Colorado police department has pattern of racial bias and excessive force: investigation
Protestors participate in the March Against Racism & Police Violence from Aurora to Denver on Aug. 30, 2020. Several hundred protesters marched five miles from Aurora to Denver on East Colfax Avenue in a demonstration against police brutality and in support of Black lives. (Carl Payne for Colorado Newsline)
The Aurora Police Department has a pattern and practice of violating residents' legal rights, state-appointed investigators declared in a 112-page report published Wednesday.

Aurora police showed a pattern and practice of racially biased policing, excessive use of force and “failing to record required information when it interacts with the community," according to the investigators, who were appointed by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser.

Officers used force against non-white racial and ethnic groups 2.5 times more often than they used force against white people, according to the report.

The investigators also found that Aurora Fire Rescue had a pattern and practice of illegally administering ketamine. The powerful sedative, which can cause dissociative effects, is sometimes used by first responders to calm or subdue people having a mental health emergency.

Weiser said his team read almost 3,000 reports regarding the use of physical force by Aurora police officers and conducted dozens of interviews. The 14-month investigation also encompassed more than 220 hours of in-person ride-alongs with officers and firefighters, nine months of observing weekly Force Review Board meetings, and feedback from “scores" of Aurora community members, according to the report.

Aurora police failed to abide by the requirements of Colorado's Senate Bill 20-217, which requires officers to have a legal and public safety basis for making a stop, Weiser said during a news conference Wednesday.

SB-217 allowed Weiser's office to conduct a “pattern or practice" investigation into Aurora police and fire departments.

“This pattern or practice authority, as it's known, is a tool the federal government has had for some time," Weiser explained, “but Colorado became a national leader by providing our department with the ability to engage in such investigations."

Weiser said he recommends and urges the city of Aurora to enter into an agreement with his office to ensure it comes into compliance with the state and federal law. People whose rights were violated by Aurora police or paramedics should reach out to Weiser's office to provide their input in crafting the agreement, called a consent decree, Weiser said.

The city will be required to hire an independent monitor to oversee changes at the police and fire departments, Weiser said. This will include “elevating" standards and training of officers and paramedics to meet the legal requirements, and adding more accountability for misconduct.

Renewed attention on Elijah McClain

The Aurora Police Department vaulted into the national spotlight in June 2020, after videos went viral showing the violent arrest of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man who died at the hands of a white police officer — sparking protests against police brutality and racial injustice nationwide.

Protesters in Denver and Aurora brought new attention to the local case of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old who died after his violent arrest in August 2019 by Aurora officers. McClain was contacted by officers while walking home from a convenience store and was injected by Aurora Fire paramedics with a dose of ketamine that was far too high for someone his size. He was hospitalized after the incident and taken off of life support several days later.

Following an outcry over the deaths of McClain and other Black people detained by police, state lawmakers passed a sweeping police accountability measure and Gov. Jared Polis signed it into law. Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat, and Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, along with Reps. Leslie Herod and Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, both Democrats from Denver, led SB-217.

Lawmakers must ensure the Colorado attorney general's office gets the financial resources it needs — whether from the state budget or perhaps through federal help — to investigate other local police departments as needed under SB-217, Herod told reporters Wednesday. She encouraged Colorado residents to report police misconduct to Weiser's office.

“It's definitely happening in Aurora," Herod said during a virtual news conference. “It's likely happening in other places as well."

Weiser's team analyzed internal Aurora police data, dating back to 2018, to uncover the department's pattern of racially biased policing, according to the report. The investigators found statistically significant disparities in the way police interacted with, arrested and used force against Black people and other people of color as compared with white people.

“These disparities persisted across income, gender, and geographic boundaries," the report said.

On their ride-alongs with Aurora police officers as they responded to calls and interacted with community members, investigators saw officers “using force to take people to the ground without first giving them adequate time to respond to officer commands," the report said. Officers also would frequently tell people “stop resisting," even when they did not appear to be resisting the officers' control.

Aurora police officers failed to document police stops as required by SB-217, the investigators found. The state law requires agencies to record, and ensure there is a legal basis for, all police stops, even investigative stops — a category for which Aurora has “little to no" documentation, according to the report.

