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Aurora to improve use-of-force policies, hire more diverse first responders, per agreement with attorney general

Aurora’s police and fire departments have agreed to improve their use-of-force policies and training, develop a new system to collect data about police interactions with members of the community, and work to hire officers and firefighters that better reflect the city’s diversity as part of a consent decree with state prosecutors unveiled Tuesday.

“The city shall change, in measurable ways, how Aurora police engages with all members of the community, including by reducing any racial disparities in how Aurora police engages, arrests and uses force in the community,” the decree says.

The public safety agencies also vowed to ensure chemical sedatives, like ketamine, are lawfully administered and that the city’s policies and procedures for administering ketamine are reviewed by a third party before lifting a temporary pause in the drug’s use by first responders.

Finally, the Aurora Police Department will create specific guidance on how police officers’ use their discretion during interactions with community members in an effort to address perceived or actual bias in policing.

“The ultimate goal of this consent decree is to elevate policing and to improve public safety here in Aurora,” said Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, speaking at a news conference at the Aurora Municipal Center. “The hard work ahead is aimed at building trust in law enforcement that operates with a spirit of improvement.”

The consent decree, a legally binding document, comes after the Colorado Attorney General’s Office released a damning, 112-page report in September alleging that the Aurora Police Department consistently violates state and federal law in a pattern of racially biased policing and excessive use of force. The report came after a year-long patterns and practices investigation of the department, which has been mired in a string of headline-grabbing controversies in recent years.

“I want to underscore that we’re here because of a choice that Aurora made to collaborate with our department, the Department of Law, to elevate policing and improve public safety here in Aurora,” Weiser said. “This is an important path chosen by the city.”

Aurora and the attorney general are still searching for someone to serve as a consent-decree monitor who will ensure the agreement is being carried out. The decree, which still must be approved by the Aurora City Council, will be filed in Arapahoe County District Court.

The agreement is expected to last about five years, though the exact timeline will depend on how long it takes Aurora to implement the changes in the decree and when the city reaches “substantial compliance” with the deal.

The decree requires Aurora and state prosecutors to “provide regular public updates” to the court.

“We’re not interested in looking for technical violations or unnecessarily prolonging the length of this decree,” Weiser said.

Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly said the police and fire departments have already taken steps to improve their policies and procedures.

“We feel like we really have a head start on this consent decree,” he said.

Aurora police Chief Vanessa Wilson said her officers have nothing in the consent decree to be afraid of.

She said her officers won’t shy away from reform, and they recognize they’ll be held accountable under the new consent decree.

“I know that this has been 23 months of pain, 23 months of difficult conversations, 23 months of change and reform,” she said at the news conference on Tuesday. “A lot of things have come to light, a lot of things that we’re not proud of, a lot of things that I had to deal with via terminations or even arresting some of our own.”

But, she said, “we miss the boat when we don’t focus on the good things that are happening in this city.”

She asked community members to trust her department and said her agency is committed and willing to change.

​​Aurora Fire Chief Fernando Gray said his agency plans to fully cooperate with the decree. Gray added that there are no plans to reintroduce ketamine into the Aurora Fire Rescue system, even though the consent decree provides a mechanism for bringing the powerful sedative blamed for the death of Elijah McClain back into use.

A damning report

Weiser, a Democrat, launched the patterns and practices investigation into Aurora police under authority granted to him by Senate Bill 217, the Colorado legislature’s 2020 sweeping police accountability law drafted in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police officers in Minneapolis. It is the first patterns and practice investigation launched by Weiser’s office.

The investigation also began after local, state, national and international outcry over the death of McClain, an unarmed, 23-year-old Black man who died after an encounter with Aurora police and paramedics in 2019. McClain was given a large dose of ketamine by paramedics during the encounter.

Three Aurora police officers and two paramedics involved in the encounter with McClain were charged earlier this year by Weiser’s office with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide following a grand jury investigation. The criminal cases are pending.

Qusair Mohamedbhai, an attorney for Elijah’s mother, Sheneen, said that the consent decree is “further proof that Elijah’s memory continues to inspire.”

“For too long the Aurora Police Department has been permitted to violate the rights of Aurora’s citizenry without accountability or consequence,” he said in a written statement. “The lawlessness that infected this police department murdered Elijah. Ms. Mclain is hopeful that the groundbreaking consent decree will bring badly needed reform to this troubled police department, and that other parents will not have to mourn the death of their sons and daughters caused by police violence.”

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