DENVER – A civil rights investigation that was launched amid outrage over the death of Elijah McClain — a Black man put into a chokehold during an encounter with suburban Denver police two years ago — found a deeply engrained culture of racially biased policing within the department, Colorado's attorney general said Wednesday.
Attorney General Phil Weiser said the investigation found the Aurora Police 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.
It's the latest mark against the Aurora department since Weiser's office indicted three officers and two paramedics on manslaughter and other charges this month in connection with McClain's death.
“These actions are unacceptable. They hurt the people that law enforcement is entrusted” to serve, Weiser said.
The investigation cites numerous examples of biased policing in addition to McClain's death. Among them:
— Police responded to two mental health calls on the same day. In one, police drew their weapons and aimed at a Black man who claimed he had a knife and planned to kill himself in what the report called “a tense standoff.” The other incident with a white man who was “very drunk and exhibiting mental health issues” ended after an officer “walked up to him, extended his hand, and said, ‘I’m (Joe), you look to be hurting. How can we help you?'”
— A city panel that oversees officer hiring and discipline overturned a decision by a former police chief to fire a lieutenant who used a racial epithet to refer to a group of Black residents.
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 do so, 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.
Police stopped McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist, as he walked home from a 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 (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 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 agreement would have ongoing independent oversight and would specify what the city and department must do to fulfill his investigation’s recommendations.
Aurora police Chief Vanessa Wilson and City Manager Jim Twombly said in statements that they will cooperate with Weiser's office and already have been working to implement reforms in the department.
“We acknowledge there are changes to be made,” Wilson said, adding: “We will not broad brush this agency or discount the professionalism and integrity that individual officers bring to our community every day.”
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 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.
State Rep. Leslie Herod, a Democrat from Denver who helped craft the police accountability legislation, said Weiser's recommendations proved the law is working.
“We have affirmed what the citizens of Aurora and so many folks already knew: That the Aurora Police Department has operated in a way that is racist and that is particularly racist against Black people and presents harm to our community,” said Herod, who is Black.
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.
The Aurora Police Department 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.
Lorenzo M. Boyd, stewart professor in criminal justice and community policing at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, said Weiser's action is unusual because the federal, not state government generally reaches court-approved agreements with local police departments to ensure changes are made.
“A lot of times the state tries to not ruffle feathers at home. They’ll farm things out to the feds to kind of keep their hands clean," Boyd said. "But it seems like in this situation, the state’s attorney general in Colorado decides, you know, we need to fix our own house before outsiders need to come in and do it.”
Associated Press writers James Anderson and Thomas Peipert contributed to this report.
Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.