attorneys Dave Young and George Brauchler.

While critics of the police department’s past lack of transparency, accountability and ethical standards now stand vindicated, the problem of a broken police department remains unsolved.

The recent appointment of Police Chief Vanessa Wilson, backed by City Manager Jim Twombly, has so far realized nothing but promising and welcome news from the beleaguered and embattled police department. Wilson has candidly accepted recent investigations and criticisms of the department and has in fact led the way to protect the “good cops” while making no excuses for firing and ridding Aurora of the “bad cops.”

But this report and other investigations reveal the problems inside APD are far more complicated and pernicious than “just a few bad apples.”

The chief problem has long been a rogue department without critical, truly independent oversight and a city council that had perpetuated and even emboldened the worst, most dangerous problems in the Aurora Police Department.

It was only two years ago, just weeks after the death of Elijah McClain, as the community began filtering into city council meetings to solidify the message that APD had at long last crossed a line, that some members of the city council made clear their role in the problem.

On Nov. 19, 2019, six members of the city council — Charlie Richardson, Dave Gruber, Johnny Watson, Francoise Bergan, Marsha Berzins and Bob Roth — wore t-shirts to the meeting emblazoned with the “Thin Blue Line” flag, a symbol of support of police. The stunt rightfully outraged Aurora residents aghast at the then recent death of McClain and other growing allegations that were spilling into the public forum. Gruber, Bergan and Berzins still sit on the city council.

Aurora is now preparing to elect five seats on the city council. While the state, federal and even local government will now ensure Aurora police will fix endemic problems that have created too much death, injury and mistrust, the next city council will be instrumental in ensuring fast and complete compliance.

State and federal officials have finally forced Aurora to choose a path in the crossroads of its police and fire debacle. Voters must now press city council members and candidates to make clear their allegiance must be to the public in the most important reform effort in the city’s history.

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Debra MacKillop
Debra MacKillop
1 month ago

Thank you to CO AG Weiser for courageously investigating and holding APD accountable. I’m more afraid of APD than the crime rate. And everyone please turn out and vote in this important upcoming City Council election, and all other community elections.

ImmovableLadder
ImmovableLadder
1 month ago

No City Council candidate should be allowed to say even a word in this paper without first making very clear whether they condemn APD’s proven pattern of bias and excessive force, and whether they support APD entering into a consent decree.

Joe Felice
Joe Felice
1 month ago

Thank you, AG Weiser, for finally bringing some sanity to this issue. The AG’s office and the Legislature are compelled to step in because the police refuse to police themselves. The City Council, in turn, can interpret state laws as they apply to its specific jurisdiction. The Legislature has the authority, and will continue to discuss the issue and take appropriate action, as we have already seen. It can be said that any laws that are adopted would not be needed if only the departments would get themselves under control. The behavior of police and their departments is undermining the public’s faith and trust in them. Police departments need this support in order to do their jobs effectively.

Nick Campbell
Nick Campbell
1 month ago

Was there more to the AG report that this article failed to include? Apparently APD only arrested blacks and whites, what about Asians, American Indians, Latin Americans to name a few or did they only do the blacks and whites to appease the activists. The majority of APD is wonderful and I know I’m probably not allowed to have an opinion of my own but I’m gonna throw one out anyway. I don’t think the problem is the police force, I would imagine it’s above them that either think it’s going to be cheaper to do it this way or it’s easier to bow down to the activists. The City needs balls. I think the politicians should be doing a shift with officers to see what they do and learn what they’re up against before they vote.

Good Citizen
Good Citizen
1 month ago
Reply to  Nick Campbell

What city department do you feed at? You can smell someone who has their snout in the public trough a mile away. The police and their bootlickers don’t want you messing with their rice bowl.

Joe Felice
Joe Felice
1 month ago

It is becoming increasingly clear, due to our hyperpartisan political contention, that police departments are only going to be controlled through legislative action. Waiting for the various departments to get themselves under control has proven fruitless.

Those of us who have long supported law enforcement agencies have been increasingly frustrated by their resistance to police themselves and do the right thing.