Police in Aurora, Colo., Engaged in Racially Biased Policing, Investigation Finds

The inquiry by the Colorado Department of Law began after the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, a young Black man who was stopped by the police, put into a chokehold and injected with a powerful anesthetic.

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Investigation Finds Pattern of Racial Bias by Aurora, Colo., Police

A Colorado Attorney General’s office investigation that began after the death of Elijah McClain showed Aurora police engaged in a pattern of racial bias, excessive force and illegal use of the powerful anesthetic ketamine.

Two weeks ago, I announced the grand jury indictments in the Elijah McClain investigation. Today, I’m here to discuss a separate matter. The findings of the civil investigation of the Aurora Police and Fire Department. This investigation concluded that the Aurora Police Department and Aurora Fire and Rescue have a pattern and practice of violating rights secured by state and federal law. Specifically, we found that Aurora Police has a pattern and practice of racially biased policing, using excessive force and failing to report required information when it interacts with the community. Moreover, we concluded that Aurora Fire has a pattern and practice of administering ketamine in violation of the law. We conducted a set of detailed analysis of internal Aurora Police data that reflects police activity since 2018. That data revealed statistically significant racial disparities, especially with regard to Black people, in nearly every significant facet of police contact with the community. We found that Aurora Police has repeatedly engaged in unlawful and unconstitutional uses of force, regularly applying greater force than reasonably warranted by the situation. We observed officers using force to take people to the ground without first giving them adequate time to respond to officer commands or generically reciting “stop resisting” when trying to control subjects, even though it appeared from other available evidence that the subject was not resisting.

A Colorado Attorney General’s office investigation that began after the death of Elijah McClain showed Aurora police engaged in a pattern of racial bias, excessive force and illegal use of the powerful anesthetic ketamine.CreditCredit…Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Sept. 15, 2021, 7:00 p.m. ET

The Police Department in Aurora, Colo., engaged in a pattern of racially biased policing and excessive force, according to an investigation that began after the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, a young Black man who was stopped by the police, put into a chokehold and injected with a powerful anesthetic.

The investigation, by the Colorado Department of Law, found that police officers in the city of about 380,000 outside Denver more often arrested and used force against people of color than white people, based on their percentage of the population.

For example, from January 2018 to February 2021, nearly half of the people whom the Aurora Police used force against were Black, even though Black people make up only about 15 percent of the city’s residents, the investigation found.

The investigation also concluded that Aurora Fire Rescue had a pattern of illegally administering ketamine, the anesthetic that was used on Mr. McClain, often in higher than recommended doses, before the department suspended its use on Sept. 14, 2020.

The findings of the civil investigation were released by Colorado’s attorney general, Phil Weiser, two weeks after he announced that a grand jury had indicted three Aurora police officers and two paramedics on manslaughter charges in the death of Mr. McClain, 23.

The report recommended that the Police Department enter into a consent decree that would require changes to policies, training, record keeping and hiring. If the department does not agree to enter into such an agreement, the state could seek a court order to force it to make changes, Mr. Weiser said.

“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,” Mr. Weiser, a Democrat, said at a news conference on Wednesday. “That’s not going to happen overnight.”

Vanessa Wilson, Aurora’s police chief, said the department would work with the attorney general’s office “to determine how to implement necessary and sustainable changes” and that a “final consent decree will serve as another resource in our path forward.”

Chief Wilson said that over the last 21 months, Aurora had improved its policing, de-escalation training and community outreach.

“Today is incredibly difficult for not only the Aurora community but this agency,” she said in a statement. “We acknowledge there are changes to be made.”

Jim Twombly, the city manager, said that local leaders were committed to a “new way” of policing.

“I am still digesting the details of the attorney general’s report, and it is painful to hear,” Mr. Twombly said in a statement. “It would be premature for me to comment on any specific findings at this time.”

However, he said, the findings appeared to align with the findings and recommendations from independent reviews that the city commissioned more than a year ago, before the attorney general’s investigation.

The fire chief, Fernando Gray, said in a statement that although the department had stopped using ketamine more than a year ago, “and we have no plans to reintroduce this medication into our system, we find value in the report.”

Mr. Weiser announced the investigation in August 2020 amid the nationwide protests against police violence that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Mr. McClain’s death had also set off demonstrations and calls for justice.

Mr. McClain, who was described by friends and family as a gentle person who loved animals, had been walking home from a convenience store on Aug. 24, 2019, when someone called 911 to report a suspicious person.

The officers grabbed Mr. McClain’s arms, pushed him against a wall and pulled him to the ground. They used a “carotid hold” to subdue Mr. McClain — a potentially dangerous restraint to the neck that restricts blood to the brain.

“I’m an introvert and I’m different,” Mr. McClain told the police, according to audio recordings from the stop. “I’m just different. That’s all. That’s all I was doing. I’m so sorry.”

Mr. McClain was already handcuffed when paramedics arrived, and the indictment contended that they did not talk to Mr. McClain, check his vital signs or properly monitor him after injecting him with ketamine.

Mr. McClain was taken to a hospital unconscious and never recovered. He was taken off life support and died on Aug. 30, 2019.

An autopsy report by the Adams County coroner said that the cause of death was “undetermined,” and that it could have been a result of natural causes, a homicide related to the carotid hold or an accident.

In the civil investigation by the Colorado Department of Law, investigators spent more than 220 hours in “ride alongs” with police officers and firefighters and reviewed thousands of use-of-force reports, Mr. Weiser said.

Aurora police and fire officials “cooperated fully” with the investigation, he said.

The report concluded that the police had a pattern of violating state and federal law, Mr. Weiser said.

Investigators saw officers using force to take people to the ground without giving them time to respond to commands or after telling people to “stop resisting,” even when it appeared that they were not resisting, Mr. Weiser said.

Investigators also saw officers “immediately escalating” encounters with people who were in mental distress but were not posing a danger to themselves or others, he said.

“These actions are unacceptable,” Mr. Weiser said. “They hurt the people that law enforcement is entrusted to protect. And they destroy community trust.”

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