Aurora police officers engage in racially biased policing – treating Blacks and other ethnic minorities differently than whites – and repeatedly use “unlawful and unconstitutional” excessive force, according to a scathing report from Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser made public Wednesday, September 15, 2021.
“We observed officers, using force to take people to the ground without first giving an adequate time to respond to commands,” said Weiser. “We observed officers, immediately escalating situations and circumstances in which the subject is in obvious mental health distress that did not present an imminent risk of harm to themselves or others.”
In addition, the department has failed to document investigative stops – known as “Terry stops” – as required by a 2020 police reform law.
“This leads to an entire category of police interactions … for which there is little to no documentation, and as a result, even less scrutiny,” according to the report. “Compounding this problem, Aurora police policies in effect since 2020 do not provide adequate guidance to officers on when a Terry stop is appropriate under the law.”
The report, which is the first of its kind from the attorney’s general’s office, was the result of a 14-month investigation sparked by a number of high-profile incidents, including the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, who was confronted as he walked along an Aurora street, taken to the ground and handcuffed. He later died.
The investigation also found that Aurora Fire Rescue (AFR) medics regularly break the law by administering the anesthetic ketamine when they shouldn’t.
“Aurora Fire relied on a ketamine review process that did not adequately ensure that paramedics follow the legal requirements for administering ketamine,” Weiser said. “Its review process failed to identify problems when ketamine was inappropriately administered, or it was administered at the request of the police in violation of the law,” Weiser said.
The drug, which has been used to calm people, was administered to McClain after police stopped and detained him.
Aurora police spokeswoman Crystal McCoy said department officials had not yet seen the report and could not comment until they did.
The report called for Aurora to enter what’s known as a “consent decree” – an agreement requiring specific changes and ongoing, independent oversight of the department. The city has agreed to try to develop one, but the report said if that effort is unsuccessful “we will seek a court-imposed order correcting these problems.”
“We have 60 days to work with Aurora to reach an agreement to fix these problems,” Weiser said. “We plan on doing so. And developing a consent decree that addresses the required changes in a way that has the best chance of making meaningful reforms. The court will be responsible for overseeing the implementation of this consent decree. And that effort to be aided and informed by a third-party monitor who will look closely at the changes being made.”
According to the report, “Most failures with Aurora police relate to systemic and severe culture problems.” It cited three specific examples:
- The department’s culture “leads to the frequent use of force, often in excess of what the law permits,” which it blamed on an “ad hoc” training program and policies that often do little more than recite legal requirements established in court cases and applicable laws or regulations.
- The department’s system for examining the use of force fails to meaningfully review incidents and favors “findings that officers followed policy and that hamper candid feedback on how to improve.”
- The city’s charter gives the Aurora Civil Service Commission total control over the hiring of entry-level officers and the power to overturn “all meaningful discipline” the police chief can impose. That undermines the chief’s authority and allows officers who violate the law or department policies to stay on the job. In one instance, former Police Chief Nick Metz fired a lieutenant who referred to a group of Black residents as “Alabama porch monkeys” – and the civil service commission overturned that decision.
The report focused extensively on the department’s treatment of ethnic minorities – particularly Blacks. It found that between 2015 and 2019, Blacks accounted for 16.5% of the city’s population but 40% of its arrests.