Attorney General Phil Weiser on Tuesday acknowledged that his office has opened a separate civil rights investigation on the Aurora Police Department, authority he said comes from 2020 police accountability legislation.
In a statement Tuesday, the Attorney General's office confirmed that "for several weeks now, it has been investigating patterns and practices of the Aurora Police Department that might deprive individuals of their constitutional rights under state or federal law. This patterns and practice investigation, authorized by SB20-217, is in addition to a separate investigation the office is conducting into the death of Elijah McClain. In order to maintain the impartiality and integrity of these investigations, the Attorney General’s Office has no further comment at this time.”
Weiser's office is already conducting a separate investigation into the death of Elijah McClain. That came from a June 25 executive order from Gov. Jared Polis, who named Weiser as a special prosecutor to investigate McClain's death.
McClain was the 23-year-old unarmed Black man and massage therapist from Denver who died last August, six days after Aurora police placed him in a chokehold and held him on the ground for 15 minutes.
Eventually, McClain began vomiting and complained he couldn’t breathe. Aurora Fire paramedics gave him a sedative, ketamine, and McClain apparently suffered a heart attack and went into a coma. He was taken off life support on August 30.
Last year, Adams County District Attorney Dave Young declined to file charges in the case.
There are now four separate investigations into McClain's death. In a joint statement in June, the Colorado U.S. Attorney's office, Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, and the Denver Division of the FBI said they had been investigating McClain's death since last year. A separate review is also underway of an October 2019 incident where four police officers took pictures allegedly re-enacting McClain's death. In July, three of the officers — including one who was involved in McClain's death — were fired; a fourth resigned.
On July 21, Aurora City Council voted unanimously to authorize an investigation, to be led by Jonathan Smith, the executive director of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
Earlier Tuesday, McClain's family filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Aurora Police Department.
State lawmakers representing Aurora issued a statement Tuesday on the Attorney General's review, which said in part that the lawmakers had been working with Weiser's office to seek the investigation.
“The inclusion of pattern and practice investigative authority was one of the most crucial provisions in SB20-217, the police accountability bill we passed earlier this year," according to a statement from House and Senate Democrats whose districts include Aurora.
"Rather than focusing only on individual issues, this review will examine the behavior of the police department as a whole, potentially going back several years. To achieve full accountability and to eliminate structural and systemic problems in an organization, it is necessary to look broadly and deeply, and this is exactly what we expect this investigation to do.
“We also fully support the reforms that Chief Vanessa Wilson is seeking to make, and we will work to ensure that the department cooperates with the Attorney General's investigation. Aurora is hurting, and we believe that this investigation and the cultural changes we hope it will bring can heal the deep wounds that divide our beloved community.”
The statement came from Reps. Janet Buckner, Dominique Jackson, Mike Weissman, Jovan Melton, and Dafna Michaelson Jenet; and Sens. Nancy Todd, Rhonda Fields, and Jeff Bridges. The lawmakers wanted Weiser "to explore possible grounds for a patterns and practices investigation based on the [police] department’s extensive record of unchecked, systemic racism," the statement added.
SB217 makes it unlawful in Colorado for any government authority, including law enforcement departments, to “engage in a pattern or practice of conduct by peace officers … that deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution of the United States or the State of Colorado.” The provision grants the Attorney General the authority, when there is reasonable cause, to file a civil action to eliminate the pattern or practice.
Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman also commented on the Attorney General's investigation. Via Twitter, Coffman said Weiser had given him a "courtesy call" to say he was moving forward with a civil rights investigation on the Aurora Police Department, "based on his newly granted authority and at the request from Aurora's state legislators."
Coffman said Weiser acknowledged that there are already multiple investigations into the APD, including another from the Attorney General's office.
Coffman said Weiser had mentioned a "consent decree, which I would hope would ultimately line up with many of the reforms that our new chief of police has already started planning for. I'm confident that, under the new leadership of this Department, that the Aurora Police Department will regain the trust and confidence of every resident in our community regardless of race or ethnicity."