The Aurora Police Department consistently violates state and federal law in a pattern of racially biased policing and excessive use of force, the Colorado Attorney General’s Office concluded after a year-long investigation into the agency.
The department, which has been mired in a string of headline-grabbing controversies in recent years, also fails to record legally required information when interacting with the community, a 112-page report issued by the attorney general outlining the findings of the investigation says.
“Most failures with Aurora police relate to systematic and severe culture problems, created by several factors,” the report said. “Aurora police (have) failed to create and oversee appropriate expectations for responsible behavior.”
Attorney General Phil Weiser, a Democrat, launched the patterns and practices investigation into Aurora police under authority granted to him by Senate Bill 217, the Colorado legislature’s 2020 sweeping police accountability law drafted in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. It’s the first patterns and practice investigation launched by Weiser’s office.
Weiser, speaking to reporters at a news conference on Wednesday, called the Aurora Police Department’s actions “unacceptable.”
Aurora police Chief Vanessa Wilson said in a written statement that her agency is committed to change.
“Today is incredibly difficult for not only the Aurora community but this agency,” the statement said. “We acknowledge there are changes to be made. We will not broad brush this agency or discount the professionalism and integrity that individual officers bring to our community every day.”
Senate Bill 217 allows the attorney general’s office to open patterns and practices investigations when it believes a police department or sheriff’s office has engaged in a pattern of inappropriate behavior. State prosecutors may sue the agency if after 60 days any violation that is found is not remedied.
The investigation began after local, state, national and international outcry over the death of Elijah McClain, an unarmed, 23-year-old Black man who died after an encounter with Aurora police and paramedics.
Three Aurora police officers and two paramedics involved in the encounter with McClain were recently charged by Weiser’s office with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide following a grand jury investigation.
The attorney general’s report is the latest damning review of the embattled Aurora Police Department in the wake of McClain’s death. An independent investigation sought by the Aurora City Council found officers mishandled the McClain encounter, recommending a host of new training procedures and revised policies.
Weiser’s office is seeking to reach an agreement with the Aurora Police Department, which has about 750 sworn officers, on ways it can change its officers’ behavior. Aurora is Colorado’s third largest city.
“We strongly encourage Aurora to enter a consent decree that will require specific changes and ongoing independent oversight,” the attorney general’s report said. “Aurora has committed to continue to cooperate with our office to try and develop a consent decree. If this effort is unsuccessful, we will seek a court-imposed order correcting these problems.”
Weiser said in a written statement that he wants Aurora police to succeed through their improvements.
“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,” Weiser’s statement said. “We are encouraged by the city of Aurora’s interest in working with us to do so.”
Weiser warned, however, that change “is going to take time — years.” He vowed to seek court intervention if Aurora police fails to comply with the changes he’d like to see.
Weiser’s office said its 14-month investigation “included extensive data analysis and direct observation of Aurora police during over 220 hours of in-person ride-alongs with officers on patrol and firefighters on duty.” Current and former members of the department were also interviewed.
Over three million internal records were analyzed and investigators attended nine months of weekly force review board meetings, where body-camera footage was reviewed.
The investigation team also reviewed 2,800 reports and associated documents from the last five years about use of force by Aurora police officers.
Here are some of the highlights of what investigators found:
- Aurora officers use force against people of color nearly 2.5 times more than whites based on their relative percentage of the population
- Nearly half of the people whom Aurora police used force against were Black, even though Black residents make up about 15% of the population in Aurora
- Aurora police disproportionately interacted with and arrested people of color. For instance, Aurora officers arrested people of color 1.3 times more often than whites based on population percentage alone. Black people were arrested twice as often compared to whites. “These disparities cannot be explained by random chance,” the report says.
- Aurora police officers often view de-escalation “as requiring officers to calm down after using force rather than avoiding unnecessary escalation in the first place”
- During ride alongs, investigators repeatedly observed differences in policing and outcomes that were dependent on the individual officer’s approach, rather than objective circumstances. One officer told an investigator that one of the things he liked most about his job was the discretion he had in the field, allowing him to be lenient or develop creative solutions short of an arrest where he believed appropriate.
- Aurora police interacted more with lower-income Black people
- Aurora police failed to track and report demographic information for every contact with the public, even though Senate Bill 217 required law enforcement agencies to begin doing so starting in June 2020. Without this information, the department is unable to know who its officers contacted and why.
