Aurora police response to protest questioned by community members, city leaders

After weeks of criticism for responding too aggressively to a protest of police brutality, Aurora police on Monday faced a new wave of criticism for not doing enough to prevent violence and property damage during another protest on Saturday.

Some members of City Council and the mayor during a meeting Monday evening questioned the department’s hands-off approach that allowed some in the crowd to damage windows of city buildings and set fire to the municipal courthouse. At the same time as the meeting started, protest organizers and community members held a rally demanding to know how a driver was able to speed through the crowds of hundreds of protesters — causing one woman to fall off the elevated interstate — and then why police didn’t arrest the driver when he stopped.

“That is 1,000 counts of attempted vehicular homicide,” said Candice Bailey, one of the organizers of the Saturday protest.

Deputy City Manager Jason Batchelor said that the police department opted to use a more hands-off approach in response to Saturday’s protest after facing weeks of criticism and a federal lawsuit for using pepper spray and physical force on a largely peaceful crowd gathered June 27 to protest the death of Elijah McClain at the hands of Aurora police.

“We had criticism in the past from council members and others that having police officers there would escalate the situation,” Batchelor said.

Batchelor said officers were in the area of the protest the whole time but that they were purposefully hidden from view. The officers did not use any rubber bullets or other less lethal munitions, he said. The city does not yet have an estimate of the cost of damage, but Batchelor said at least 20 windows were broken.

Three people were injured during the protest: the woman who fell from the highway, as well as two people who were shot when someone in the crowd opened fire as the Jeep drove through the group.

The city’s police brass were scheduled to explain their decisions at the study session meeting Monday evening, but were called away after two Aurora police officers were injured in a shooting in Denver while the meeting was underway. Instead, Batchelor answered questions from City Council members and the mayor on behalf of the police department.

Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman said city leadership will have further conversations with the department about strategy regarding protesters, whom he called “the opposition.”

An hour before the presentation to City Council, community organizers and people who were at the protest Saturday gathered outside an Aurora library and criticized the police for failing to keep a driver from barreling through the hundreds peacefully demonstrating on Interstate 225 and for choosing not to arrest the driver.

“The Aurora Police Department allowed the Jeep to come into us and try to murder us,” Bailey said.

The man who crashed his truck into the Jeep in an attempt to stop it from hitting people also criticized how the Jeep driver, who has not been identified publicly by police, was not arrested.

“Elijah McClain wasn’t even allowed to walk home from the convenience store,” Sebastian Sassi said, comparing how Aurora police reacted to the two incidents.

The debriefing Monday is the second time in a month that department leadership has been summoned to explain their actions while responding to protests in front of city government buildings.

On June 30, Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson defended her decisions to use pepper spray and force to move peaceful people off the lawn in front of city hall during a violin vigil for Elijah McClain. She cited the actions of a few who were pushing down fences and throwing water bottles at police, as well as an armed person, as reasons for the aggressive push.

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