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Investigation Finds Aurora Police And Paramedics Consistently Violate People's Rights. Here's What Happens Next

Aurora Police Department

An Indian-American doctor was sitting in his car outside the building he owned in Aurora. He honked at a police cruiser blocking his way. An Aurora police officer responded by drawing a gun on the doctor, questioning him as if he was a criminal suspect.

An Aurora officer investigating a trespassing call used his gun to repeatedly strike a man in the head, choked him for nearly a minute, and threatened to shoot him. Another officer who witnessed the incident did not intervene.

Aurora police officers made a Black family lie down on hot pavement in the summer, handcuffing them, after misidentifying their car as stolen.

These are a few of the incidents documented in the 112-page “Investigation of the Aurora Police Department and Aurora Fire Rescue” released Wednesday by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser. Investigators directly observed police and firefighters at work, used computers to analyze more than 3 million records, read nearly 3,000 reports spanning five years and scrutinized policies. The conclusion: Aurora police and fire paramedics engaged in a pattern of violating people’s rights, using excessive force that has disproportionately affected people of color.

“Together with the other information we reviewed, we concluded that Aurora police engaged in racially biased policing, treating people of color, and Black individuals in particular, differently from their white counterparts,” Weiser said in a press conference Wednesday.

The report identified a consistent pattern of illegal behavior by police, and a bias in their actions. Aurora police used force against people of color almost 2.5 times more often than white people. Nearly half the use of force incidents involved Black people, even though Black residents make up 15% of the city’s population.

“We found that Aurora police have repeatedly engaged in unlawful and unconstitutional uses of force, regularly applying greater force than reasonably warranted by the situation,” Weiser said. “We observed officers using force to take people to the ground without first giving them adequate time to respond to officer commands.”

People of color were also more likely to be stopped by police in the first place and more likely to be arrested. And people in need of help — such as those with mental issues — couldn’t rely on officers, Weiser said.

“We observed officers immediately escalating situations and circumstances in which the subject was in obvious mental health distress but did not present an imminent risk of harm to themselves or others,” he said.

The investigation called for “real, meaningful improvements.” To ensure that, Weiser said the state will intervene with what’s called a consent decree — a legal agreement in which prescribed solutions are enacted. Weiser hasn’t yet provided the details of the decree but has already indicated support for an independent monitor, correcting a lack of documentation, other tracking, and rigorous accountability.

In response, Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson issued a statement: “We acknowledge there are changes to be made.”

Wilson added: “I am proud to say the Aurora Police Department began the implementation of many changes over the last 21 months, while this and other investigations were ongoing. Those changes have improved overall policing, de-escalation training, community outreach and engagement.”

Her statement did not outline any of the changes made. The investigation highlighted some of the department’s internal reactions. For instance, the officer who pointed a gun at the Indian-American doctor was suspended for 40 hours without pay and ordered to attend de-escalation training. The doctor said the discipline was inadequate and has filed a lawsuit alleging excessive force. The officer who beat a man with his gun and then choked him resigned after the incident. The officer who failed to intervene was fired, but is appealing that decision.

State Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat, said the investigation and its call for change shows the sweeping power of bipartisan legislation she helped make law last year amid Black Lives Matter protests: Senate Bill 217. She said the law has cast a spotlight on long-simmering community issues that occasionally boil over into complaints and lawsuits, but haven’t led to change.

“What it means is that there has been harm that has been done to real people in our communities, some that will never be able to speak up about what happened to them,” she said. “But hopefully this will prove to some people and vindicate to others that what they believe happened to them was real, that what they believe that they are facing when it comes to racial discrimination in their community is real and that the state of Colorado will support them and will protect them against abusive practices moving forward.”

Herod plans to work with Weiser’s office in the consent decree process.

At the heart of the investigation is a name that massive Black Lives Matter demonstrations amplified last year — Elijah McClain, who died in 2019 after Aurora police stopped him. The Black massage therapist was walking home when police pulled up and got out of their cruisers in response to a 911 call that said he looked “sketchy.” When McClain, who was suspected of no crime, insisted on going home, police grabbed him, wrestled him to the ground, placed him in a carotid hold and handcuffed him.

His mom, Sheneen McClain, met with KUNC at her attorney’s office in Denver. Asked what she thought of Weiser’s report, she sighed deeply before answering.

“You know, the fact that it's been going on for so long in Aurora, Colorado, and it would take my son's murder to highlight it all is terrible,” she said. “There's a lot of people that are working in Colorado above the police officers that are allowing those police officers to be killer cops with their accomplices — the firefighters and paramedics — and it's just an uncomfortable feeling knowing that they've been in practice for so long with other people's lives in their hands.”

A coroner’s report was inconclusive about Elijah McClain’s cause of death. But other reports found that after police handcuffed him, Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics gave him an excessively high dose of ketamine, meant to sedate him for a condition called “excited delirium.” The condition is highly controversial among doctors, and attorneys say he did not have the condition and should not have been given the drug.

The investigation found a pattern of misuse of the drug by Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics. In 40% of cases, paramedics gave doses that exceeded the protocol, and in 60% of cases, paramedics failed to follow any protocols.

Fire Chief Fernando Gray noted in a statement in response to the investigation that ketamine is no longer available to his paramedics.

“Although this medication was removed from our system more than a year ago and we have no plans to reintroduce this medication into our system, we find value in the report,” Gray stated.

Like Aurora’s police chief, Gray noted improvements meant to protect patients, but did not specify exactly what steps have been taken.

In a series of investigative stories last year, KUNC found that paramedics around the state, including those in Aurora -- used ketamine 902 times in a 2.5-year span to sedate people for excited delirium or extreme agitation. KUNC also found cases similar to McClain’s, where paramedics sedated people who were already handcuffed, including a man who specifically asked not to be drugged. The state has suspended waivers for ketamine’s use by paramedics in situations involving police pending a review triggered by a new state law meant to protect people from abuses.

Two weeks ago, Weiser announced indictments against three of the police officers and two of the paramedics involved in Elijah McClain’s case. They are charged with manslaughter and negligent homicide.

Sheneen McClain said a radical shift in police and paramedic culture is needed in Aurora. She said she is very skeptical that real change will come, but she hopes in the name of her son it does.

“Justice is far away because there's nobody that can bring back my son,” she said. “I don't think I'll ever have justice for what happened, but moving forward, I know that there will be a part of my life where I can see that this isn't happening to other people.”

As investigative reporter for KUNC, I take tips from our audience and, well, investigate them. I strive to go beyond the obvious, to reveal new facts, to go in-depth and to bring new perspectives and personalities to light.
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