One year later, city hall is still boarded up.
Last week marked 365 days since protesters clashed with Aurora police and local sheriff’s deputies on the municipal complex’s “great lawn,” prompting international backlash and local litigation levied against the city. Many street-level windows that adorn the hulking stone temple of city politics remain sealed with sheets of plywood, now sun-bleached fossils of the maelstrom that engulfed the zeitgeist last summer.
Along with various fencing materials, the ad hoc fortifications across the municipal campus have dinged coffers about $160,000, according to a City of Aurora spokesperson, and they’ve become an enduring reminder of the racial reckoning that careened through the city and the country last summer.
“Those boards are very symbolic,” said Candice Bailey, a self-described actionist who has attended and led a bevy of demonstrations across the city in recent years.
Questions abounded on the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder in late May over how much change had materialized in the months after he died under the knee of a white police officer who has since been sentenced to more than two decades in prison.
In Aurora, those same queries are largely tethered to last summer’s gatherings and the death of Elijah McClain, the 23-year-old Black man who died after being placed in a now-banned control hold and sedated by Aurora first responders in August 2019. McClain’s death received renewed attention after Floyd’s killing, which prompted waves of policy changes and firings last summer.
But the trudge toward systemic shifts grinds slowly, officials say.
“I just hope that these conversations continue,” said City Councilperson Allison Hiltz. “The problems that we’re facing can’t be fixed in one term or in one committee or by one person. It has to be a collaboration.”
In the city
Hiltz served as chairperson of the city’s public safety policy committee last year, an organ that propelled a smattering of justice reform efforts as demonstrators repeatedly marched down interstates, including a ban of no-knock warrants, new city rules against police and fire lobbying and the introduction of data that revealed discriminatory hiring among Aurora police and fire staff.
The municipal efforts came after the state legislature passed bellwether policing legislation early last summer and Aurora police announced a slew of policy changes that precipitated a novel vision plan for the department entitled “A New Way.” Unveiled in October of last year, the plan added civilian slots and more community involvement to critical oversight boards within the department, including the Chief’s Review Board and Force Review Board. The five-point outline also expedited the release of internal affairs investigations reports, body-worn camera footage and demographic information revealing who is policed in Aurora — and how. In January, the city added Community Relations Officer Claudine McDonald to the chief’s staff, building another conduit between APD hierarchy and the masses of Aurora.
“We’ve already grabbed all the low hanging fruit,” Hiltz said. “Now there’s the longer-term stuff with really digging in and changing things systemically …But I don’t know that that conversation is being had with as many people as it was a year ago.”
Now helmed by three Republicans, the city’s public safety committee has vocally pivoted from pursuing reform to cracking down on crime, the current chairperson Dave Gruber said at the beginning of the year.
“Last year this committee focused on reform and transparency,” he said in a January meeting. “ … This year the loudest concern I hear from constituents is about our increase in crime rate … Therefore I’d like the committee to focus on how to reduce crime in Aurora.”
Crime rates are up about 35% across the board in the first six months of the year, according to preliminary data.
Some community members say the two issues can’t be exclusive of each other. Aurora NAACP President Omar Montgomery said Aurora can’t wait around to cut the ribbon on completed police reform and community reintegration of the force.
“We need to move forward right now,” Montgomery said recently. “We absolutely must have justice for (the death) of Elijah McClain, but we have to solve police issues and growing problems with violence.
“Kids are dying,” Mongtomery said, referring to an increase in shootings involving young Aurora residents.
While acknowledging that the national trend of increases in violent crime needs to be addressed, Hiltz lamented that it comes at the cost of shelving reform efforts left in limbo.
“Quite frankly those conversations have really stalled, and the current public safety committee is not doing follow-up or checking in on where we are one year later with some of those, particularly with use of force and hiring,” Hiltz said.
Much of the ongoing reform talks are in a holding pattern until city officials receive the results of several ongoing investigations from the state attorney general’s office and the U.S. Department of Justice. A city-hired consultant is also expected to provide additional feedback to city management — following up on a scathing report unveiled earlier this year — and the state health department also has a pending probe into how local paramedics applied ketamine to McClain while he was detained two years ago.
