PERRY: Dancing around officer-involved deaths and shootings, Aurora police shoot at their own feet

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What was that about?

After weeks of being pressed to release even a few details about how two, no, make that three now, people who encountered Aurora police officers ended up dead or shot in the back and gravely wounded, police finally held a press conference Friday.

Deputy Police Chief Paul O’Keefe, ushered reporters in to say that he wouldn’t be telling them anything about the cases. 

It gets worse.

These “critical” incidents have a growing number of residents becoming leery of Aurora police. Even more people seriously question APD’s ability to competently handle internal investigations where the department and its officers are potential suspects.

First off, dispense with the propaganda public relations crap. These are not “critical” incidents, they’re deadly. In the Aug. 24 case of Elijah McClain, police approached him as he was walking home from a convenience store in the evening because a motorist called 911. The caller said a man wearing a mask was acting strangely. At least that’s what we think happened. Police won’t release the 911 call or anything else.

The few details police have released, but no evidence, point to officers thinking this guy is trouble and in need of being arrested. They said a struggle ensued and McClain had to be restrained. Then someone on scene, without an MD behind their name, is said to have injected him with a tranquilizer. En route to the hospital, or while being loaded into an ambulance, McClain’s heart stops. After about a week on life support he dies.

What police didn’t say is that this 23-year-old vegan massage therapist weighed 120 pounds. They didn’t say that he frequently wore a mask because he was weird that way. They didn’t say he has a long history of being a submissive pacifist. Oh, and he’s black.

His family has made a lot of serious and compelling allegations after McClain died. But police haven’t made public a single shred of body-cam footage, 911 calls or subsequent reports. The family has seen some of this, but not the public. They say they saw what police did to McClain, and it was “torture.”

Prosecutors say releasing information before they’re ready might taint the case.

O’Keefe said Friday that he agreed and would comply, other than to say that, “I think the term ‘torture’ is a mischaracterization.” 

It gets worse.

“We take our direction for release of information pretty much directly from the district attorney’s office,” O’Keefe said. “ … We are not going to release anything that would be prejudicial to any kind of a case prior to their — one — authority — and, two — we really want them to have the opportunity to review all of that material without having any sort of prejudicial information getting out there.”

Like letting the family run the public information strategy on this deadly episode doesn’t taint the case? 

It gets worse.

Same story, different cops and outcome in the Oct. 10 case of Andy Huff. What the public does know comes from Huff’s family and lawyers. What we do know is that Huff and his brother had a roommate, and that the association soured. The Huff brothers accused George Gutierrez of stealing a car and skipping rent. Gutierrez told police it was he who was the victim because the Huff brothers stole his stuff. By all accounts, the Huff brothers beat up Gutierrez earlier in the day. It was serious. Gutierrez suffered broken ribs during the fight.

What happened after is unclear. From a confusing arrest affidavit produced by an Arapahoe County prosecutor, it appears police got it in their heads that Andy Huff needed to be charged with assaulting Gutierrez. So not long before midnight the day of the assault, three street cops parked their cars down the block of the Huff home. They ended up in Huff’s front yard. Huff was inside holding a gun. One of the cops says something outside, like, “gun,” and he shoots Huff in the back. Actually, we kind of know the cop peeled off four or five rounds and hit Huff in the buttocks, critically wounding him.

We know much of this from the arrest affidavit, which spent more words on the police shooting than the alleged assault.

But police or DA officials say they can’t say anything after letting this badgered cat out of the bag. O’Keefe, at the press conference, continues to insist police can’t say anything to preserve the integrity of this case.

Except, he offers this little nugget.

“There is no doubt in my mind that Mr. Huff knew it was the police that were there and (he) went and grabbed that firearm anyway,” O’Keefe said.

Oh, really? It gets worse.

“Once that case is thoroughly reviewed by the district attorney’s office, the specific details about how we believe that to be true will come out,” he said.

Huh. Nothing there to influence the public’s perception or a possible pool of jurors — except the whole thing. It’s the crux of the case. His family and witnesses inside the house say they thought it was Gutierrez returning to wreak havoc and revenge. There’s a 911 call that hasn’t been released that could shed light on this.

Meanwhile, Huff’s friends, family, witnesses and lawyer — who will someday hand a very large pile of taxpayer dollars to the Huffs over this mess — tell an incredibly compelling story that rebuts what O’Keefe and the DA say they aren’t talking about, even when they are.

This is the saddest, most outlandish thing to happen in Aurora for decades. This stellar police department and respected judicial district has become a sideshow of warranted distrust.

The third, most recent lethal case? A cop shot into some kind of melee late Oct. 20, after someone called 911 to report gunfire. Police apparently killed a guy. Not much more on that one yet. 

When cops in Fort Worth, Texas and elsewhere across the nation kill the very people they’re supposed to serve and protect, information flows as it becomes available. In other modern police departments, those whose careers and credibility are on the line aren’t in charge of investigating themselves. Or, if they are, the investigations are public and accountable.

Colorado would be served well by adopting such laws.

This police department and its associated judicial districts cannot be trusted to investigate themselves and potential incidents of deadly malfeasance. It’s wrong. It undermines the credibility of the hundreds of Aurora police officers and prosecutors who deserve the respect their leaders are subverting.

It could well be that the officers involved were justified in every move they made, and that by withholding verified and untainted information from the public, the evidence looks unfairly damning. The only cure for that is for an impartial, competent agency, like the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, and a judicial district that does not regularly work with Aurora Police, to review the incident and make a determination as to whether police acted properly and legally when they killed two people and mortally wounded another.

There is not one good reason why that doesn’t happen. Not one.

Right now, police and prosecutors are hiding behind an indefensible, “we can’t talk” sham. At the same time, they capriciously drop details they want to. Whether it’s intentional, they’re building a case against the people they killed and injured.

Somebody has to pull the plug on this charade.

Is there no one at Aurora city hall who cares what’s going on? If not, surely Gov. Jared Polis can see how police are undermining their own credibility and potentially hiding or manipulating facts that must be revealed.

“We want to make sure that the community at large knows, we haven’t forgotten about any of these cases,” O’Keefe said at the beginning of the press conference.

Neither have the victims nor their families who are left depending on the media to provide accountability they can’t get from their own government.

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