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Elijah McClain. (Via CBS4 Denver)

Aurora city leaders will create an independent police monitor in the wake of a scathing independent report released Monday on the Aurora Police Department’s actions before and after Elijah McClain’s death.

City Manager Jim Twombly announced the effort in a news conference Tuesday. He called the department’s handling of McClain’s death “the failure of a system of accountability,” and said an independent monitor is necessary “to help us enhance the accountability and transparency of the police department and gain the trust of the public.” 

Twombly will work with Mayor Mike Coffman and the Aurora City Council on the initiative.

The Aurora Police Department will also add a Force Investigation Unit, police Chief Vanessa Wilson said Tuesday. She said the current Force Review Board lacks the ability to effectively look into cases, so the new unit will take a deeper dive on situations, including by talking to witnesses.

“But I know that’s still not enough,” Wilson said. “And so I’m looking forward to the other investigations that are coming through, and I’m looking forward to being able to implement those changes as they’re brought forward.”

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McClain, 23, died a few days after he was stopped by Aurora police officers on Aug. 24, 2019. McClain had committed no crime, but a 17-year-old had called 911 to report a suspicious person. The encounter quickly became violent. 

Officers put McClain into a neck hold and then paramedics injected him with ketamine, a powerful sedative. He suffered cardiac arrest and died in the hospital a few days later.

The officers and paramedics involved in the encounter with McClain were not charged by local prosecutors, but the Colorado Attorney General’s Office is now conducting a criminal investigation into the case at the behest of Gov. Jared Polis. 

Wilson became police chief last summer after holding the interim chief position since January 2020. She has since helped lead reform at the department, including policies around use of force, choke and carotid holds, no-knock warrants, and the use of ketamine on members of the public. She says she is also working to implement recommendations from the independent investigation, including those around implicit bias.

“I believe that we all have it, and I want to ensure that if a community member is calling someone in as a suspicious person, that that is never due to the color of their skin or the clothing that they’re wearing,” Wilson said.

Twombly lauded Wilson for her efforts to change the department and said a monitor position will help ensure those reforms can continue.

“A system of accountability should not be dependent on who sits in the chief’s chair,” Twombly said. “It needs to be put into place so that it functions and represents the community’s desire for constitutional, unbiased and respectful policing that holds officers accountable.”

Aurora Fire Rescue is also making changes in its policies, according to Chief Fernando Gray, who spoke at Tuesday’s news conference. Department physicians are reviewing all situations where people were restrained or medications were administered, Gray said Tuesday. There is currently a moratorium in Aurora on the use of ketamine by first responders.

The announcement of an independent monitor position closely resembles the history of Denver’s monitor office. 

The year after a Denver Police officer killed Paul Childs, a developmentally disabled Black 15-year-old, on July 5, 2003, the City Council and mayor initiated an Office of the Independent Monitor to oversee the police and sheriff’s departments. The office began its work in 2005. 

It’s unclear what Aurora’s independent monitor will look like, whether it will be a single person or a fully staffed office. Wilson said she is open to establishing peer-review relationships with neighboring police departments and judicial districts should Aurora’s officers be involved in future civilian deaths.

“The bottom line is, Elijah McClain should still be here today,” Wilson said. “Nothing I can say here today or changes that I’ve made or changes that I will continue to make can bring him back, and for that I’m extremely sorry.”

Lucy Haggard was a TRENDS Reporting Fellow from August 2020 to May 2021 with The Colorado Sun. Email: Twitter: @lucy_haggard