Aurora ranks 8th in per capita police shootings. Would a different use of force policy change that?

In a study of use of force policies, Aurora came out eighth highest in per capita instances of fatal use of force.
6 min. read
Police lights on the 16th Street Mall. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

In a study of use of force policies by the police accountability group Campaign Zero, Aurora came out eighth highest in per capita instances of fatal use of force.

Campaign Zero looked at the police use of force policies in the 100 largest cities and found that the more restrictive the policy, the fewer fatal use of force incidents reported by that department.

Aurora got credit for three of the eight provisions that Campaign Zero was looking for. That makes Aurora average for large American cities. You can read more about the criteria and how Denver fared here.

Like Denver, Aurora takes issue with how Campaign Zero classified its policy, which has been updated since it was analyzed by the activist group, and it also takes issue with the impression created by the per capita rankings.

Here's how Aurora's policy compared:

Aurora got credit for: Use of force continuum, duty to intervene and restricting shooting into moving vehicles.

Aurora did not get credit for: Requiring de-escalation (even though the introduction to the policy states it as a kind of first principle), banning chokeholds, requiring warning before shooting, requiring exhausting all other means and requiring comprehensive reporting.

Aurora police Lt. Darin Parker said by focusing on the written policy, the report doesn't account for the training that officers receive, which he said incorporates most of the recommendations in practice.

On chokeholds: "It doesn’t say you can’t do this, but our training is that the only thing you can do is a carotid control hold, and we have extensive training on when and how to do that. The subject needs to be violently resisting and any other means, whether lesser or greater, tried and failed or were not feasible. ... We use a carotid control hold because it is significantly different (than a chokehold). We use it because it does not target the front of the throat or neck."

At the same time, the department just adopted a new use of force policy in January that requires officers to note in incident reports if they drew their weapon and why.

This was after Campaign Zero requested the use of force policy for its analysis, and Aurora did not provide an updated copy to the group.

Parker said drawing a weapon isn't considered "use of force" -- it's "tier zero" in the continuum -- but as the department studied evolving best practices, it seemed appropriate to track it.

"We did feel it was important to track these incidents and that was something that we felt was responsive to community concerns," Parker said.

Campaign Zero found that requiring officers to report when they draw and point their weapon at someone is associated with a 25 percent reduction in fatal use of force. The report can't really identify causation, but it seems that if officers have to explain why they pointed a gun at someone, they do it less.

Right now, Aurora isn't running any reports to monitor when officers draw their weapons and there are no specific plans to do so. However, the department could track that if it ever gets raised as a problem because of the new reporting requirement.

Ironically, Aurora changed its policy on shooting at vehicles just this year from "will not" to "should not," a change that allows officers to shoot as a last resort and returns to language most departments are leaving behind. This change would keep Aurora's score at three, despite adding more reporting requirements.

Aurora thinks the ranking makes the city look worse than it is.

When you look at the number of shootings in the report, keep in mind you're looking at an 18-month period, not a single calendar year, and that the per capita calculation uses a "per million residents" calculation, rather than per 100,000.

Parker argues that it’s misleading to use a per million residents calculation that produces a number of 18.1 fatal use of force incidents for Aurora, which has a population of 350,000 and whose police officers killed six people in the 18 months in the study. If you use per 100,000 residents for the per capita calculation number is 1.8, of course. That sounds less alarming.

Parker says it’s not fair to assume that Aurora police would kill that many people if the city’s population were a million.

Nonetheless, the math was done the same way for every city in the study and Aurora’s place in the rankings wouldn’t change. It’s a higher per capita rate than many other cities its size and than many larger cities.

I asked study author Samuel Sinyangwe if the number of deaths wasn't too small for this kind of analysis.

If one department with one use of force policy kills four people in 18 months and a different department with a different policy kills three, is that meaningful enough to talk about a 25 percent decrease?

Sinyangwe said there are some inherent limitations to the data that he couldn’t control. He couldn’t look at 20 years of deaths at police hands or even three because there has been and continues to be no national reporting requirement for police departments.

Campaign Zero used the databases collected by The Guardian and the Washington Post based on public records, media accounts and reports from community members. These works of public service journalism are the most complete accounting we have, and even they didn’t arrive at the same number. The Department of Justice now more strongly encourages departments to report shootings of civilians by police, but it's not mandatory.

Sinyangwe said Campaign Zero is working on its own list, which currently goes back to 2013. They didn’t use it in this analysis because use of force policies get updated all the time, and it didn’t feel fair to look at deaths that occurred under a different set of policies.

However, including more years didn’t change the per capita rankings very much, he said.

“I think Aurora deserves some scrutiny,” he said.

Assistant Editor Erica Meltzer can be reached via email at [email protected] or

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