DENVER (AP) — The new leader of a suburban Denver police department whose officers put Elijah McClain in a chokehold before the young Black man died last year and handcuffed Black girls over the weekend said Wednesday that she wants to empower police to veer away from strict training protocols and think about whether they are acting on their biases.
Vanessa Wilson, who was named chief of the Aurora Police Department this week after serving as its interim leader, told The Associated Press that she is committed to rebuilding the public’s trust. She takes the job as the agency reels from encounters with Black people that have drawn widespread attention on social media and triggered a series of investigations.
Aurora’s first female chief, who is white, said the scene captured on video of the girls lying face down on the ground Sunday next to a car that police thought was stolen was “inhumane and just unbelievable to watch.” Two of the girls were placed in handcuffs and a 6-year-old girl wearing a pink crown cried for her mother.
It wouldn’t have happened if officers had used their common sense to respond to what they observed, Wilson said.
“I know that people are angry and disgusted by what they saw. And so am I,” Wilson said. “I also want to tell you that a lot of our own officers are dismayed and angered about why in the world that call went that way.”
The car was later determined not to be stolen. The police chief said an internal investigation has begun.
Officers are trained to draw guns and put people on the ground when stopping a suspected stolen car because it’s considered high risk, but when the mother, Brittney Gilliam, told police the car was not stolen and there were children inside, they should have put their guns away and talked to her from a safe distance, Wilson said.
The car had the same license plate number as a motorcycle reported stolen from another state, but officers failed to crosscheck an alert about Gilliam’s vehicle with the original stolen motorcycle report, Wilson said.
While interim chief, Wilson decided that because of implicit bias and racism in the world, officers no longer had to contact a person reported to be suspicious, as McClain was as he walked home from a store last August, if they didn’t see evidence of a crime.
Police stopped McClain, 23, put him in a chokehold and then paramedics gave him 500 milligrams of ketamine to calm him down. McClain suffered cardiac arrest and was later taken off life support.
The Colorado attorney general is now investigating after a local prosecutor said last year there wasn’t enough evidence to charge the officers. It’s one of a handful of investigations into McClain’s death, including a city review of police policies like use of force.
“I have changed the directive on suspicious-person calls so that if someone is called in as suspicious just because of the color of their skin, that officers don’t have to be robotic in their response,” Wilson said.
She noted that residents sometimes complain if they don’t see a police presence after those calls. She said that the community needs to support the shift in policing and that she would defend her officers for using their best judgment.
Wilson said everyone, including police, should be aware of their implicit biases and check themselves to see if they’re acting on them.
“I think the call to action across the nation has been heard loud and clear, not only for me as the chief of Aurora, but other chiefs across the nation,” she said. “And we need to do better, and we need to listen to the community and give them a voice and police them the way they want to be policed.”
Activists and leaders in Colorado say they hope Wilson, who’s been with the department for 23 years, can create meaningful change.
Gov. Jared Polis told reporters Tuesday that he hopes Wilson is ready to work to increase transparency and rebuild trust.
McClain family lawyer Mari Newman said she’s wary of Wilson’s experience within a department riddled with brutality and racism but is also an optimist.
“My hope is that she will prove that she has not just the moral compass but also the fortitude to do the right thing and to overhaul a broken department,” Newman said Tuesday.
Shenika Carter, a community activist, wants Wilson to require anti-racist and anti-oppression training for officers. Carter said the department cannot tolerate any “bad apples” because the actions of those officers can be life or death for people of color. She also wants police to acknowledge that racism exists within the department and the role it played in McClain’s treatment.
“Acknowledge the mistake, acknowledge that he is deceased because of the biases that existed,” she said.
Marc Sears, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police chapter, said Wilson is the right person to lead the department and is free as permanent chief to make the changes she wants without fear of a replacement undoing them.
Patty Nieberg, a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative, contributed to this report.