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Aurora Police Department Chief Vanessa Wilson speaks to reporters near the scene of a drive-by shooting that left six teenagers injured, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, in Aurora, Colo. (Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado via AP)
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Aurora’s police and fire departments have agreed to improve their use-of-force policies and training, develop a new system to collect data about police interactions with members of the community, and work to hire officers and firefighters that better reflect the city’s diversity as part of a consent decree with state prosecutors unveiled Tuesday.

“The city shall change, in measurable ways, how Aurora police engages with all members of the community, including by reducing any racial disparities in how Aurora police engages, arrests and uses force in the community,” the decree says.

The public safety agencies also vowed to ensure chemical sedatives, like ketamine, are lawfully administered and that the city’s policies and procedures for administering ketamine are reviewed by a third party before lifting a temporary pause in the drug’s use by first responders. 

Finally, the Aurora Police Department will create specific guidance on how police officers’ use their discretion during interactions with community members in an effort to address perceived or actual bias in policing. 

“The ultimate goal of this consent decree is to elevate policing and to improve public safety here in Aurora,” said Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, speaking at a news conference at the Aurora Municipal Center. “The hard work ahead is aimed at building trust in law enforcement that operates with a spirit of improvement.”

MORE: Read the consent decree.

The consent decree, a legally binding document, comes after the Colorado Attorney General’s Office released a damning, 112-page report in September alleging that the Aurora Police Department consistently violates state and federal law in a pattern of racially biased policing and excessive use of force. The report came after a year-long patterns and practices investigation of the department, which has been mired in a string of headline-grabbing controversies in recent years.

“I want to underscore that we’re here because of a choice that Aurora made to collaborate with our department, the Department of Law, to elevate policing and improve public safety here in Aurora,” Weiser said. “This is an important path chosen by the city.”

Aurora and the attorney general are still searching for someone to serve as a consent-decree monitor who will ensure the agreement is being carried out. The decree, which still must be approved by the Aurora City Council, will be filed in Arapahoe County District Court. 

The agreement is expected to last about five years, though the exact timeline will depend on how long it takes Aurora to implement the changes in the decree and when the city reaches “substantial compliance” with the deal.

The decree requires Aurora and state prosecutors to “provide regular public updates” to the court.

“We’re not interested in looking for technical violations or unnecessarily prolonging the length of this decree,” Weiser said.

Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly said the police and fire departments have already taken steps to improve their policies and procedures. 

“We feel like we really have a head start on this consent decree,” he said.

Aurora police Chief Vanessa Wilson said her officers have nothing in the consent decree to be afraid of.

Aurora Police Department Chief Vanessa Wilson speaks to reporters near the scene of a drive-by shooting that left six teenagers injured, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, in Aurora, Colo. (Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado via AP)

She said her officers won’t shy away from reform, and they recognize they’ll be held accountable under the new consent decree.

“I know that this has been 23 months of pain, 23 months of difficult conversations, 23 months of change and reform,” she said at the news conference on Tuesday. “A lot of things have come to light, a lot of things that we’re not proud of, a lot of things that I had to deal with via terminations or even arresting some of our own.”

But, she said, “we miss the boat when we don’t focus on the good things that are happening in this city.”

She asked community members to trust her department and said her agency is committed and willing to change.

​​Aurora Fire Chief Fernando Gray said his agency plans to fully cooperate with the decree. Gray added that there are no plans to reintroduce ketamine into the Aurora Fire Rescue system, even though the consent decree provides a mechanism for bringing the powerful sedative blamed for the death of Elijah McClain back into use.

A damning report

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 by police officers in Minneapolis. It is the first patterns and practice investigation launched by Weiser’s office. 

The investigation also began after local, state, national and international outcry over the death of McClain, an unarmed, 23-year-old Black man who died after an encounter with Aurora police and paramedics in 2019. McClain was given a large dose of ketamine by paramedics during the encounter. 

Elijah McClain, in an undated photo posted by the family-affiliated Justice For Elijah McClain Instagram account. McClain died after a violent arrest by Aurora Police officers in 2019. (via @justiceforelijahmcclain on Instagram)

Three Aurora police officers and two paramedics involved in the encounter with McClain were charged earlier this year by Weiser’s office with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide following a grand jury investigation. The criminal cases are pending.

Qusair Mohamedbhai, an attorney for Elijah’s mother, Sheneen, said that the consent decree is “further proof that Elijah’s memory continues to inspire.”

“For too long the Aurora Police Department has been permitted to violate the rights of Aurora’s citizenry without accountability or consequence,” he said in a written statement. “The lawlessness that infected this police department murdered Elijah. Ms. Mclain 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.”

As part of the patterns and practices investigation, the attorney general’s office also found the Aurora Police Department failed to record legally required information when interacting with the community and that 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, Aurora paramedics administered ketamine for excited delirium — a difficult to diagnose condition — 22 times.

Additionally, the attorney general’s report found that: 

  • Aurora officers use force against people of color nearly 2.5 times more often than white people based on their relative percentage of the population
  • Nearly half of the people 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 white people based on population percentage alone. Black people were arrested twice as often compared to white people. “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 when he believed they were appropriate.
  • Aurora police interacted more often 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. 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 with 4.2% of white applicants.

Details of the agreement

In terms of new training and policies, Aurora police agreed as part of the decree to “develop and provide comprehensive academy and in-service training” on bias, avoiding unnecessary escalation, and generally teaching officers what they should do rather than what they can do.

Police will also be trained to articulate the basis for encounters with community members and create a policy that “provides specific guidance on legal requirements for the different types of stops that police officers make, including for ‘contacts,’ ‘encounters,’ ‘temporary detentions’ and ‘arrests.’”

An Aurora Police Department vehicle. (Eric Lumsden via Flickr)

“The city shall create a culture of enforcement that prioritizes de-escalation when possible in accordance with Colorado law, but does not compromise officer safety when force must be used,” the decree says.

When it comes to data collection, Aurora police will start to monitor misdemeanor arrest outcomes and track arrests and summons issued for failure to obey a lawful order, resisting arrest, criminal trespass and “related offenses.”

The city must also improve transparency and accountability around the work of the Aurora Civil Service Commission, a city council-appointed panel that oversees the hiring of police and firefighters, to help community members understand the role it plays in hiring, promotion and discipline, the decree says.

Th Civil Service Commission must update its rules and regulations to significantly reduce the amount of time it takes to file and resolve disciplinary cases against police officers and firefighters. The panel is also required to make its work easily accessible to the public online, including by posting information about disciplinary decisions.

To ensure accountability and effective policing, teams from the police and fire departments will work with the Civil Service Commission to review and revise recruitment practices and hiring programs.

City leaders previously sent out a request seeking proposals from qualified people and firms interested in serving as Consent Decree Monitor, who will be hired by Dec. 30.  The monitor will receive full access to city documents and personnel, though they will not be an employee of the city.

The city will spend up to two years changing its operations and training to meet the requirements of the consent decree and then three years confirming compliance through monitoring. If the city implements the requirements earlier, the decree may last less than five years.

“Its going to be expensive,” Twombly, the city manager, said of the cost of complying with the decree.

The consent decree monitor alone is expected to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Aurora City Council was briefed on the decree and is set to vote on whether to approve it on Nov. 22. If the council rejects the agreement, Weiser will ask a judge to order that it go into effect.

Tatiana Flowers is the equity and general assignment reporter for the Colorado Sun and her work is funded by a grant from the Colorado Trust. She has covered crime and courts plus education and health in Colorado, Connecticut, Israel and Morocco....

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....