Aurora police explain why they responded with force against Elijah McClain protesters

In short: It was “a small group of agitators” that led to police dispersing the weekend crowds.
4 min. read
A series of rallies and protests in Aurora demanding justice for Elijah McClain. June 27, 2020.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Comment after comment read by City Clerk Steve Ruger during a special Aurora City Council meeting on Tuesday painted the same ugly picture from the public: Aurora police officers behaved out of line when they encountered protesters and vigil attendees for Elijah McClain last weekend.

More than 30 comments were submitted, most of them criticizing police. One comment included McClain's last words as he was apprehended by Aurora police in August 2019. He died days after the encounter.

His death has prompted widespread protests calling for police accountability and an end to police violence, which led to the June 27 demonstration that drew thousands of people and ended with police dispersing protesters.

Those actions led to Tuesday's special meeting. Mayor Mike Coffman said he wanted to get a better picture of what happened.

The protest started at about 1 p.m. and shortly turned into a march. During her presentation Tuesday, interim police chief Vanessa Wilson said things got heated much later, at about 7 p.m. Wilson said the protest was largely peaceful, and she conceded that she could have done a better job communicating with organizers beforehand.

She took full responsibility for police actions that day.

Before the protest, Wilson said the department received intelligence -- she didn't specify from where -- that there were plans from "some organizers" to riot.

Wilson said "agitators" in the protest escalated things after rocks and bottles were thrown at cops near the Aurora Municipal Center. Wilson said cops responded with things like pepper spray and smoke canisters, not tear gas as was initially reported. She added that undercover police officers heard about plans for violence from some protesters. Some screamed at cops to stop using smoke canisters and pepper spray.

Councilwoman Crystal Murrilo, who attended the protest, wanted to know why an overwhelmingly peaceful demonstration ended the way it did.

"The people are traumatized now as a result of what happened," Murillo said.

During their presentation, Aurora police played videos, including some of people taking down barriers near the Aurora Municipal Center. The department showed photos of people wearing protective gear, like helmets and goggles, which the department identified as belonging to "agitators."

Police said they saw one person open-carrying a gun, someone carrying a hammer, and others carrying rocks and pipes in their backpacks.

Council member Alison Coombs asked why people wearing protective equipment were singled out as potentially hostile.

"They can wear helmets if they like," Wilson said in response. "Every other rally or demonstration that I have seen on the great lawn, no one showed up in that outfit. They also weren't pulling pipes out of their backpacks and passing out rocks. That's the things I'm focusing on."

The department on Twitter said "members of the crowd are throwing rocks and bottles" and warned that pepper spray could be used. The department said "unruly protesters" had thrown rocks, sticks and bottles at police officers during the protest, claims officers on Tuesday repeated..

The department used its Emergency Response Team, comprised of the police who were at the protest outfitted in SWAT-like gear, once things escalated. But the department said they were purposefully kept out of sight during the protests and were held back until the department started to disperse the crowd.

"I'm just concerned that nobody apparently listens to the police anymore," Councilwoman Francoise Bergan said, adding that people who chose to stay after the dispersal orders made a personal choice to potentially expose themselves to smoke canisters.

Wilson said at least 80 ERT officers responded during the protest; additional officers from Arapahoe and Adams counties were requested. She estimated there were at least 110 officers total.

Councilman Juan Marcano, who said he witnessed some of the action firsthand, requested the department release more video from officer body cameras.

Aurora police released selected footage of the protest. Wilson said she was open to releasing "hundreds of hours" of the footage but said she was unclear on how to release so much data.

During the meeting, federal authorities, including the FBI and Department of Justice, revealed they have been investigating McClain's death since it happened last year. The Colorado Attorney General's Office is also investigating the case, while the City of Aurora is mulling its own independent investigation.

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