Aurora City Council members pause proposal to ban police from using tear gas

The proposal would also ban police from using pepper spray against protesters.

A series of rallies and protests in Aurora demanding justice for Elijah McClain. June 27, 2020.

A series of rallies and protests in Aurora demanding justice for Elijah McClain. June 27, 2020.

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

staff photo

Aurora’s public safety committee on Thursday hit pause on a proposal to ban the police department’s use of weapons meant to subdue people without killing them.

Council members Juan Marcano, Alison Coombs and Crystal Murillo sponsored the bill, which would ban police from using tear gas in all situations and ban pepper spray from being used against demonstrators during protests. Lawmakers said Thursday that they were concerned for residents’ health after police officers used tear gas in residential neighborhoods during protests for racial justice.

Council members Allison Hiltz, Curtis Gardner and Angela Lawson, the committee’s three voting members, were concerned that the proposal’s language might not translate to a ban on pepper spray in practice. After a lengthy discussion, the committee chose not to forward the bill to the full city council and instead keep it at the committee level to be tweaked before a vote of the full council.

It’s possible that when the committee hears the proposal again, it will be in the form of a resolution, which is an official directive, rather than a law. Hiltz suggested the proposal should be a resolution that directs the chief to make policy changes. Marcano said he was open to introducing the bill as a resolution.

The proposal is one of several lawmakers in Aurora are submitting and proposing to retool its embattled police department. This summer, the department faced criticism over its handling of protests, arrests procedures and renewed calls for an investigation into Elijah McClain’s death.

The discussion about the tear gas proposal came after the committee saw a video demonstration of Aurora police’s “less-than-lethal” tools, including pepper spray and tear gas.

Aurora police Sgt. Matt Brukbacher holds up a tear gas canister during a video demonstrating the department's less-than-lethal means. (Screengrab from YouTube)

Aurora police Sgt. Matt Brukbacher holds up a tear gas canister during a video demonstrating the department's less-than-lethal means. (Screengrab from YouTube)

The department was criticized after they responded with pepper spray and smoke canisters during a protest and vigil for McClain on June 27. The department said at the time the response was due to a small group of agitators at the largely peaceful event.

Police Chief Vanessa Wilson said she supports some reform measures for the department, but she said banning the use of these deterrents would make officers less safe and called Marcano’s proposal concerning.

She added the statewide police accountability law enacted this summer already puts limits on police using deadly force and requires officers to report all use-of-force incidents. Council member Francoise Michelle Bergan voiced similar concerns about placing limits on cops.

“I really do not want to take away tools that put our police in harm’s way and also don’t allow our police to protect innocent victims,” Bergan said.

Some council members said they want the proposal’s language to give the chief more flexibility for when the weapons are used.

On Tuesday, Mayor Mike Coffman, who’s a member of the city council, took to Twitter to voice his opposition to the proposed ban on chemical agents. He called out the three council members who sponsored the proposal, suggesting if they didn’t believe Wilson could be trusted to know when to use the non-lethal methods, they should not have voted for her confirmation in August.

The committee on Thursday also forwarded a bill placing restrictions on the federal 1033 program, which provides military equipment to law enforcement agencies. Aurora police has received a mine-resistant armored vehicle and 151 rifles through the program.

Two bills discussed Thursday focused on the military-like equipment program. A bill introduced by Gardner was forwarded to the council and would require that any requests for equipment from this program would be approved by the city council.

A much broader bill banning the city and the police from using the federal program, introduced by Marcano, was not forwarded and will come back before the public safety committee. Marcano and other council members believe this bill, along with the ban of chemical agents by police, are an important step toward demilitarizing the police department.

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