Aurora Police Department Stumbles From One Disaster to the Next

The last year has been a disaster for the Aurora Police Department.
The last year has been a disaster for the Aurora Police Department. Michael Emery Hecker
At 6 p.m. today, June 30, Mayor Mike Coffman is hosting a special town-hall meeting on the Aurora Police Department's response to protests on June 27. From an excessive response to a 911 call that led to the death of Elijah McClain to shielding a drunk-driving cop from major repercussions, the hits just keep coming for the department that can't seem to get out of its own way. Here's our list of the lowlights for the APD over the past year, in chronological order:

Death of Elijah McClain

Elijah McClain's death in August 2019 is by far the most tragic and disturbing action coming out of this department in the last year, for one good reason: It was thoroughly unnecessary. The 23-year-old wasn't suspected of committing a crime, but was simply walking home from a convenience store when the police stopped him. Dave Young, the District Attorney for the 17th Judicial District, declined to charge the officers or paramedics whose decisions contributed to McClain's death, saying there wasn't enough evidence to secure a conviction. Recently, however, after massive public pressure, Governor Jared Polis appointed Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser to launch a new investigation looking into what happened to McClain, and to possibly bring charges against those involved.

Hiring a former cop as an independent investigator

In early June, City Manager Jim Twombly revealed that the City of Aurora had contracted with an outside investigator to look into McClain's death. The investigator, a Connecticut-based attorney, had previously worked for ten years as a member of the Connecticut State Police — and having a former cop investigate cops didn't sit well with members of Aurora City Council's safety committee, who called for the city to cut ties with the investigator. Twombly promptly did, and the city is still searching for another investigator who will be perceived as impartial. That investigation will be conducted simultaneously to Weiser's.

Drunk-driving cop

In December, news broke that Nate Meier, an Aurora police officer, had been found passed out drunk while wearing his uniform and carrying his gun at the wheel of his police vehicle months earlier. Rather than terminate Meier, then-Chief Nick Metz decided to keep him on staff and simply demote him. But both Metz, who was set to retire at the end of the year, and Deputy Chief Paul O'Keefe, who was in line to replace him, quickly came under fire. An independent investigation overseen by John Walsh, the former U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado, concluded that top-ranking Aurora police officials, including Metz and O'Keefe, had severely mishandled the Meier incident.

Protest in GEO immigration detention facility warden’s neighborhood

In September 2019, activists associated with Abolish ICE Denver organized a protest in the Aurora neighborhood of Johnny Choate, the warden of the Aurora Contract Detention Facility, a prison for Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees run by private prison company GEO Group. Officers with the Aurora Police Department, garbed in riot gear and carrying batons, seemed more ready for a fight than they were to keep the peace during the protest. The department ended up making three arrests for possession of a drum, a whistle and a laser. But while many of those who came out to the protest saw the cop response as heavy-handed, it was the head-scratching tweet by Nick Metz in the aftermath that was most striking:

"What I saw tonight by many of U who protested in residential cmty w/children was vile&disgusting. [The Aurora Police Department] protects free speech, but your message was completely lost. U were out of your league. My cops were simply AMAZING despite your attempts to bait them into a confrontation!," Metz wrote.

Hiring a small army for dueling ICE protests

Just days after anti-ICE protesters gathered in the warden's neighborhood, dueling anti-ICE and pro-ICE protests took place outside of the Aurora Contract Detention Facility. Between the two rallies, approximately 600 people showed up and, aside from some minimal shouting, there wasn't much action between the groups.

To keep the peace, however, the Aurora Police Department sent a small army of more than 400 officers from its own department and supporting jurisdictions to watch over the demonstrators. As a result, the department paid over $187,000 in overtime fees to the 363 off-duty Aurora Police Department officers assigned to the protest; the law enforcement agencies that helped out sent a total of 114 officers to assist the APD in patrolling the event. In other words, a lot of money was wasted on a wholly unnecessary amount of law enforcement.

Violin vigil

Thousands of protesters came out on June 27 to rally for justice for Elijah McClain at the Aurora Municipal Center. Since McClain had played the violin, many musicians participated in the demonstration, playing their own violins to honor McClain's memory. But Aurora police officers, again donning riot gear, began pushing back, interrupting the vigil. Police even used pepper spray against some of those present, which made for terrible optics on social media.

Aurora City Council is holding a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. on June 30 to hear from the police department about its response to the June 27 protests.

Elijah McClain photos

And it gets worse. On June  29, Interim Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson released a statement that multiple officers were being investigated and had been placed on non-enforcement duty for allegedly taking photos at the site where McClain was approached by police, re-enacting the incident.

In response, Mayor Mike Coffman tweeted today, June 30, that "I am deeply concerned over the facts surrounding the photographs that [Chief Wilson] has shared with me. I understand that there are due process procedural requirements that are in progress. I will comment on the case once the #investigation is complete."
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.