Aurora Police Must Reform Use of Force, Training Policies or Face Court Order, AG Says

The Aurora Police Department in Colorado must reform officer training, policies on use of force and standards for stops and arrests made by law enforcement or face a court order, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced Wednesday. The action comes as a result of a civil rights investigation into the police department launched amid public outrage over the death of Elijah McClain, a Black man who died following an encounter with local officers, the Associated Press reported.

The investigation determined the department has a pattern of treating people of color, especially Black people, differently than their white counterparts, Weiser announced. The probe also determined the department exhibited a pattern of using unlawful and excessive force during civilian encounters, which can cause escalation, and it does not properly document interactions between police and civilians.

"These actions are unacceptable. They hurt the people that law enforcement is entrusted" to serve, Weiser said.

The attorney general called for the police department to enact those reform recommendations, warning that his office would seek a court order if they failed to comply. Though Weiser acknowledged the agency cooperated fully throughout the investigation process, the AP reported.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Attorney General Announces Police Reforms
Colorado's attorney general said September 15 that a civil rights investigation begun amid outrage over the death of Elijah McClain has found that the Aurora Police Department has a pattern of racially biased policing. Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser talks about a grand jury investigation into the death of Elijah McClain, a Black man who was put in a chokehold by police and injected with a powerful sedative two years ago, during a news conference in Denver on September 1. David Zalubowski/AP Photo

Police stopped McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist, as he walked home from a store on August 24, 2019, after a 911 caller reported a man wearing a ski mask and waving his hands who seemed "sketchy."

Officers put McClain in a chokehold and pinned him down. Paramedics injected him with 500 milligrams of ketamine, an amount appropriate for someone 77 pounds (35 kilograms) heavier than McClain's 143-pound (64-kilogram) frame, according to an indictment. He fell unconscious, was pronounced brain-dead at a hospital, and was taken off life support.

The state civil rights probe, announced in August 2020, was the first of its kind under a sweeping police accountability law passed in Colorado the month before amid protests over the killings of McClain and George Floyd.

Weiser said his office wants a state agreement with Aurora, called a consent decree, to be submitted to a court. The decree would specify what the city and department must do to fulfill his investigation's recommendations.

Sheneen McClain, the single mother who raised Elijah, said she participated in the state investigation, welcomed its findings and urged the police department to work with Weiser's office.

"It's just terrible that it takes my son's death for Aurora police to change what they've been doing for a long time in this community," she said. "Front and center: Elijah would still be here if the system was operating like it should. My son's death was preventable and it's really sad that it took all this to get justice done and make sure it won't happen to someone else."

"The report confirms what many Aurora residents already know: Aurora's police department has a longstanding culture of violence and bias," said Sheneen McClain's attorney, Qusair Mohamedbhai.

The Colorado police accountability law made it unlawful for police officers or other employees of government agencies to deprive people of their constitutional rights and gave the attorney general the power to enforce it.

Under the law, if the attorney general finds an agency has "a pattern or practice" of violating people's rights, the attorney general must notify the agency of the reasons for that belief and give it 60 days to make changes. If the agency does not make changes, the attorney general can file a lawsuit to force them.

Weiser's office is also prosecuting three police officers and two paramedics on manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and assault charges in McClain's death. He convened a grand jury to decide whether to file criminal charges after being ordered to take another look at the case by Democratic Governor Jared Polis amid last year's protests.

The grand jury indicted all five.

The Aurora Police Department also faced criticism when officers put four Black girls on the ground last year and handcuffed two of them next to a car that police suspected was stolen but turned out not to be.

And an officer was charged with assault in July after being captured on body camera video pistol-whipping and choking a Black man during an arrest. Another officer was charged with not intervening as required under the new police accountability law.

McClain's parents have filed a lawsuit alleging that police treatment of McClain was part of a pattern of racially biased policing that has involved aggression and violence against Black people.

Elijah McClain Vigil
Colorado police reform advocates said the recent indictments of three suburban Denver police officers and two paramedics on manslaughter and other charges in the death of Elijah McClain could be a pivotal step toward meaningful accountability. Two people hold posters showing images depicting Elijah McClain during a candlelight vigil for McClain outside the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles on August 24, 2020. Jae C. Hong/AP Photo