The investigators found statistically significant disparities in the way police interacted with, arrested and used force against Black people and other people of color as compared with white people.

The report also noted that current Aurora police policies don't adequately describe when it's appropriate to conduct an investigative stop, also known as a “Terry stop" or a “stop and frisk." When agencies don't meet certain legal standards for conducting investigative stops, the practice has been tied to racial bias.

Meanwhile, the investigators found Aurora Fire's ketamine review process was inadequate to ensure paramedics followed the law on when and how to inject people with the powerful sedative. The review process “failed to identify problems when ketamine was inappropriately administered or was administered at the request of police, and therefore did not improve its processes and training to prevent future violations."

A new Colorado law, which Polis signed July 6, prohibits officers from “using, directing, or unduly influencing" the use of ketamine upon another person and from “compelling, directing, or unduly influencing" a paramedic to administer ketamine. The law, House Bill 21-1251, was in part a response to McClain's death.

“We hope that this is just the beginning of what this law can do to protect Coloradans," said Mari Newman, a civil rights lawyer who is representing the estate of Elijah McClain in a federal lawsuit. Newman added that she hoped other Colorado police departments wouldn't “wait for the attorney general to conduct a similar investigation" before changing racist practices.

Grand jury indictment

The city of Aurora, its police and fire departments, and the people implicated in McClain's death could face further consequences beyond the attorney general's oversight.

A grand jury, convened by Weiser to investigate the death of McClain and file charges if necessary, indicted three officers and two paramedics on 32 total counts, including reckless manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. The five men — Officers Nathan Woodyard, Randy Roedema and Jason Rosenblatt, and paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec — were formally charged Sept. 1 and turned themselves in to Glendale Police Service. They each posted a bond of $10,000, according to a Glendale Police spokesperson.

Initially following McClain's death, former 17th Judicial District Attorney Dave Young had cleared Woodyard, Rosenblatt and Roedema of all criminal wrongdoing.

But an independent review commissioned by the city of Aurora found that Aurora police officers and paramedics mishandled the encounter that led to McClain's death, according to a February report.

The Aurora City Council commissioned the firm 21CP Solutions to make broader recommendations about police department policy, and those recommendations were released in August. In recent months, Aurora police have begun implementing changes aimed at restoring trust with the community — such as acquiring an updated body-worn camera system in July and commissioning an outside organization to draft new use-of-force policies.

Aurora police did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday. Aurora Mike Coffman tweeted a statement: “Most of the findings are not new and our Chiefs of Police and Fire Rescue have been working hard for over a year to address many of them," Coffman said. “I'm confident that the issues raised in the Attorney General's report, along with the other outside investigations commissioned by our city, will be corrected and that we will achieve an outcome that respects the rights of everyone who lives and works in our diverse community."

Weiser's investigation team found that the culture of the Aurora police contributed to the frequent use of force by officers. Officer training doesn't address the department's specific needs, and current policies are “are short on detail or practical guidance, often doing little more than reciting the legal requirements set forth in court cases and applicable statutes or regulations," the report said.

The department also fails to hold officers accountable for improper use of force, according to the report. Instead, it relies on “formal and informal systems that favor findings that officers followed policy and that hamper candid feedback on how to improve."

Another cause of the patterns and practices of civil rights violations, according to the report: Aurora City Charter gives an entity called the Civil Service Commission, which oversees the hiring of police officers and firefighters, the ability to overturn disciplinary actions against officers.

The city of Aurora cooperated with Weiser's investigation team throughout the investigation, the report said. But if the effort to come together with the city on a consent decree proves unsuccessful, the attorney general's office plans to seek a court order forcing the police and fire departments to make changes.

The investigation team appointed by Weiser included several people who worked as law enforcement officers, including a former chief of police in Arlington, Texas, according to the report. Other team members were said to have had extensive experience as prosecutors or public defenders.

“We appreciate that the risks that first responders take must stand equally alongside a deep commitment to the rule of law," the report said. “By working to elevate law enforcement, our community can both be safe from danger and free from racial discrimination. Indeed, it is critical that community members can trust that law enforcement operates fairly and is worthy of their trust."

Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.