Aurora Chief Defends Actions of Police at Elijah McClain Protest

Michael Emery Hecker
Aurora officers in riot gear at the June 27 protest.
In front of a virtual Aurora City Council on June 30, Interim Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson defended the actions of her department at a June 27 rally protesting the death of Elijah McClain, where officers used less-lethal weapons against protesters, including pepper spray and batons.

"We’re in this profession to serve and protect, and we don’t choose to intentionally hurt people," Wilson said. But when officers were pelted by rocks and water bottles, she explained, the actions were justified.

"There was intelligence that I received that week that they wanted people to riot, they wanted people to cause violence," Wilson said, referring to what she called a "core group of agitators" from organizations like Denver Communists, Abolish ICE Denver, and the Party for Socialism and Liberation Denver.

But throughout the hours-long question-and-answer session with city council members and Mayor Mike Coffman, Wilson conceded that she could have done a better job of communicating with the actual protest leaders, some of whom held touching memorials for McClain.

"It was beautiful," she said of the seven and a half hours of "peaceful protest," which included a violin vigil to honor McClain, a violinist himself, that was disturbed by the police actions.

"I understand the situation that this community is in, and the last thing that I personally or any of my officers wanted that day was for us to have to do anything," Wilson said. Still, she continued to defend her riot-gear-garbed officers, even while being peppered with questions and comments from councilmembers.

"The most effective thing y’all did earlier in the day was pull back. That de-escalated people. And the agitators got bored and left. So I need to see more of that," said Councilman Juan Marcano, a left-leaning member of council.

Councilwoman Crystal Murillo, also a left-leaning Democrat, added, "I think it’s ironic that this was a vigil protesting that and it ended with this aggression."

click to enlarge Protesters at the Aurora Municipal Center on June 27. - MICHAEL EMERY HECKER
Protesters at the Aurora Municipal Center on June 27.
Michael Emery Hecker
But conservative Republicans on council largely praised the way the chief had handled the protests.

"There were people who came with the sole purpose to attack the police, damage property and cause a riot," said Councilman Dave Gruber, who pointed to protesters bringing milk and setting up medic stations as evidence that they came to fight.

Since the meeting was held virtually, over 100 letters submitted by members of the public were read out loud by Aurora clerk Steve Ruger. Although a few of those comments praised the Aurora Police Department, the vast majority chastised the agency for its response to the protest as well as its response to the 911 call in August 2019 that resulted in Elijah McClain's death.

One of the letters that Ruger read was composed solely of McClain's last words, as he was losing consciousness.

The Aurora Police Department, which can't seem to get out of its own way, had been handling another McClain-related controversy earlier in the day: the revelation that multiple officers had re-enacted the deadly encounter with McClain, taking pictures at the site and sharing them with other officers. The U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado, the FBI and the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, which have been investigating the circumstances behind McClain's death, will also look into the photo incident, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office, which revealed on June 30 that a federal probe has been under way since last year.

At the behest of Governor Jared Polis, Attorney General Phil Weiser is investigating McClain's death as well. Dave Young, the District Attorney for the 17th Judicial District, had previously declined to press charges against the first responders involved in the case, saying there wasn't enough evidence to justify criminal charges.

While the Aurora Police Department's response to protesters remains under public scrutiny, the Denver Police Department's actions at recent demonstrations have been challenged in federal court.

The City of Denver has been hit with two lawsuits from people at the protests, including one that resulted in a stipulated agreement that limits how law enforcement in Denver can use less-lethal force against protesters. Language from a federal judge's temporary restraining order regarding that same lawsuit was recently codified into a state police accountability and reform bill signed by Polis last month.