AURORA, Colo. – For nearly an hour into a special council meeting Tuesday night, Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman and City Council members heard from dozens of residents – the majority of them outraged with the way police handled a Saturday protest calling for justice in the death of Elijah McClain.
“Gross incompetence,” “a culture of predatory behavior,” and calls to disband “soldiers with pepper spray” were all comments directed at the department from a community still seething after what was supposed to be a peaceful protest turned sour when officers moved on protesters whom police claimed were trying to rush the department’s headquarters.
Particularly striking at the beginning of the meeting was one comment that wasn’t a comment at all, but instead a word for word reading of McClain’s last words, which had an impact on City Clerk Steve Ruger, who choked up as he read through the document.
“It’s a very emotional time right now,” said Aurora Interim Chief of Police Vanessa Wilson after listening to initial public comments during the meeting. “Your words have not fallen on deaf ears with me. I understand your frustration… please give me the opportunity to explain the situation as I saw it.”
During the meeting – called by Coffman following backlash from the events of Saturday night – the Aurora Police Department expressed that their “intent from the very beginning was not to engage with anybody.”
Wilson provided a timeline of the events leading up to officers pepper-spraying protesters and agitators alike, and talked about having 7½ hours of peace during Saturday’s march and protest, before a group of about 50 agitators forced police to move in on them after receiving intelligence from undercover agents that the group – allegedly armed with rocks, pipes and batons – was planning to rush the police headquarters.
“My officers aren’t sacrificial lambs. They’re fathers, they’re mothers; they’re sisters, they’re brothers,” Wilson said.
Police then continued their presentation to the council by showing photos of people wearing helmets, goggles, gloves and bandanas and cited them as examples of “people who are not here to protest peacefully,” though no evidence was ever provided by Wilson or her department that the people in those photographs were there to cause trouble.
She also likened those people as belonging to “Antifa groups” – a wrong assertion to make as Antifa – short for anti-fascist – is not a centralized organization or group that requires membership; rather, it is a leaderless political movement comprised of individuals engaging in activism against fascists, racists, white supremacists and other far-right extremists.
Aurora Councilwoman Alison Coombs would later point out that it would be reasonable for protesters to wear gas masks, helmets and the like if going to a protest where one might encounter police, given recent incidents in Denver and other parts around the nation where police used tear gas against peaceful protesters.
Wilson responded to those comments by saying she had never seen such behavior in previous demonstrations in Aurora.
Explaining to city council why she made the call to have officers in riot gear move on protesters, Wilson said agitators were trying to breach a fence to APD headquarters that also houses evidence for thousands of criminal cases, something she echoed during a Monday interview with Denver7.
“I was adamant that we were not going to allow the police department be taken over,” Wilson said.
Police also showed three minutes of edited police bodycam video – the same video they shared with local news outlets on Monday.
In one of the clips, police are heard yelling "get back!" at a group of protesters after they breached a metal fence. Another clip showed an officer being hit with what appears to be a plastic water bottle after police use their batons to try and disperse a crowd, and another which shows police surrounding peaceful protesters hearing violinists play music to honor McClain, something which Wilson admitted “scared the people that saw that.”
Answering questions about what chemical agents were used to disperse the crowds, Wilson and the officers present at the meeting reassured city council that only smoke canisters and pepper spray were used. Tear gas was not, contrary to what some protesters have claimed.
Councilman Juan Marcano, who went to the march and protest, then asked APD if there was a way Aurora police could prove officers didn’t use tear gas – something he’d heard was used from his constituents.
“At some point sir, you’re just going to have to believe us,” said Commander Darin Parker in response.
Marcano, along with Councilman Curtis Gardner, then asked if they should expect to see more bodycam footage of the events that led to Saturday’s violent confrontation as “three minutes is not enough.” Wilson replied with an “absolutely, it will all be given.”
Marcano then questioned Wilson by asking why peaceful protesters attending the violin vigil later that night had to be affected by a single order by police to disperse the crowd using pepper spray. Wilson responded that the call was made because the situation was becoming dangerous for both the police and peaceful protesters at the event.
Councilwoman Marsha Berzins would later thank Mayor Coffman for the opportunity “to have council ask questions to bring the facts out,” while Councilwoman Crystal Murillo lamented the fact that the McClain protest and vigil – meant to call for change in interactions between Black people and police – ended up doing just the opposite.
Councilwoman Francoise Bergan, from her part, stated that people should have left when asked to do so by police saying, “It just seems like people don’t listen to the police anymore.”
None of the council members or the mayor himself brought up questions about photographs which depicted three Aurora police officers imitating the carotid hold used on McClain during his arrest last year.
During the special council meeting, however, the Colorado U.S. Attorney's Office, along with several other law enforcement agencies, announced they've been reviewing facts in the death of the 23-year-old Black man since last year for a potential federal civil rights investigation, saying they were aware of the photo allegations which surfaced Monday evening, and were gathering further information about the incident.