Besides the inarguable fact that too many Aurora police officers have used abusive, sometimes deadly force against residents here during the past several years, the very core of Aurora’s police problem has long been transparency and accountability.
Had those two critical failures been addressed years ago, as they became apparent, the police department would likely not be in the alarming place it is now.
Now, the city and its police department are under a court agreement to cooperate with the state attorney general’s office to implement a host of reforms across the sector. The so-called “consent decree” is the result of years of repeated and systemic problems surrounding racism and the abuse of force by some officers, and the department.
Aurora’s police and fire departments find themselves in the position of being internationally notorious for the death of Elijah McClain, as well as the abuse of black girls and women who were forced to lie face down on hot pavement during an erroneous arrest.
The list of atrocities committed by some members of the department, re-hired after being caught on video referring to people of color as “porch monkeys” or passing out drunk in a squad car have for years met with a system and department eager and committed to keeping its iniquities quiet and behind closed doors.
The most dangerous problem for Aurora police and the community is that, by all known accounts, the 600-700 members of the Aurora police department have not only never abused the use of force or behaved in any way other than diligently and professionally. Yet they’ve been saddled with the gruesome acts committed by a few and then hidden or rebuffed by the department.
Despite years of demands by members of the community, rank and file officers and The Sentinel Editorial Board to create a permanent structure of independent review, transparency and accountability, past police chiefs insisted police alone can and should handle their own problems.
Nothing has been more damaging to the police department and the community than that flawed policy.
Despite a world of accountability crashing down on the Aurora police department now, it’s apparently yet to learn that lesson.
In the first report made by the independent monitor to work among the city, the police, the fire department and the state attorney general’s office, a clear picture emerged that Aurora police aren’t getting the message.
To the police department’s credit, the monitor lauded police and city officials for being eager to work on issues like training, messaging and searching for ways to change a culture of secrecy and disregard.
It’s encouraging and expected that, in light of recent state laws, prompted in part by Aurora police malfeasances and abuses, that it would understand that police must report and even intervene in abuses made by fellow officers.
It’s good news that Aurora police are teaching officers that they no longer have vast immunity from prosecution and responsibility for committing cruelties and offenses “in the line of duty.”
It’s absolutely a relief for residents, especially people of color, to hear that Aurora police are focusing on teaching officers the best ways to defuse confrontational interaction with the public, reducing the likelihood of anyone being injured or the public being abused.
What the independent monitor raised alarm over is the department’s recent handling of an abuse-of-force incident that clearly was mishandled by existing department oversight.
The criticism comes after the recent worrisome dismissal of Police Chief Vanessa Wilson, who’d made huge strides in repairing the department’s lack of trust by visibly holding the department accountable for change.
IntegrAssure, the risk management firm appointed as the independent monitor, focused on a May 2021 traffic stop. During the incident, Aurora police Officer Gabriel Nestor pulled his gun on a motorist, Preston Nunn III, who had reached into his clothing after being told to hand over his driver’s license and registration.
Nunn, who is Black, was pulled over after Nestor said Nunn drove dangerously close to him while Nestor was conducting another traffic stop, Sentinel reporter Max Levy wrote recently.
In police bodycam video, Nunn clearly does not immediately comply with Nestor’s demands.
“At gunpoint, Nunn was ordered to put his hands on his face, “which he failed to do to the officer’s satisfaction,” the report said. The monitor notes that Nestor “became extremely agitated” during the incident, “using expletives to issue various orders.”
The video speaks for itself, with Nestor clearly becoming unhinged, terrifying Nunn.
“The police department’s Force Review Board evaluated the incident the following month, determining that Nestor made a legal traffic stop and used his body-worn camera appropriately but “could have been more professional” and “more in control of himself.”
That’s pretty much how Aurora police have handled these incidents in the past. Be more “professional” next time.
IntegrAssure balked at the review board’s failure to consider Nestor’s involvement in another use-of-force incident a month prior. Then, he shot a burglary suspect with “less-lethal” ammunition, which the department deemed “unsatisfactory performance,” according to The Sentinel story.
Nestor also reportedly caused a “serious traffic crash” in October 2020, for which he was reprimanded, an incident that was also apparently not considered by the board.
Pointing out that it was clear the incident nearly spun out of control into an officer-involved shooting, “The Board’s review should have been much more critical, in the nature of a deep-diving after-action report, with every aspect of how that which occurred could have been avoided and probed for lessons which could be taught both to the involved officer and to the Department at large.”
The monitor identified a host of alarming problems with the arrest not even considered by the force review board.
It’s unacceptable and bodes ill for Aurora, and especially people of color who live and work here.
It’s no secret that many Black and Latino residents live in constant dread of being confronted by an Aurora police officer for any reason.
The same critical report of the monitor also pointed out a recent poll of residents showing that a majority of residents do not trust or have faith in Aurora police because of its past mistakes, and even fewer people of color have faith that they can trust a local cop.
People across the nation are afraid for their lives of being confronted by a police officer, and this recent grievous error only makes that reality worse.
City council should push for immediate changes in the reform process to make every action of the force review board, as well as the police internal affairs panel, public by report of the independent monitor, at least on a weekly basis.
The credibility of the department, the reputation of the vast number of officers who diligently and admirably carry out their duties, and the wellbeing of the public is at stake.
City lawmakers should push back against some members of city council who act as shills for police who are critical of the reform process and holding officers and the department rightfully accountable for mistakes just like this.
The vile episodes that have drawn international scorn and shame on Aurora police are only a symptom of the problem this department is a long ways from solving. Solve the accountability and transparency problem.
Aurora Sentinel Editorial Board