DENVER — A woman has been chosen as the new chief of a suburban Denver police department looking to regain public trust following a tumultuous year filled with scrutiny after the death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man officers stopped on the street and put into a chokehold.
Interim chief Vanessa Wilson was picked to be the permanent leader of the Aurora Police Department in a 10-1 vote Monday night, becoming the first woman named to the position, after competing with three other nationwide finalists to lead the agency in Colorado’s third largest city, a diverse community east of Denver.
The national reckoning over racism and police brutality following the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other Black people brought renewed attention and criticism to Aurora police over the August 2019 death of McClain, who was stopped as officers responded to a call about a suspicious person wearing a ski mask and waving his arms as he walked down a street. Police put him in a chokehold and paramedics administered a sedative, ketamine. He suffered cardiac arrest and later died.
The national reckoning over racism and police brutality following the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other Black people brought renewed attention and criticism to Aurora police over the August 2019 death of McClain, who was stopped as officers responded to a call about a suspicious person wearing a ski mask and waving his arms as he walked down a street.
Three white police officers confronted him, with police body-camera video showing one approaching McClain and telling him: “Stop right there. Stop. Stop. ... I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious.”
The officer tells McClain to “Stop tensing up,” and “Relax, or I’m going to have to change this situation,” as McClain tries to escape the officer’s grip.
In the video, McClain tells officers: “Let go of me. I am an introvert. Please respect the boundaries that I am speaking.”
Police put him in a chokehold, and other officers and paramedics arrive, who gave him 500 milligrams of the sedative ketamine to calm him down. McClain suffered cardiac arrest, was later declared brain dead and taken off life support several days later.
Aurora police have said McClain refused to stop walking and fought back when officers tried to take him into custody. The officers used a chokehold that cuts off blood to the brain — a tactic recently banned in several places following Floyd’s death.
A local district attorney decided last year not to charge the Aurora officers, citing a pathologist’s determination that it was inconclusive exactly how McClain died. Following police brutality protests nationwide, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis appointed the state’s top prosecutor in June to open a new investigation into the officers’ actions.
It is one of several new inquiries underway into McClain’s death.
The U.S. government has revealed that it is considering a possible a civil rights investigation, while the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is investigating what role the sedative played in his death. City officials also are reviewing police policies, including use of force, law enforcement calls for medical assistance and the use of ketamine.
Three officers were fired last month over their involvement in taking and sharing photos of police reenacting the chokehold near where McClain was stopped, a spot that had become a memorial.
Wilson ordered the police unit that investigates fellow officers to make the photo investigation a priority, and as she announced her decision to fire the officers, she called the photos “a crime against humanity and decency.”
Firing them without a hearing by an internal review board prompted criticism from the Aurora Police Association, with the officers union calling her actions “extremely concerning.” It accused Wilson of making the decision because she was a finalist for the top job.
The department also has been criticized for its use of force against protesters as well as an officer’s decision to draw a gun on an Indian-American doctor outside his center for refugees.
Internal controversies also have emerged, including an officer who was found passed out drunk at the wheel of his parked but running patrol car. The scandal led the person in line to take over as acting chief to step aside late last year, leading Wilson to take over as the temporary leader in January.
In a city statement announcing Wilson’s selection, Wilson said Aurora is at a crossroads and that she was committed to having the police department be “an active and engaged part of this community.”
“We will be a transparent partner dedicated to making Aurora a safer city for all, with respect for our diversity, an embrace of unity, and continual conversation about how we can do better,” she said.
Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.