Attorney leading Aurora’s independent Elijah McClain investigation sees a chance for “genuine conversations” about policing

Jonathan Smith will be leading a civil investigation over the events that led to McClain’s death last year.

Jordan Cain leads a protest demanding justice for Elijah McClain at Aurora's municipal complex. July 25, 2020.

Jordan Cain leads a protest demanding justice for Elijah McClain at Aurora's municipal complex. July 25, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photo

The civil rights attorney tapped to lead Aurora’s independent investigation into Elijah McClain’s death admits he’s not super-familiar with Colorado. Jonathan Smith, who serves as executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, has visited the state a few times on vacation, but that’s about it.

What Smith does know are contentious interactions between civilians and police. He said during a recent phone interview from Washington that he has investigated more than 20 such cases across the country as a federal investigator.

He led a team that investigated Ferguson’s police department after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. Investigators spoke to multiple city leaders in Ferguson and half of the department’s officers, took part in ride-alongs, and reviewed 35,000-plus pages of police records.

The resulting 105-page report, released in March 2015, made 13 broad recommendations for police, including that the department should implement a “true” system of community policing. It called on officers to avoid using force and to change how they conducted stops and searches, issued citations and made arrests. Some of the recommendations would later be codified in a consent decree the police department entered with the feds in 2016 to resolve a potential federal lawsuit.

“Mr. Smith has a very, very diverse background,” said Aurora City Councilwoman Allison Hiltz. She recommended Smith for the job. “He’s worked both at the local level, in some of the more community-based approaches.”

Smith is still putting together the three-person team (including himself) to investigate the events that led to McClain’s death after an encounter with Aurora police and paramedics on Aug. 24, 2019. As part of the civil investigation, the team will review whether cops and paramedics involved in attempting to detain McClain broke department rules during the incident.

The investigation was approved by Aurora City Council last month. It will make suggestions for possible changes to police and paramedic policies and training guidelines. Smith said the recommendations could be a step toward larger reform in the police department and lead to larger changes within city government.

A flower and candlelight vigil for Elijah McClain in Aurora on July 11, 2020

Kate Newton, left, and Taylor Bergeron bought flowers to place at the memorial during a candlelight and floral vigil for Elijah McClain on July 11, 2020, at Utah Park in Aurora, Colo.

(Alyson McClaran for Denverite)

 

The ongoing demonstrations against racism and police brutality, McClain’s death, and other recent incidents involving Aurora cops, have put the city of Aurora under an intense microscope.

“I think there’s an opportunity, particularly in this moment, for there to be genuine conversations about moving forward on how we’re gonna address the inequity that has been created by the way our criminal system operates,” Smith said.

Jonathan Smith. Courtesy photo.

Jonathan Smith. Courtesy photo.

Smith replaced a previous investigator hired by the city.

Eric Daigle, a Connecticut-based attorney and former Connecticut State Police detective, was initially hired for the investigation but was dropped in June. Hiltz said Daigle was qualified, but the optics didn’t look good: He’s a former cop who specialized in defending police officers from liability claims.

In addition to Smith’s investigation into the McClain case, the city of Aurora announced Tuesday it was launching an independent investigation into the police department as a whole. The Colorado Attorney’s General’s office also announced Tuesday that it was investigating the police department in addition to its investigation into McClain, whose family has filed a federal lawsuit against the city. The federal government launched its own investigation into the McClain case last year.

Smith said his investigative team will “need to be extremely careful not to do anything to interfere” with the criminal investigation led by the Colorado Attorney General’s office. They will be in contact as they investigate; Smith said he’s met with to the AG’s office, which will determine whether officers committed a crime.

Lawrence Pacheco, a spokesperson for the AG’s office, said in a statement that, “in order to maintain the impartiality and integrity of these investigations,” the office wouldn’t be providing further comment on its probe.

Hiltz called for the review of all Aurora Police Department policies and practices.

“I think this is a first step,” Hiltz said of Smith’s investigation.

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