Time’s up, Aurora police. Almost two weeks ago, a north Aurora neighborhood was turned upside down when a SWAT team arrest of a parolee went bad, and the unarmed man was shot to death by police.
And after almost two weeks and what have certainly been hundreds of police-hours of investigation — nothing.
Although officials released the name of the man they shot, Naeschylus Vinzant, the next day, it wasn’t even police who released the name. That came from the coroner’s office. And that was about all the public got for more than a week. It took that long to release the name of the officer who fired the lethal shot, Paul Jerothe, with the department since 2006.
After that announcement late last week, nothing more. The case has been moved to the Jefferson County district attorney’s office to avoid a possible conflict of interest. Jerothe may be working with the Arapahoe County DA on the Aurora theater shooting trial. Two weeks after the shooting, the community knows next to nothing. Two weeks after an arrest on a neighborhood street near a school turned into a shooting scene, nothing?
It’s time to talk. What we do know is that Aurora just got a new police chief, Nick Metz, and that Metz said all the right things during his own trial by fire just days after he started. In an atmosphere where police shooting unarmed black people has caused untold havoc across the country, the police shooting of an unarmed black man right here in Aurora isn’t just your average police incident.
Clearly Metz appreciates that, saying that he wants to ensure that an investigation reveals an accurate accounting to the public. But even if Vinzant had been white and armed to the teeth, police must reveal enough detail for the public to understand what happened. Making this kind of information public isn’t a choice, it’s a legal obligation. Everyone understands the need to keep some details secret as prosecutors sort out the need to either press for charges or clear Jerothe. But to say that revealing basic details about the incident would spoil the investigation and a potential case is a load of hooey. Sitting on public information under the guise of “active investigation” is a bad habit by police agencies across the country that’s now become a national epidemic, one that state lawmakers here need to address. Prosecutors might have persuaded Metz and police total secrecy is called for to protect “the case,” but it’s not.
Revealing after two weeks and this intensive of an investigation whether the shooting was accidental, or whether the officer fired to either prevent Vinzant from fleeing or in fear of being attacked is enough for the community to determine what it should do in the absence of a response by leaders.
When someone at one protest said that Vinzant was handcuffed when he was shot, police immediately said it was untrue. Answering to a charge like that and saying nothing else paints the police as coy and cagey. Public information shouldn’t be a game of 20 questions.
This isn’t Ferguson, Missouri. But there are lots of black residents, and others, who are uneasy with all police, including our own. By handling the investigation of this incident this way, Aurora police squander and undermine the good will the community has, and that police here have rightfully earned.
Metz should appear with Jefferson County prosecutors to outline at least major details of the shooting and explain to the public why such an investigation should cloud the public’s understanding. Officials must explain what the plan and schedule is to provide a full explanation, and possible action.
But shrugging off the legal and moral obligation to make basic details public because the incident is “under investigation,” this long after the shooting, doesn’t cut it.