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Colorado Attorney General Announces Civil Rights Investigation into Policing

Oren Lomena demands the end of police brutality while addressing the crowd at a protest against the death of Elijah McClain and police injustice outside the Aurora Municipal Center in Aurora, Colo., June 27, 2020. (Kevin Mohatt/Reuters)

The Colorado attorney general announced a civil rights investigation into the “patterns and practices” of the Aurora Police Department on Tuesday.

The investigation, which attorney general Phil Weiser said began weeks ago, is the first under a new police reform law passed after George Floyd’s death sparked nationwide protests and calls for reform. Weiser said his office is looking into whether officers in the Denver suburb have been depriving people of their constitutional rights.

News of the investigation came the same day the family of Elijah McClain announced they would be suing the Aurora Police Department and paramedics for an incident last year in which police placed McClain in a chokehold and paramedics sedated him with ketamine after the 23-year-old struggled with officers who stopped him as he walked home from a nearby convenience store. The 23-year-old had a heart attack and was declared brain dead three days later. 

“Aurora’s unconstitutional conduct on the night of August 24, 2019, is part of a larger custom, policy, and practice of racism and brutality, as reflected by its conduct both before and after its murder of Elijah McClain, a young Black man,” the lawsuit says.

The officers were placed on administrative leave following McClain’s death, but later were reinstated after prosecutors declined to file charges. 

Police body-camera video shows an officer getting out of his car, approaching McClain and saying, “Stop right there. Stop. Stop. … I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious,” the Associated Press reported of the stop which was initiated by a 911 call reporting McClain as “sketchy.” The officer can be seen turning to McClain before saying, “Stop tensing up.” When McClain struggles against his grip, the officer says, “Relax, or I’m going to have to change this situation,” before placing him in a chokehold.

Police say McClain ignored commands to stop walking away and fought back when officers tried to take him into custody. Police believed he was trying to take an officer’s gun, they said.

The attorney general’s investigation is one of many concurrent deep dives into the department: on Tuesday the city manager and new police chief said an outside firm would review the department, including its policies and practices on use of force and discriminatory policing. The City Council has already begun an investigation of Aurora’s policies on using force and ketamine — and in June Colorado governor Jared Polis announced his administration would reexamine McClain’s case after renewed public scrutiny, the Associated Press reported.

“We embrace this opportunity for change and are committed to evolve for the betterment of our profession, our community and the residents we serve,” Police Chief Vanessa Wilson, who was named to the post last week, said in a statement.

The department said that while Wilson was only informed of Weiser’s investigation on Tuesday, it would pledge its full cooperation.

“We remain steadfast in our commitment to transparency and earning the trust of our community back,” APD tweeted.

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