And local officials are still waiting to hear what charges, if any, the state grand jury could return against the police and fire officials who interacted with McClain. There’s also civil litigation pending against the city filed on behalf of McClain’s parents and estate.
A spokesperson for Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office said he could not comment on when any pending investigations may wrap up and be made public.
City management is steeling for the results of all of the probes before diving into more recommendations advanced by the city’s police community task force earlier this spring.
The expansive recommendations include a detailed call for a powerful new police independent oversight office with legal tools to investigate and fire police accused of breaking the law or department policy. They could be folded in with a new independent monitor’s office that City Manager Jim Twombly announced in February.
But the lack of action frustrates Bailey, who has served on the task force since its inception.
“Why is there dead silence?” she said. “We were under immense pressure to throw something together, and now there’s zero pressure around anyone to move forward with these recommendations.”
Lindsay Minter, who sits on the task force as well, also bemoaned the ambiguous timeline.
“We made recommendations, and they’re just kind of sitting on them,” she said. “ … While we just sit down and wait, things remain the same and there’s still no justice for Elijah McClain.”
Minter is the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit filed against the City of Aurora and dozens of law enforcement officials last July, claiming Aurora police and area sheriff’s deputies violated residents’ constitutional rights at the chaotic protest and violin vigil held in front of city hall the evening of June 27, 2020.
“We’re trying to change the city response vigils to make sure they always protect the rights of protesters and maybe we can get some justice for the people that were hurt,” she said.
That suit, which is still winding through the legal process, was just one ember in the legal firestorm that sprung from Aurora protests last year, much of which were largely doused after newly elected district attorneys dropped dozens of felony charges filed by their predecessors.
More than half a dozen people were originally accused of a gaggle of crimes in connection with a July 3 protest that Aurora police said posed a significant and prolonged threat to public safety after demonstrators barricaded doors and prevented police from exiting the building for hours.
But Adams County District Attorney Brian Mason in May dropped all of the most serious criminal charges against five people who were previously accused of various felony and misdemeanor counts in connection with the gathering. Members of the group were originally charged by former 17th Judicial District Attorney Dave Young, who Mason replaced after his win at the polls in November.
Two people, including a 23-year-old Aurora man accused of several misdemeanors, are still being prosecuted in Adams County in connection with the incident.
In Arapahoe County, Lillian House, Joel Northam and Terrance Roberts all still face charges in connection with protests last summer, though prosecutors in Aurora’s largest judicial district previously dropped the most serious charges filed against the trio.
A Wheatridge man is set to stand trial on attempted reckless manslaughter charges in the same jurisdiction later this year in connection with an encounter on Interstate 225 on July 25, 2020, and a Denver resident faces accusations of felony arson tied to his suspected actions on the same day. The driver of a teal Jeep that tore through a throng of protesters as the Wheatridge resident, Sam Young, fired a revolver, striking two bystanders, was never charged with a crime for his connections to the chagrin of activists.
Reform from outside city hall
For now, justice reform in the city is taking place outside of the city council dais and committee meeting agendas.
“The conversations are not happening in the formal channels,” Hiltz said.
That’s fine by Bailey and Minter, who said they continue to pursue change and to mend community trust, albeit with far fewer bullhorns than last summer.
“It’s a pull-up summer,” Minter said. “Folks aren’t gone. They’re still working on the inside of systems trying to change and make a difference. Our activism looks different, but it’s still activism.”
She said many of the people who marched last year are still ready to demonstrate whenever news of the McClain investigations is released, though gatherings could look different if and when they occur due to schisms within local activist groups. Minter and Bailey said that police informants who infiltrated certain cohorts last summer sowed skepticism among participants.
“I think what has changed since then has been an overall distrust within the community,” Bailey said.
Now Bailey, who has taken to court to try to get her name on the city council ballot this fall despite a prior felony conviction, has turned toward looking at alternative public safety models entirely.
