Here we go again, Aurora.
An Aurora police officer is accused of wrongly killing someone in the line of duty. While it’s unusual, the tragedy isn’t rare enough.
Last week, in what should be the definition of surreal conundrums police must face these days, a drug-enraged naked man broke into the home of an elderly veteran in the middle of the night and tried to drown his 11-year-old grandson in a bathtub. Somehow in the chaos, the decorated war veteran, Richard Black, got his gun and shot the intruder dead. Seconds later, about 13 seconds, police rescuers rushing into the house shot the hero-vet dead.
It will be weeks, maybe even months, maybe even never before the public finds out why a trained cop shot someone dead that, after the fact, would be regrettable.
To say that Black shouldn’t have been shot under the wild and bizarre circumstances would be prejudging the details of the bizarre melee.
For Aurora police, the scenario is uncomfortably familiar. A cop “wrongly” shoots, tases, arrests or assaults someone, and an internal investigation takes place. Sometimes the investigation is completely internal. Other times, the investigation is completed jointly with another police agency or prosecutors. It is never independent.
Outside agencies, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, sometimes take up the case, sue the police department, and the win huge settlements for the subjects of police regret, or their surviving family members.
Police and city officials then say that the huge settlements do not imply police wrongdoing, only that it’s a way to save taxpayer money by avoiding an expensive lawsuit to defend the cops.
City officials have spent millions on such settlements in their effort to save taxpayers money. There is little doubt that millions of Aurora taxpayer dollars are destined for the family of Richard Black.
What never happens during these cases in Aurora is an independent investigation. It’s because police have long had a stranglehold on the process, refusing to allow a truly independent oversight committee to investigate allegations of police wrongdoing. There is no committee here — like there is in so many large police departments like Aurora’s across the country — that is free of political pressure, police union influence, political appearances, prosecutor entanglements or any agenda other than looking out for the public’s interest by assessing situations gone wrong in the police department.
It’s a shameful hole in an otherwise solid police department.
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. The city paid $2.6 million in a settlement.
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.” That settlement was $110,000. Just last month, Aurora shelled out tens of thousands of dollars for allegations of police malfeasance in two cases that were never investigated publicly and which police refuse to talk about.
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 rank and file.
The city’s stacked oversight committee, run by the police chief and city manager, undermine the credibility and reputation of one of the best police forces in the country because it is not autonomous nor independent.
City lawmakers should end Aurora’s farcical oversight device and appoint a committee to create a truly independent and empowered panel that can credibly back police when they’re wrongly maligned, or expose serious incompetence or malfeasance if it’s uncovered.
Too much is at stake to continue to undermine the integrity of the police force and the hundreds of officers who diligently toe the line of this highly respected agency.
Aurora should work to create an independent panel immediately to analyze how a cop shot dead an apparent rescuer inside a scene of utter chaos.
Otherwise, a prosecutor or grand jury will decline to press charges. Police will go mum to “protect” taxpayers from an inevitable lawsuit. The city will write a huge check to the dead veteran’s family, and the next regrettable death, assault or other action by police will appear on the horizon.