Colorado police department has pattern of racial bias and excessive force: investigation

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: Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

Colorado MAGA clerk still on the lam: Elections official says he hasn't heard from Tina Peters

Wayne Williams, the former Colorado secretary of state who's newly in charge of Mesa County elections, said he hasn't heard from Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters since the news broke that her office was under investigation.

Williams said he hadn't tried to reach Peters.

This article was originally published at Colorado Newsline

“My focus is on trying to make the election work," he told Newsline on Tuesday. “I know the commissioners have made pleas to her to come in and start (running) the recording and motor vehicles side, but my focus is to run an election. That's what I'm charged to do, and that's what I'm going to do."

Williams, a Republican, is currently serving in a nonpartisan role on Colorado Springs City Council in addition to supervising Mesa County's November election.

Peters hasn't been seen in Mesa County since Secretary of State Jena Griswold — Williams' Democratic successor — announced Aug. 9 that she was investigating a “serious breach" of election security protocols at Peters' office. A few days later, Griswold accused Peters of allowing an unauthorized individual to attend a May software upgrade, known as a “trusted build," for Dominion Voting Systems machines.

Peters is also under investigation by the 21st Judicial District attorney's office and the FBI.

Meanwhile, Peters appeared Aug. 10 at a South Dakota “Cyber Symposium" hosted by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a fervent supporter of former President Donald Trump who has made false claims that widespread fraud cost Trump the 2020 presidential election. Election conspiracy theorists said they would use evidence from hard drive images of Mesa County's Dominion machines to validate their theories, but no such evidence has emerged.

Peters, a Republican, wrote in a Sept. 1 email to the Mesa County attorney's office that she had been working “remotely," according to the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. While Peters didn't specify what she was working on, the non-elections-related responsibilities of her office include overseeing vehicle registrations and marriage licenses, among other duties.

While Peters' exact location is unknown, Lindell has said he's hiding her in a safe location.

Peters has not returned multiple requests for comment from Colorado Newsline.

Williams on Reiner: No conflict

Griswold originally appointed Sheila Reiner, the Mesa County treasurer and former county clerk, to replace Peters as top elections official. Mesa County commissioners rejected the appointment and hired Williams instead. Later, Griswold filed a lawsuit to officially strip Peters of her elections authority and appoint Williams as the designated elections official. The county commissioners intervened, saying only they had the power to designate Williams the top elections official.

Williams said the question of who was in charge hadn't caused conflict between Reiner and himself.

He and Reiner worked together to get new elections equipment installed in Mesa County by an Aug. 31 deadline in time to mail ballots to military and overseas voters.

“She and I have been talking by either email, text or phone, multiple times on most days," he said.

Williams said he's able to do some of the Mesa County work remotely but plans to be in Grand Junction “fairly often" in October, when the election will be in full swing. Grand Junction lies nearly 300 miles west of Colorado Springs, where Williams is a city council member.

“I have continued to participate in City Council meetings and will continue to do that. … I have always worked more than 40 hours a week, and so that doesn't bother me," said Williams, who has a private legal practice.

“I'm not taking on any (legal) clients right now," he added, “because that would be more bandwidth than I have."

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: Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

Republican clerk in the hot seat after allegedly allowing unauthorized person to attend election software upgrade in Colorado

Days after her office began investigating an alleged breach of election security protocols, Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold said the Mesa County clerk appears to have allowed an unauthorized person to attend a software upgrade for the county's election system.

This article was originally published at Colorado Newsline

After that person allegedly leaked system passwords, Mesa County voting equipment is no longer considered secure, Griswold said.

The equipment must be replaced — or else the Mesa County clerk and recorder's office will have to conduct a hand count of ballots for the November election, Griswold, a Democrat, said at a news conference Thursday.

According to Griswold's office, which on Tuesday began inspecting voting equipment and other evidence from Mesa County, the alleged security breach occurred during a “trusted build" upgrade to Dominion Voting Systems software on May 25.

The secretary of state's office believes Tina Peters, Mesa County's Republican clerk and recorder, allowed an unauthorized person who was not an employee to attend the trusted build. The individual, identified as Gerald Wood, took photos of election system passwords, which were later posted on the website of a conspiracy theorist, Griswold said.

Griswold also said video surveillance cameras at the clerk's office appear to have been turned off before the build, and they were not turned back on until this month.

“The Colorado County Clerks Association supports the actions taken today by the secretary of state," Matt Crane, the association's executive director, said at Thursday's news conference.

Crane, a Republican who formerly served as Arapahoe County clerk, called the security breach a “selfish" act by Peters that violated the public trust.

As of Thursday afternoon, Peters had not returned requests from Newsline seeking comment.

“The county clerk has not communicated at all with us," despite an order to comply with inspection and requests for information, Griswold said Thursday. Instead, Peters appeared Tuesday at a “cyber symposium" hosted by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, where she accused the secretary of state of “raiding her office."

Griswold, meanwhile, accused Peters of “actively working to undermine confidence and spread disinformation."

Investigator obtained warrant to search clerk's office

An investigator with 21st Judicial District Attorney Dan Rubinstein's office is also looking into related potential criminal conduct, Rubinstein confirmed in an email to Newsline. That investigation is separate from the secretary of state's probe.

Deputy Secretary of State Chris Beall contacted the district attorney for the first time Monday to advise him that the secretary of state's office was conducting an investigation into a security breach, Rubinstein said.

“I was told that they believed that there were potential criminal matters which would be referred to my office for prosecution," Rubinstein said in the email. “Per state law, the District Attorney's Office is responsible for investigating and prosecuting election related criminal activity. … Prior to that, I had no knowledge of anything related to this issue."

The person Rubinstein assigned to the case “is the investigator that handles all of my election related investigations," Rubinstein wrote. “He obtained a search warrant for the Clerk and Recorder's Office, and was present to conduct our investigation into criminal matters at the time that the Secretary of State's team was looking into their security/policy/protocol matters."

Rubinstein said he could not comment further on the pending investigation.

“I can confirm that we have not entered into this investigation with any person or criminal act in mind and will reserve judgment on that until the investigation is complete," he wrote.

Peters has history of controversy as Mesa County clerk

Peters' appearance at Lindell's cyber symposium — where speakers suggested without evidence that the 2020 presidential election was rigged by China — was not the first time the Mesa County clerk acted unconventionally.

Earlier this year, Peters tweeted from her personal account about what she claimed were vulnerabilities with Dominion Voting Systems machines, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported. Those tweets appear to have since been deleted.

In February of 2020, election workers discovered 574 uncounted Mesa County ballots from the previous election. Peters reportedly attributed the issue to “human error" and called the discovery “disappointing" and “sad."

Peters later survived a recall attempt when a group seeking her ouster did not collect enough petition signatures by the deadline.

A person appointed by the Mesa County Board of Commissioners to oversee the recall, and make sure the county's June 2020 election did not experience problems, described Peters as “distrusting, frequently rude and antagonistic" in a 2020 report to the secretary of state. The commissioners' appointee, Eagle County Treasurer Teak Simonton, also praised Peters' staff as “organized, hard-working and committed to the integrity of their tasks."

A report in July from the Sentinel found that Peters had altered job titles to get more personnel in the positions she wanted — even though three Republican Mesa County commissioners had rejected her request for more elections staff.

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: Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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