How Aurora plans to address racist policing, negative public interactions in agreement with Colorado AG

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Nikki Aguda leads chants as Aurora Police officers stand by in riot gear during a series of rallies and protests in Aurora demanding justice for Elijah McClain. June 27, 2020.

Updated at 3:56 p.m. with reaction from local activists and more details about the agreement

Aurora and the state Attorney General have agreed on a framework for reforms of the city’s police and fire departments. 

Tuesday’s announcement comes ahead of a formal signing of a consent decree which will stay in place for “about the next five years,” according to the Attorney General’s office, and be overseen by an outside monitor.

“The hard work ahead is aimed at building trust in law enforcement,” said Attorney General Phil Weiser. “We're not interested in looking for technical violations or unnecessarily prolonging the length of his decree. Rather we're committed to getting the job done and ensuring that appropriate progress is made for those committed to ethical and effective policing.”

The decree requires the departments to: 

  • create new policies around how officers interact with the public to prevent “perceived or actual” bias;
  • improve use-of-force policies and training; 
  • change hiring practices so the police and fire departments better reflect the city’s racial makeup; 
  • follow state law around collecting data on police stops; 
  • and allow the consent decree monitor to review Aurora Fire’s practices and policies on ketamine before its employees can begin administering the sedative again.

Aurora police chief Vanessa Wilson acknowledged it was “hurtful” for officers when the state said it would seek a consent decree, but said the department is ready for change.

“We have said that we're looking for reform; we know the community is calling for reform,” Wilson said. “And I thank the officers that are out there right now, protecting and serving, and have chosen to stay with the city and to do what they do right, every day.”

She emphasized that reforms are already underway within the department, especially around training.

The consent decree now goes to Aurora City Council for approval on Monday, Nov. 22. Council members have been briefed as negotiations progressed between the state and the city. The city is currently looking to hire an independent monitor to keep track of progress on the agreement.

‘Badly needed reform’

News of the consent decree was welcomed by some of those who have long been fighting for police reforms in the city.

“The importance of today's announcement is the actual impact and the capacity for further oversight of Aurora police department’s tactics, their use of force, hiring, firing,” said Candice Bailey, an Aurora activist and recent city council candidate. “Everything inside of that department, including culture, will be under eyes that will help to oversee what is occurring in a more in-depth way than ever before.”

But Bailey reiterated that the consent decree alone does not amount to justice for those who have died at the hands of Aurora police officers.

The agreement comes after a 14-month investigation of the department by the Attorney General, released in September, that found a pattern of racist policing and excessive use-of-force. It was the first use in the state of new authority conferred on the Attorney General’s Office to examine police practices.

The investigation found that Black residents accounted for about 40 percent of Aurora Police Department arrests, despite only making up 17 percent of the population. The disparity was even greater in use-of-force incidents, according to the 118-page report.

The report’s authors participated in police ride-alongs and wrote that they personally witnessed use-of-force incidents escalated by officers without cause. They concluded officers are particularly ill equipped to handle people in mental health crises. 

The report recommended a broad array of changes, including limitations on use-of-force consistent with Colorado’s other large police departments, improved training and record keeping.

The Attorney General’s investigators also determined there was “a consistent pattern of illegal ketamine administration” by Aurora Fire and Rescue. Ketamine is a powerful sedative implicated in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain. Three Aurora officers and two paramedics were indicted in September for their roles in his arrest.

While Aurora Fire and Rescue is a party to the consent decree, Fire Chief Fernando Gray said that his department already suspended use of ketamine more than a year ago. They have other drugs that can be used to sedate, but are primarily used for patients with seizures.

Lawyers for McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, hailed the consent decree in a statement, writing it shows his memory continues to inspire action. 

“Ms. McClain is hopeful that the groundbreaking consent decree will bring badly needed reform to this troubled police department, and that other parents will not have to mourn the death of their sons and daughters caused by police violence,” the statement read.

New power to investigate, order changes

The consent decree agreement comes just more than one year after the state legislature granted the state Attorney General sweeping new powers to investigate police misconduct. Generally, the U.S. Department of Justice has taken the lead in investigating and entering into reform agreements with cities like Los Angeles over corruption and Seattle over excessive force.

State level agreements are rare, but are becoming a more popular way to hold police departments accountable, said Danny Murphy, who was the deputy commissioner on consent decrees in Baltimore and New Orleans. 

Murphy said communities get tired of talk of police reform through training and hiring, they want results, and that’s what consent decrees are designed to give.

“Consent decrees are all about improved performance at the end of the day,” said Murphy. “The police department has to prove it is performing in line with reform practices, in line with community expectations to deliver the kind of policing the communities looking for.”

But he added that more research is needed to evaluate the overall effectiveness of consent decrees, since they happen across the country in quite different communities. 

Some of those agreements have been questioned even by the advocates who negotiated them. Federal monitoring is limited and, experts argue, no agreement can prevent all police misconduct. Still, Colorado’s police reformers are hailing the agreement as an important step.

“I’m proud of the work we’ve done to get to this point, and there is still a long way to go to rebuild trust,” state Rep. Leslie Herod said in a text message. The Denver Democrat’s police reform bill gave Weiser’s office the power to negotiate consent agreements. “For too long, Black and Brown residents of Aurora have faced racist brutality at the hands of law enforcement. I am hopeful that we are turning the corner and finally bringing about the justice and changes to policing that so many Coloradans raised their voices to demand.”

It’s a pivotal moment for the Aurora Police Department — a string of high-profile excessive force incidents in the two years since McClain’s death have kept the city in the national spotlight. 

Weiser said he launched his investigation into the department following concerns from members of the community.

Morale within APD is low, according to interviews conducted by state investigators. More than 150 officers left the department or were fired between January 2020 and July 2021.

Chief Wilson acknowledged that the department had undergone “months of pain,” but nevertheless worked closely with the Attorney General on these changes.

“Because we're not going to shy away from reform. And I can tell you that the officers out on the street are doing it with duty, honor, integrity and realizing there will be accountability,” said Wilson.