EDITORIAL: Aurora police oversight opportunity comes now

If a truly independent oversight panel reports that police did no wrong, the results would be credible in ways the current system can never be. If the panel finds wrongdoing, it’s up to existing police, criminal justice and court systems to address the issue

It’s virtually impossible for the Aurora police to bring about meaningful change to the city’s police review and oversight process. That change must come from city council, and the Nov.7 election could make that finally possible.

The Aurora Sentinel has asked city council candidates if they would support modifying the city’s police oversight system to ensure it is independent, transparent and accountable to the public. Many of them agreed to move forward or at least review new proposals.

Aurora is at a crossroads. Five of the city council’s 10 seats are up for election. Three seats have no incumbent and the two that do are mightily challenged. Also, the next city council chooses a new city manager, a powerful and influential source of direction for the city.

Previous city lawmakers and administrators have bent to the will of police unions and members, creating an oversight system that has no credibility because it is essentially run by the city’s police chief and city manager.

Aurora once found itself in an enviable position.  In the wake of seemingly endless tragedies across the country, resulting in dead and injured black Americans and big-city cops, racially charged incidents between the public and police have been relatively few. The public’s consternation has been relatively sedate.

That may no longer be the case. Aurora police have had a steady stream of incidents where a very few officers have made questionable calls or whose behavior was suspect. Tragically, some of those incidents have resulted in citizen deaths or injuries at the hands of police. In the business of law enforcement, controversy is assured.  We recognize that even for a large department responsible for public safety in an urban area, dubious incidents have been rare in Aurora. That reflects on the professionalism, ethics and skill of the force. But Aurora police have been decreasingly forthcoming about recent tragedies and controversy. That needlessly undermines their credibility and reputation.

It took almost a year for the public to get answers after a veteran and highly esteemed Aurora SWAT officer on March 6, 2015 shot and killed Naeschylus Vinzant — an unarmed black man being sought for a parole violation. A grand jury decided the officer should not face criminal charges.

More recently, police have been criticized for how they handled a confrontation with two innocent black men being questioned about a nearby crime. One of the men was tased by an officer who told the injured black man to look at a police camera.

“Hey, look right here,” one officer told the injured man. “It’s all on video, sweetheart.”

There has yet to be a satisfactory explanation for the officer’s behavior. Like in so many cases, these incidents result in large payout settlements backed by taxpayers, assurances by police that there was no wrongdoing, and shoulder shrugs as everyone explains they’ve agreed not to talk.

Aurora residents deserver better, and so do police. These antics undermine the credibility and reputation of one of the best police forces in the country. Hiding behind the potential for litigation and case integrity, police regularly said little or nothing about controversial episodes, leaving the public to believe something is behind the strong criticism of groups like Black Lives Matter. It’s a false and spurious argument that it must be this way. The country is filled with police agencies and cities that boast reputable and accountable police oversight systems.

Currently the city’s system appoints four officers and four citizens to a panel that reviews controversies. Their assessment goes to city staff. While the make-up of a better board may be the same, the difference would be that it has full authority to compel all evidence and solicit interviews, and that its report be given directly to the public, without interference from police, management or city council. If a panel like that says police did no wrong, the results would be credible in ways the current system can never be. If the panel finds wrongdoing, it’s up to existing police, criminal justice and court systems to address the issue.

But clearly these racially charged incidents will not end, and there’s too much at stake in civil rights, police reputation and even lives to permit anything but a truly independent police oversight system.

The Aurora Sentinel has made its city council recommendations based partly on this issue, and we recommend you make your choices keeping in mind this critical issue, too.