Colorado’s attorney general said Wednesday 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.
Attorney General Phil Weiser announced the investigation found the department has long had a culture in which officers treat people of color – especially Black people – differently than White people. He said the agency also has a pattern of using unlawful excessive force, frequently escalates encounters with civilians, and fails to properly document police interactions with residents.
“These actions are unacceptable. They hurt the people that law enforcement is entrusted” to serve, he said.
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Weiser urged the police department to commit to recommended reforms in officer training, its policies on use of force and especially stricter standards for police stops and arrests. If it fails to comply, he said, his office will seek a court order compelling the department to do so – but he noted that the department fully cooperated in the investigation.
The investigation, announced in August 2020, was the first of its kind launched under a sweeping police accountability law passed in Colorado amid protests over the killing of George Floyd. It had begun several weeks before but was not revealed until the day that McClain’s parents filed a lawsuit against Aurora. The lawsuit alleges that police’s treatment of McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist, was part of a pattern of racially biased policing that has involved aggression and violence against Black people.
The 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 Gov. Jared Polis amid last year’s protests.
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The grand jury indicted all five.
Police stopped McClain as he walked home from the store on Aug. 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 heavier than McClain’s 143-pound frame, according to the indictment. He was later taken off life support.
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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.