PERRY: Aurora police documentary sidestepping how officers killed Dave Baker is a dangerous substitute for public information

724

This is true: Aurora Police inadvertently killed an enraged David Baker as he attacked pretty much everyone at his Aurora home last December.

This also is true: Had you or I been one of the cops sent to the scene that evening, we probably would have pulled out a gun and shot Baker to save everyone there, including ourselves.

That’s not how Baker died.

Remarkably, and I really mean that, the handful of cops who were sent to keep Baker from choking his brother-in-law to death at Baker’s Aurora apartment mustered superhero restraint and perseverance to subdue Baker.

You can see for yourself on police bodycam video. After a Herculean effort to save someone who was clearly a violent and lethal threat, officers inadvertently killed him. That’s according to the Arapahoe County coroner and district attorney officials.

But police credibility became another casualty last week when they offered the public a slick video documentary instead of an accountable explanation of what happened.

The Baker case was a surreal nightmare from the beginning.

Police went to Baker’s apartment the evening of Dec. 17 at the family’s behest. When cops got there, Baker, 5-feet-9 and topping 230 pounds, was “violently choking” his brother-in-law inside the house, officers recalled.

The police body cams were rolling. Two cops yell, scream, taze, pull out batons and repeatedly beat Baker in an attempt to get him to snap out of it. In what looks like a low-budget horror film, officers keep trying to stop Baker from killing the cops as he plodded violently around the front yard.

Baker kept attacking police, at one point fighting for their batons. The chaos continues for several minutes as officers try to fight him into submission. While Baker’s wife screamed and wailed in the background, police bellowed commands, repeatedly tazed and clubbed Baker in an attempt to subdue him. He wasn’t even fazed.

Finally, as more officers arrived, they were able to wrestle Baker to the ground, like a giant furious bull. They held him down while trying to handcuff him.

You can see on the video, seven cops dog pile on Baker. Police held him in a position where he apparently could not breathe, coroner officials surmise. Baker could not, or did not, signal that to police. The end of the melee lasted at least a minute or two. It was just long enough to inflict what the coroner determined as Baker’s cause of death: restraint asphyxia.

And then police were left to investigate and explain what happened. That was seven months ago.

Last week police did that by posting to YouTube a  28-minute scripted documentary. During the production, Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz narrates the police explanation of the incident. Metz illuminates what’s going on in the chaotic videos. He doesn’t mention that the coroner determined Baker died from how police held him down at the end of the catastrophic arrest.

Baker himself was a recipe for this kind of death, according to physicians and coroners. Overweight, exhausted from a stupendous struggle with police and forced onto his face instead of his back, Baker’s subjugation checked all the bad boxes. At the time, police suspected Baker was on some kind of drug that fueled his superhuman strength and stamina. Drugs would have been the final ingredient needed for a perfect mixture of restraint asphyxia, according to medical experts. Surprisingly, there were no telltale drugs in his system, according to his autopsy.

Rather than address these critical facts during the documentary, however, Metz takes the time to explain that while they were trying to hobble Baker, they were unable to actually do it before he finally stopped struggling. He was dying.

It’s acutely tragic that Baker — a 32-year-old Navy veteran who’d been living in his car and had a history of serious psychiatric issues — violently inflicted his illness on his family and police. It was equally tragic that as police valiantly struggled to save Baker from himself, and everyone else from Baker, that they killed him.

Even a casual observer of this APD documentary would be hard pressed to blame the police for Baker’s death under the circumstances of the wild attack. The district attorney, having reviewed the case, agreed that the officers involved broke no laws in trying to subdue him.

So it begs the question, why, after Aurora police have inadvertently killed more than a handful of bad guys, or guys acting badly, during the last few years, did they choose to issue a documentary bordering on propaganda to explain what was clearly an easily defensible intervention arrest gone bad? It was all so needless.

We may never know. But we do know that how police released the video is just as concerning as having created a documentary to detail an officer-involved homicide.

On June 24, 9News released a story on their 5 p.m. newscast based on a neighbor’s video. At about 9:30 p.m. police posted their documentary to YouTube and posted information on a police blog with a link.

That’s it.

What Metz last year described, accurately, as the most violent thing he’d seen in his career, became a YouTube video dumped at night with no opportunity for the public and media to ask questions, mostly about what the video didn’t reveal.

After a few emails with police last week, Sentinel reporter Quincy Snowdon got a few answers.

First off, why, after the Sentinel and other media repeatedly asked for these body cam recordings, were they denied and then released like this?

Answer from the public information department? No answer. We were told they are now available by resubmitting a Colorado Open Records Act request.

We asked why, when at least seven officers were subduing Baker and several more stood around watching, was there only one body cam shown during the documentary by an officer — who wandered back into the house?

No real answer there either, other than to CORA additional video.

When asked exactly how far paramedics were being staged from the scene and why they weren’t there immediately after the first officer said, we have a problem, we were told to ask the Aurora Fire Department.

We did find out that the entire documentary idea was born and created in the police department, without consultation or even notification of city hall or city council.

And police say they don’t know if will create other documentaries in the future.

Let’s hope not.

For years, we have pleaded with the city to create an independent panel to review incidents just like these. It’s critical especially in light of a growing number of wrongful death lawsuits filed against Aurora Police. Those incidents have cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

The city won’t do it. Instead, the chief’s office conducts what are essentially enhanced internal investigations. These are neither transparent nor credible to the public.

What APD and police departments like this do is diminish or destroy their credibility with the public by not being transparent and accountable — to citizens or at least city hall.

The case made to the public in this documentary is the same case the police department’s lawyers will make in legal briefs exchanged some day with Baker’s family. That will be right before the police department settles out of court for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Or more.

Just as important is pursuing what police will do about how Baker died.

If Aurora police aren’t trained to know that Baker’s physical condition, the circumstances of his arrest, and the way he was subdued — suspecting he was surging with drugs — make positional or arrest asphyxiation highly probable, that’s a serious problem. If these officers did know, and had no choice or ignored the facts, that’s a serious problem. If this police documentary was created to deflect from all that, that’s a serious problem.

It’s hard to say whether the final minutes of Baker’s arrest could have been handled differently. Perhaps on his back, less weight on his chest.

But the public, and it’s the public that counts now, never got the opportunity to ask those questions and get those critical answers.

In addition to critical details about Baker’s death, now police need to explain why they rushed the video to the Internet late at night. Why they precluded a chance for the media and public to get important details left out of the documentary.

That’s wrong.

Earlier this year, state legislators created a law that requires police in Colorado to make internal investigations public so residents can get answers to questions that some departments don’t want to reveal, like Aurora.

Police lobbyists fought hard against the law, and they lost.

One question we apparently don’t have to ask is whether Aurora police want the public to see the internal investigation underway in the Baker death.

We know they don’t. And we know we’ll use the law to get it.

Follow @EditorDavePerry on Twitter and Facebook or reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected]