Only one thing is clear in the latest case of what role law enforcement played in the death of someone they encountered: Oversight of these tragedies is desperately needed, and it can’t come from police or prosecutors.
The list of unanswered questions about the Aug. 24 death of Elijah McClain got even longer Tuesday. On the steps of city hall, the family of the latest man to die during an encounter with Aurora police released a bevy of sordid details that police and investigators have refused to make public to others.
Families of those killed or maimed by cops in Aurora, and across the state, have regularly become the first source of details after police-involved shootings and deaths. It signals how broken public-safety communications has become.
The lawyer, family and friends want criminal prosecution of police and fire officials, whom they blame for McClain’s death. The demand came in the form of a rally and protest at city hall, where several people relayed what police had told and shown them from officer body cams.
Police have told the rest of the public, however, next to nothing.
That’s how it goes in Aurora. Every time someone dies at the hands of police, the department clamps down on providing even cursory details to the public, blaming local district attorneys. Police said they’re told by local prosecutors to say nothing in order to preserve the integrity of cases.
Instead, police share critical details with the families, who release it, often publicly, to the media and others.
It’s nonsensical, and state and local lawmakers need to stop it.
Aurora police and law enforcement agencies routinely refuse to release even the most basic details in a wide range of cases, including details such as the sex or age of suspects or victims. They routinely release meaningless, vague statements, like the one they did when police and rescuers apparently killed McClain.
At the time, police said only that the incident involved a “struggle” with an “agitated” man who would not heed police orders to stop walking.
McClain’s family on Tuesday relayed their version of what police told them. They said police body cameras revealed that police “tortured” McClain. They said police placed him in controversial choke holds that may have caused the death of another Aurora resident last year. The family said police injected McClain with ketamine, a powerful tranquilizer often used as anesthesia and a highly controversial law-enforcement tool.
Police have told the rest of the public nothing so far.
Family members said that at one point during what police had told the media was a “struggle,” McClain vomited while being violently restrained. The family said one officer threatened to release police dogs on the terrified subject. McClain at this point had apparently committed no crimes or been accused of any.
“What was done to Elijah was nothing short of cold-blooded murder,” pastor, Rev. Reginald Holmes, told the media and bystanders at city hall.
Whether any or all of this is accurate, this is what’s guiding the public perception so far of what happened.
These spectacles do not serve the integrity of this or any investigation, and they do not serve the public good.
There appears to be no hope police and prosecutors here or across the state will reform themselves. Only the governor and the Legislature can wrench these regularly mishandled cases away from the agencies that bungle them.
There must be oversight first of how local police and district attorneys release details to the public of officer-involved deaths. Currently, police and prosecutors make public information decisions based on how best to benefit their agencies. They are provably unable to separate that from the prevailing weight of Colorado open information laws and the greater public good. It’s easy to argue that police and prosecutors regularly undermine cops and investigators by allowing families of the dead to take the lead on informing the public.
Equally critical is complete oversight of the internal investigation and coordination with prosecutors. Local district attorneys can determine if police have committed crimes during these incidents. But allowing other police departments and prosecutors to privately make determinations whether police acted appropriately, aside from legally, is a fundamentally flawed process.
Expecting police or prosecutors to officially exonerate cops involved in these incidents undermines the credibility of the agencies, the process and it erodes the public’s trust.
State lawmakers must intervene in the next session to create or assign an independent entity to lead the government and the public through resolution of these tragedies.
The fact that public safety is carried out by police professionally and with great dedication thousands of times a day in Aurora is lost on the public when they cannot trust that police can handle the relatively few times encounters wrongly become lethal.
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