- The Aurora Civil Service Commission overturns disciplinary actions in high-profile cases in a way that undermines the chief’s authority
- Under the recruitment process, the officers hired fail to reflect the diversity of Aurora. For example, only 1.1% of Black applicants who met minimum qualifications, were offered a job, compared to 4.2% of white applicants
Weiser said his office’s investigators saw some of the Aurora Police Department’s problems up close.
“We observed officers using force to take people to the ground without first giving them adequate time to respond to officer commands, or generically reciting ‘stop resisting’ when trying to control subjects even though it appears from other available evidence that the subject was not resisting,” Weiser said.”We observed officers immediately escalating situations in circumstances in which the subject was in obvious mental health distress but did present an imminent risk of harm to themselves or others.”
The Aurora Police Department’s morale is also suffering, with nearly 150 officers leaving or being fired from the agency between January 2020 and July.
“In interviews and ride-alongs, some officers shared that they felt unsupported by the community, Aurora police leadership, and local elected officials and leaders, particularly after Mr. McClain’s death,” the report said. “Some expressed frustration at what they perceived to be a lack of accountability, believing that, for example, Aurora police handled the incident involving the on-duty officer found drunk in his running vehicle poorly.”
The investigation team also found Aurora Fire Rescue had a pattern and practice of administering ketamine, a powerful sedative, in violation of the law. Between January 2019 and June 2020, paramedics administered ketamine for excited delirium — a difficult to diagnose condition — 22 times.
In more than half of the incidents, paramedics “failed to follow ketamine monitoring protocols and administered ketamine at doses above the maximum allowable dose for the reported weight of the subject.”
Aurora Fire suspended its use of ketamine on Sept. 14. The powerful sedative was given to McClain during his encounter with first responders. The statewide grand jury found that the dose McClain was given was far too large for his size.
The report offered suggestions to the Aurora Police Department on how it can change its behavior, saying that the agency “must make major changes across the organization to improve its culture, including improving its policies, training, record keeping and hiring.
“These required changes all relate to contributing factors that cause Aurora police to violate the law,” the report said.
Some of the changes the report says are needed include:
- Improved and more detailed policies and guidance to prevent racially biased policing. The existing policies, according to the report, “are too often cold recitations of statutes or legal standards pulled from court opinions with no practical examples of what is and is not permissible or any explanation of how to identify and avoid engaging in discriminatory behavior.”
- More specific standards and expectations on when officers should stop people, make an arrest or use force. “Aurora police does not have a written policy dedicated to when officers may stop an individual,” the report says. “… Because Colorado law prohibits using any force if it can reasonably be avoided, use-of-force policies similarly should provide more structure to support officer decision making. Aurora police should give its officers more guidance in how to avoid force and, as importantly, when force is an appropriate next step in an interaction with a resident.”
- Tracking outcomes for people arrested for misdemeanors. “We found that charges are often dismissed for those arrested for failure to obey a lawful order in Aurora,” the report says. “Developing a process to track the disposition of misdemeanor arrests will reduce the ability of these charges to be used in a race-based manner.” The report also suggests that tracking misdemeanor arrest outcomes could help determine whether arrests are unconstitutional or discriminatory.
- Improved police academy and in-service training, specifically in the areas of bias, deliberate decision-making, recordkeeping requirements and specific articulation of the basis for an encounter.
- Improved hiring and recruiting procedures, including major changes to the Civil Service Commission standards.
- Developing measurable goals to improve how officers engage with people experiencing mental health crises.
- Developing a joint policy for Aurora police and fire to coordinate on scenes and conduct joint trainings
- Developing policies and systems to comply with Colorado law on documenting stops
Weiser said he was grateful for the cooperation of Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly, Aurora police Chief Vanessa Wilson, and Aurora Fire Rescue Chief Fernando Gray in the investigation.
“They gave us complete access,” Weiser said.
The attorney general added that he’s encouraged by the willingness of city leaders in Aurora to make changes. He said “the stars are aligned” for a major shift at the police department.
Gray and Wilson said their agencies have already taken steps aimed at improving their relationship with the community.
“The report acknowledges the dedicated work we have already achieved and are committed to seeing through. I consider this report as one facet of a comprehensive effort to provide the highest quality police officers and level of service to our community in Aurora,” Wilson said in a statement.
Federal prosecutors and the FBI are also investigating McClain’s death. They have not said when that review will be complete.
Colorado Sun staff writer Olivia Prentzel contributed to this report.