Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser says his office wants Aurora police to submit to state oversight after an investigation found a pattern of racial bias and misconduct in the ranks.
In the department that caused outcry with the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, a Black man who died in police custody amid an interaction that has since led to manslaughter charges against police, officers have a history of using excessive force and failing to document stops as required by law, the investigation found.
The monthslong probe has also determined the city’s fire department has a pattern of using ketamine in violation of the law.
The report released Wednesday recommends the city sign a consent decree mandating specific changes and ongoing independent oversight. In its report, the attorney general's office threatened a court order if the initial effort to reach an agreement with Aurora does not succeed.
“Last summer, we heard loudly and clearly that the people of Colorado expect more from law enforcement,” said Attorney General Phil Weiser in a news conference Wednesday.
“For us, the guiding light is how do we build trust in law enforcement and in government, such that people are treated legally and fairly.”
The oversight deal the attorney general's office hopes to negotiate with Aurora will be the first of its kind in Colorado, Weiser said. Colorado's policing reform law passed last year, known as Senate Bill 217, allows the state Department of Law to investigate the patterns and practices of government agencies and mandate changes if the investigations find the agency has a history of violating people's civil rights or denying their constitutional protections.
The law allows the parties 60 days to come to an oversight agreement before heading to court.
Weiser's report attributes the failures of Aurora police to “systemic and severe” culture issues. The department’s training does not address its specific needs, it says, and policies provide little detail or practical guidance.
“In short, Aurora Police ... failed to create and oversee appropriate expectations for responsible behavior,” the report found.
"The city of Aurora staff and leadership are committed to the systemic change that is already underway in Aurora," City Manager Jim Twombly said in a statement. "We started that work more than a year ago."
Weiser said the report doesn’t address actions of individual officers or make recommendations in response to them.
His office used ride-alongs, body-camera footage, force review board meetings and records on use of force to reach the findings, he said.
The findings of systemic problems within Aurora's police department paint a different picture than characterizations made by Chief Vanessa Wilson when she has commented about incidents of excessive force used by officers, asking people not to judge the entire department based on the actions of a few bad apples.
"This is an anomaly," she said in a July press conference responding to an incident in which former officer John Haubert pistol-whipped and choked a Black man during a service call.
"Please do not paint this police department with a broad brush. My officers that are doing the right thing every day do not deserve that."
In a statement Wednesday, Wilson again said she doesn't want the need for change to discount the "professionalism and integrity" of individual officers.
"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."
Police actions showed significant racial disparities, especially with respect to Black people, according to the report. The failure to document stops as required by Senate Bill 217 "allows a vast category of police activity, such as investigative stops, to evade scrutiny,” Weiser said.
The investigation found officers took people to the ground without warning or generic commands ordering them stop resisting even when it appeared they were not. Weiser said the investigation uncovered instances of officers immediately escalating situations when the subject was in “obvious” mental health distress but didn't pose an imminent threat of harm to themselves or others.
The report found "a misplaced understanding of of de-escalation, focusing on requiring officers to calm down after the use of force, rather than avoiding unnecessary escalation in the first instance,” Weiser said.
Aurora earlier announced plans to hire an independent monitor for safety oversight. Weiser said Wednesday the structure of the monitor’s office will be included in the consent decree negotiations.
The police department has also been accepted into the Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement program, training police to prevent fellow officers from doing unlawful harm. It was developed in part by Georgetown Law's Innovative Policing Program.
The report comes a few weeks after a grand jury indicted three current and former police officers and two paramedics in the August 2019 death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain, a Black man. Responding to a report of a person behaving strangely, officers stopped McClain, who wasn't suspected of a crime, while he walked home, an investigation found. They violently subdued McClain, and paramedics called to the scene injected him with ketamine, officials have said. He went into cardiac arrest and died several days later.
Officers Randy Roedema and Nathan Woodyard and former officer Jason Rosenblatt, along with Fire Rescue paramedics Peter Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper face manslaughter charges. They are set for a Nov. 1 hearing in the case.
The attorney general's report "confirms what many Aurora residents already know - Aurora's police department has a long standing culture of violence and bias," an attorney for McClain's mother, Sheneen McClain, said in a statement.
Sheneen McClain called for Aurora to immediately enter a consent decree and for Mayor Mike Coffman to resign.
Aurora's City Council approved a temporary moratorium on fire department use of ketamine last year. The agency has said it doesn't have immediate plans to resume using ketamine.
A state law passed this spring police officers from directing medical professionals to administer ketamine. In the absence of a medical emergency, providers are banned from using ketamine to subdue people suspected of criminal behavior.
The attorney general's report says Aurora firefighters relied on a review process that didn't appropriately ensure paramedics followed legal requirements for administering ketamine, failing to identify instances when ketamine was inappropriately used or used at the request of police. This prevented the agency from improving its processes and training around ketamine use, the report says.
Wilson fired Rosenblatt last year after he received a photo by text message from other officers appearing to mock McClain's death and replied "Ha ha." The four others still employed have been placed on unpaid leave.