Editor's note: Mayor Mike Coffman just announced that the city had cut ties with the investigator looking into Elijah McClain's death. Keep reading for our original story, as well as an update.
As George Floyd protests continue throughout Colorado and across the country, Aurora is making changes in its policing policy.
"I know that there needs to be change in law enforcement. We need to look at how we do business. And the public is demanding that. We work for the public," Vanessa Wilson, interim chief of the Aurora Police Department, said during a June 9 press conference. The new policies involve five major changes to police protocol.
When Aurora police officers are about to fire their weapons, they will now be required to first announce their intent to fire, unless doing so would place the officers "at risk of injury, create a risk of death or injury to others, or would be clearly inappropriate or ineffective under the circumstances."
Additionally, officers can no longer use carotid holds when detaining an individual. Aurora police placed Elijah McClain, an unarmed 23-year-old black man, in a carotid hold when detaining him in August 2019, even though he had committed no crime. McClain ended up suffering a fatal heart attack after this interaction with the police.
In February, 17th Judicial District District Attorney Dave Young announced that his office hadn't found any evidence that police had violated department rules during the incident.
Aurora police officers will also be required to intervene when they see their colleagues using an unnecessary or unlawful use of force. That policy change touches on exactly what happened in Minneapolis, when police officer Derek Chauvin, who is now charged with second-degree murder, held his knee on the neck of George Floyd for close to nine minutes. The other officers on the scene did not intervene to stop Chauvin, even after Floyd passed out.
The fourth new directive concerns relief for an officer involved in a violent struggle. The Aurora Police Department will now remove officers who have been directly involved in a use-of-force situation and "replace them with someone else that is not as emotionally charged because they were just in a fight," Wilson explained.
"The tunnel vision can be broken up that way."
Finally, police officers will now have the discretion to not contact an individual after dispatch receives a report of a suspicious person if an officer observes that person and doesn't have reason to believe that he or she "was, is, or, seems to be about to engage in criminal activity."
"Someone should never be considered suspicious because of the color of their skin," Wilson said.
This directive also relates directly to what happened to McClain, since someone called 911 to report him as suspicious simply because he was wearing a ski mask at night during the summer.
The announcement of these new directives came just hours after three members of Aurora City Council's public safety committee jointly called for the city manager to issue a series of new police directives, some of which matched what the city manager, Jim Twombly, ended up implementing.
In the same letter, the committee members asked for Twombly to launch a neutral, third-party investigation into what happened to McClain.
During the press conference, Twombly announced that the city has already contracted with an outside investigator who is looking at what happened to McClain; that report, slowed down by the COVID-19 pandemic, should be ready in July. The investigator, Eric Daigle, is a Connecticut-based attorney who worked with the Connecticut State Police from 1992 to 2002.
"Daigle acts as a legal advisor to police departments across the country," his law firm's website reads. "He provides legal advice to law enforcement command staff and officers in the areas of legal liability, internal affairs, discipline, policy drafting, employment issues, use of force, laws of arrest, and search and seizure. His experience focuses on officers’ use of force, specifically in the training, investigation, and supervision of force, as well as deadly force incidents involving law enforcement."
"I think it’s important to have an independent external review and not to rely on an internal review," said Mike Coffman, the mayor of Aurora.
Still, some members of Aurora City Council are questioning whether Daigle's investigation will match their expectations.
"We are calling for a truly independent investigation. While Mr. Daigle may be an expert in use of force, his firm's specialty in defending cities and police from liability claims does not lend itself to that," explains Allison Hiltz, chair of the public safety committee.
Hiltz points to John Walsh, the former U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado, who investigated how Aurora police handled a drunk-driving cop, as an example of an investigator that she and her colleagues could get behind.
A few months ago, Aurora City Council also passed a resolution forming a community task force to explore "the status of police and community relations within" Aurora and "to study and make recommendations related to police operations especially in terms of critical incident management, training, transparency, and oversight." The makeup of that committee will be announced later this month; city officials expect the first meeting of the group before the end of June.
Update: The day after Aurora announced it had contracted Eric Daigle, an outside investigator, to look into Elijah McClain's death, Mayor Mike Coffman said that the city had cut ties with Daigle. That announcement came just hours after members of Aurora City Council's public safety committee encouraged city management to consider hiring a new investigator who would not raise questions of partiality.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.