Aurora's Top Officials Still Trying to "Reestablish Trust" Four Years After Elijah McClain's Death | Westword
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Aurora's Top Officials Still Trying to "Re-Establish Trust" Four Years After Elijah McClain's Death

Aurora's new heads of police, fire and city manager's office are still working to reestablish trust and legitimacy after the 2019 death of Elijah McClain.
Interim Aurora Police Chief Art Acevedo talks to the public on Tuesday about reforms after Elijah McClain death.
Interim Aurora Police Chief Art Acevedo talks to the public on Tuesday about reforms after Elijah McClain death. Screenshot

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The City of Aurora brought together the heads of its police and fire departments and city manager's office last week to talk to the public for the first time about the city's efforts to "re-establish trust" and legitimacy following the August 2019 death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain.

The community meeting took place at the Aurora City Council chambers on May 2 and focused primarily on an April 2023 report that covered law enforcement's handling of the McClain incident, during which the 23-year-old Black man was forcibly restrained by police and injected with a lethal dose of ketamine by paramedics — resulting in manslaughter and negligent homicide charges for those involved.

The April report follows up on a consent decree and a fourteen-month investigation that detailed how the Aurora Police Department used deadly force and approved an unlawful dose of ketamine that led to McClain's death, along with displaying racially biased policing and using poor hiring and recruitment practices.

A 32-count grand jury indictment was handed down against five people working for the City of Aurora — three police officers and two paramedics — in 2021, two years after McClain's death, and included counts of second-degree assault, causing injury with a deadly weapon, manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. 

Those who attended and submitted questions for Aurora's May 2 meeting were mostly interested in how authorities were changing their use-of-force policies and training officers to put aside racial biases.

"The intent is that as we re-establish trust, re-establish legitimacy, we're building systems that live beyond all of us and continue to provide a level of transparency and accountability to the community," said Interim City Manager Jason Batchelor, who took over the position after longtime city manager Jim Twombly retired in April. 

McClain died after a violent encounter with three Aurora police officers responding to a 911 call about a suspicious person wearing a ski mask. That was McClain, who was also flailing his arms, according to officials.

In the ensuing confrontation, police proceeded to use excessive force on McClain, taking him to the ground and putting him in a now-banned carotid chokehold until he couldn't breathe. Shortly thereafter, paramedics administered a 500-milligram dose of ketamine that sent him into cardiac arrest and led to his death several days later in the hospital.

Aurora is only about a year into a five-year consent decree, which is an agreement it made with Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser in November 2021 to settle a civil lawsuit. Weiser determined at the time that the APD showed patterns of racial bias. However, Aurora Police didn't fully enter into the terms of the decree until February 2022.

Art Acevedo was announced as the new interim police chief for the City of Aurora in November 2022 — less than a month after he was fired as the police chief in Miami for taking control of the city's internal affairs unit and then demoting and firing several high-level officers on his command staff.

The embattled Acevedo — who's been leading law enforcement departments for about 37 years — took over after a similarly mucky situation involving former Aurora police chief Vanessa Wilson. 

Wilson was a 25-year APD veteran and the first female chief, but she was fired in April 2022 for departmental mismanagement and sinking morale on the force, Twombly said at the time. Her lawyers claim she was fired after a concerted smear campaign, and her firing was decried by U.S. Representative Jason Crow and Sheneen McClain, the mother of Elijah.

Wilson had taken over after Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz retired at the end of 2019 and Deputy Chief Paul O'Keefe, who was set to become interim chief, retired in early February 2020. She served in the interim role before being tapped for the permanent position, but was fired seven months later. 

Wilson was chief when the agreement for the consent decree was reached. Per that decree, the APD is expected to employ more thorough training in anti-bias policing, while the department as a whole has pledged to ramp up data collection. The Aurora police and fire departments also agreed to change their policies on the use of force and chemical sedatives — namely ketamine.

While officers have undergone use-of-force and anti-bias training, "training continues to evolve," Acevedo said at the meeting.

"The expectations from the public changes, the law changes, the expectations of the courts change," he told the small crowd.

The interim police chief said he looks forward to showing the community new training procedures that he expects to roll out in the summer. He hopes to have members of the public watch how new officers are trained and even participate in the classes as a way of bringing accountability to his department. 

"At the end of the day, training is great and dandy, but if you have policies and you have training, you also have to have accountability," Acevedo said. "You have to hold people accountable for the policy and the training."

According to Aurora's top cop, having the public present at officer training classes would allow people "to see the perspective from the other side of the cop car, the other side of the badge."

Acevedo — who was chief of police in Austin and Houston as well as Miami and worked for the California Highway Patrol — said he's done this kind of training demonstration before "and it was wildly successful and popular in other cities." 

Interim Aurora Fire Chief Alec Oughton told those at the May 2 meeting that the most important part of the consent decree is "understanding implicit bias," which is the idea that some prejudice occurs automatically.

"It's important to understand the policies are being rewritten, that the training is being rewritten," added Jeff Schlanger, who is the lead monitor ensuring that the city follows through on the decree. "There has been training all along in these areas."

AG Weiser, who worked with Aurora on the consent decree, confirmed that the city is writing new polices and making progress, while acknowledging that the process is "going less quickly" than some might like.

"I do want to underscore there has been progress and there's work to do," Weiser said. "Community members need to be heard from. We need your voices. We need your eyes and ears, and we appreciate your commitment."  
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