Jason Batchelor 11.22.21

Aurora's deputy city manager, Jason Batchelor, gives a presentation to City Council on Nov. 22, 2021 about a consent decree reached with the attorney general's office for systemic changes to the city's police and fire departments.

Aurora's City Council on Monday night approved a consent decree between the city and the attorney general's office for systemic changes to the police and fire department's policies and training. The vote came a few months after a report found patterns of bias, excessive force and failures to document police stops in the police's ranks. 

Attorney General Phil Weiser's office began negotiating a consent decree with Aurora in September following a report that found the police and fire departments have patterns of violating Aurora residents’ rights. Officers have a history of using excessive force and failing to document stops as required by law, the investigation found, and the monthslong probe also determined the city’s fire department has a pattern of using the sedative ketamine in violation of the law.

Data showed significant racial disparities in police actions, especially with respect to Black people, according to the report. The investigation uncovered instances of officers immediately escalating situations when the subject was in a mental health crisis but didn't pose an immediate risk of harm. 

The report also found the department had a misplaced understanding of de-escalation, focusing on requiring officers to calm down after the use of force, rather than avoiding unnecessary escalation.

The consent decree seeks to:  

  • Create specific guidance on police’s interactions with people to address actual or perceived bias 

  • Improve use-of-force policies and training to avoid unnecessary escalation of encounters 

  • Improve diversity within the police and fire departments 

  • Develop a new system for data collection about police interactions with community members as required by law

  • Require review of policies and practices around chemical sedative use by the fire department to make sure they are used legally before they can be reintroduced

Aurora is in the process of searching for a monitor who will specifically oversee the consent decree's progress. Police Chief Vanessa Wilson has already supported changes underway in the department that overlap with what the consent decree seeks to achieve.

Deputy City Manager Jason Batchelor said in a presentation to City Council the consent decree is different from a federal agreement with the Department of Justice in that it doesn't have rigid prescriptions about changes Aurora must make to policies, training and benchmark metrics, something he and other city officials who spoke Monday night said is a positive feature because it allows for flexibility in developing changes to meet the decree.

The agreement "in that way provides a lot of flexibility to the city and to this consent decree monitor to work collaboratively in continuing to seek a culture of improvement ... to address the underlying issues," he said. 

In response to questions from Ward III Councilmember Marsha Berzins, Batchelor said the fire and police departments' labor unions were not a part of the consent decree's negotiations because Aurora management has the right to run the safety departments' operations. But he said the attorney general's office did reach out to the unions during the negotiations to have high-level discussions about the process. Batchelor also said leaders met with the unions once the decree document was made public, and assured they will be at the table as the city develops more specific policy and training changes.

Berzins cast the lone "no" vote against approving the consent decree amidst eight "yes" votes, saying she has concerns about mandating changes to the police and fire departments in the midst of rising crime.

"People want to be safe. They really couldn't care less about a consent decree. We do up here because we're in the thick of things, but the average citizen, they just want to be safe," she said.

"They want the police to come when they're called and the fire truck to come when they have a wreck or their house is on fire."

The city announced the consent agreement a few months after a grand jury returned criminal indictments against three Aurora police officers and two paramedics in the 2019 death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain.

McClain, a Black man, died several days after he was forcefully detained, put in a control hold and injected with ketamine, although he was not suspected of any crime. The fire department discontinued its use of ketamine in the field in September 2020.

At-large Councilmember Allison Hiltz said the issues that are the subject of the consent decree have existed in Aurora's public safety for "a long time."

"We are here because not all people in Aurora are safe. That is, in large part, because of the racially biased policing that we have."

City officials urged council members to approve the consent decree, saying the alternative would be the attorney general filing a lawsuit in court to mandate changes to the police and fire departments. Attorney Troy Eid of Greenberg Traurig, who is acting as outside counsel for Aurora on the agreement, said it gives Aurora a way to develop data and other information on public safety in the city.

"Litigation, in my experience, is not a great way to develop positive information. It's a great place to weaponize information," he said.

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