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Colorado AG finds Aurora Police use racially biased practices and excessive force

Death of Elijah McClain prompted investigation
aurora police officers swat gear elijah mcclain
Posted at 11:17 AM, Sep 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-15 14:17:57-04

DENVER — The Aurora Police Department uses excessive force and racially biased police practices in violation of state and federal laws as part of its patterns and practices, according to a 14-month investigation by the Colorado Department of Law.

The results of that investigation were released Wednesday by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser.

The Department of Law recommends the city of Aurora enter into a consent decree to change its policies, training, record-keeping and hiring practices. The consent decree will also require the city to pay an independent monitor to update its progress to courts and the public on how it is implementing changes.

Weiser said Wednesday that if the city does not cooperate, his office will seek a court order to implement the consent decree.

The Department of Law and the city of Aurora will have 60 days to come to an agreement on the consent decree.

Weiser said Aurora police showed a "consistent pattern of illegal behavior" at "many levels of the department."

According to his office, the department "does not create and oversee appropriate expectations for responsible behavior, which leads to the use of excessive force and the violation of the civil rights of its residents."

"We want Aurora to succeed in these improvements and strongly believe that an agreement provides the best way to do so," Weiser said in a statement. "Over the coming weeks, we look forward to working with Aurora and other stakeholders to create a consent decree that ensures these requirements are implemented promptly."

Michael Brannen, a spokesperson for the city of Aurora, said the city would provide more thoughts after Weiser's news conference ended.

"The city of Aurora has made progress over the past year and stands ready to cooperate with the Colorado Attorney General's Office as we move forward with future reforms," Brannen said in a statement.

Department of Law's report found police officers used force against people of color 2.5 times more often than white people based on population. The report also said that almost half of the people whom officers used force against were Black, even though only 15% of Aurora residents are Black.

It also found people of color were arrested 1.3 times more often than white people based on population, and Black people were more than twice as likely to be arrested as white people.

Weiser announced in August 2020 that his office had been conducting the patterns and practices investigation into Aurora's police and fire departments and instances in which officers might have deprived people of their constitutional rights.

The investigation was made possible after lawmakers passed, and Gov. Jared Polis signed SB20-217, a sweeping police reform bill that was authored in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Elijah McClain.

The investigation into Aurora was the first state patterns and practices probe, Weiser said.

The report released Monday said Aurora has also not updated practices it is required to update under that law, including documenting police interactions with members of the public.

It also found that the Aurora Civil Service Commission "overturns disciplinary actions in high-profile cases in a way that undermines the chief's authority." Recent reporting by Scripps station KMGH in Denver showed that the commission hires officers without input from the police department itself.

The report found just 1.1% of Black applicants to the APD were offered a job compared to 4.2% of white applicants — which the attorney general's office called "racial winnowing" that "can be observed at every step of the process, suggesting bias in Aurora's recruitment and hiring process."

Elijah McClain died after he was detained by Aurora police on Aug. 24, 2019. The 23-year-old unarmed Black man was put in a carotid hold, and paramedics injected him with ketamine after incorrectly estimating his weight.

He went into cardiac arrest and died a few days later.

The results of the investigation released Wednesday found Aurora Fire paramedics administered ketamine 22 times for so-called "excited delirium" between January 2019 and June 2020, but that paramedics failed to follow proper monitoring protocols and administered it at levels above the maximum dose in more than half those incidents.

Aurora has suspended the use of ketamine and does not plan on reinstating its use, officials have said.

The attorney general's office had said little about the patterns and practices investigation since it was announced on the same day that McClain's family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Aurora and the officers and paramedics involved in the 23-year-old's death in August 2019. That lawsuit is still pending, according to court records.

The attorney general's office said investigators with the Department of Law talked with current and former officers and AFD members and went on more than 200 hours of ridealongs. Investigators also attended meetings and reviewed use-of-force reports, according to Weiser's office.

On Sept. 1, Weiser announced a grand jury had returned a 32-count indictment against the three officers and two paramedics involved in McClain's death, which included charges of manslaughter and criminal negligent homicide.

McClain's mother, Sheneen McClain, said she was overwhelmed and cried when she learned about the indictment and thanked Weiser and his team.

The patterns and practices investigation is one of at least five at the local, state and federal levels conducted in the wake of McClain's death either into that incident or into Aurora public service departments.

A team of independent investigators in February released the results of their review of the investigation following McClain's death, which they found was "flawed" and "failed to meaningfully develop a fulsome record."

The investigators were tasked not with assessing misconduct during the investigation but rather to report back on recommendations that could be learned from it.

Earlier this month, another independent investigation that analyzed the policies and practices within the police department found a small share of officers were responsible for 40% of officer misconduct cases and that there was too much red tape for the discipline of officers to be effective. That study was conducted by 21CP Solutions, which was hired by the city of Aurora.

In June 2020, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Colorado, the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil rights Division, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Denver Division confirmed they were looking at the McClain case for possible civil rights violations that may have occurred.

No results of that investigation have been announced thus far.

This story was originally published by Blair Miller on Scripps station KMGH in Denver.