“Last year was just the tip of the iceberg, just exposing the work that we have been doing in the community so that it’s not silent anymore,” she said. “ … Aurora has grown a lot. We have changed a lot. We have seen the error in our ways, and we need to start looking at alternative models in public safety.”
Such efforts are already in the works in Aurora by way of a new outreach team designed in the style of the heralded CAHOOTS program in Oregon. Expected to be based in the northwest corner of the city, the group is expected to begin working later this summer. The city has also beefed up its youth violence prevention staff in recent months and a new compact with Denver has spun into a forthcoming series of meetings. And a new police auditor has taken stock of several of the local police department’s programs, including how it uses dogs and body-worn cameras. The change stems from the external review of how Aurora handled the Elijah McClain death and Wilson’s subsequent, “New Way” programs.
But the changes and recommendations are targeted at a weary force that has endured a string of scandals and a bloodletting of personnel.
Police Sgt. Marc Sears, the head of the department’s primary bargaining union, has fulminated against the staffing losses, saying the political atmosphere has prompted a wave of cops to leave the force.
“I haven’t seen any huge change in the past year,” he said. “To be honest with you, the biggest change I’ve seen is the mass exodus the police are experiencing, and it’s really unfortunate for the community because they’re the ones who are going to fall victim to it.”
The number of officers who left the Aurora Police Department last year rose by more than 60% when compared to 2019, according to human resources data. A total of 87 police personnel left or were jettisoned from the department in 2020 — more departures than in 2015 and 2016 combined — bumping the organization’s turnover rate to nearly 20% for the year.
Through the middle of June, 66 officers had already left the department — a higher total than in all of 2018 and 2019, according to staffing data. When factoring in new hires through recent academies, the department is down upwards of 30 officers for the year.
One of the Aurora police staffers who was formally fired earlier this year was Jason Rosenblatt, the officer who replied “ha ha” upon receiving a photo of his peers mocking McClain’s death. Rosenblatt and two others who staged the photo — a third voluntarily resigned — appealed their terminations, but the city’s civil service commission unanimously batted down their requests in February. The other two officers involved in detaining McClain, Randy Roedema and Nathan Woodyard, remain on the force as the former Adams County District Attorney said he would likely be unsuccessful earning a conviction against them at trial, and the police department’s internal review systems determined they followed protocols in place at the time.
Sears, who was recently reassigned to a patrol unit after a bicycle unit he was attached to was dismantled due to lack of personnel, said the onslaught of personnel losses lead to delayed response times and fewer arrests.
”With the outcry and the civil unrest that occurred last year, there has been a direct response to that by police across the country, and that is: OK if you don’t want us, we’ll leave. And a lot have,” he said. “And the community is now asking why it’s taking the Aurora Police Department five, 12, sometimes 24 hours to respond to a call for service. It isn’t because we don’t want to or we’re ignoring them, we simply don’t have the manpower.”
Bailey has publicly clashed with the head of the police union, with the latter at one point threatening to charge the former for her actions at a 2020 protest. The accusations never materialized.
But the planks of wood that currently shield the municipal complex have proved to be a rare point of agreement between the two figures.
“At this lower level, they’ve boarded us off,” Bailey said. “Unless you’re a giant or have super vision you can’t see in. What do you have to hide? This is our city center. It’s not the city’s, or the mayor’s, or the Aurora Police Department’s. It’s our public property that we have the right to convene on, and we’re being shut out.”
Sears described the wood as superfluous and possibly dangerous if it were to be dismantled and used to shatter windows like it was on July 25, 2020 when protesters ripped off boards and shot fireworks into the municipal courthouse, causing some $70,000 in damage.
“I don’t think they should stay up by any means,” he said. “If anything, the city is providing an image that it’s not safe. There’s no reason for those to be up right now.”
A spokesperson for the city declined to specify how long the boards may remain in place, citing security privileges.
Minter said she expects the plywood to remain in place until all cases involving McClain move through the courts.
“I low-key think that they’re waiting until the Elijah situation has been fully adjudicated,” she said.
However long the boards remain, they present an optical challenge for a city constantly vying to shake stigmas, according to Hiltz.
“It’s not a good look,” she said.