These two things are true: The world is not a simple place; and we simply cannot allow police to go rounding up innocent Aurora residents in an attempt to catch robbers.
I didn’t come to these conclusions fast or easily. And like many of you, I’ve thought a lot about it since police Chief Dan Oates said he stands behind a June 2 ruckus involving 20 cars, 40 innocent people, a lot of handcuffs and one scary bank robber.
The story is riveting. That Saturday afternoon a robber wearing a bee-farmer’s mask burst into the Wells Fargo Bank at East Hampden Avenue and South Chambers Road. He had a pistol in each hand, was angrily barking orders and pointing the guns at a variety of people. A short time later, police surmised he was in one of a couple dozen cars eastbound on Iliff near Buckley, about two miles from the bank. So a boatload of cops, including the SWAT team, pounced on the area, stopped about 20 cars, and police began going car to car looking for the robber. Guns drawn, they forced drivers, children and passengers from their cars. They handcuffed a lot of men and some women, detaining people for about two hours.
To many of our readers, it was a clear case of a wayward, brutal police department turning Aurora into a George Orwell novel to pluck off a robber or satisfy some sick hormonal problem.
It was nothing like that.
Some police supporters, however, including at least a couple of city council members, cheered police for quick, innovative thinking and for getting a bad guy off the streets.
They are equally mistaken about the wisdom of the police department’s daring but dangerous stunt.
Investigators sincerely believed that robbery suspect Christian Paetsch was a deadly menace. And, police were just as certain that by halting traffic, they could catch him.
Stopping traffic and looking for drunk-driving suspects or even dangerous suspects is pretty rare, but it’s not unheard of. And I know this is all pretty disturbing, but I don’t buy into the howling protesters claiming that machine-gun toting police Nazis have irrevocably traumatized every kid involved. It’s a bad world out there, folks. Columbine, Sept. 11 and Virginia Tech are but a few reminders of what happens when we believe America is or ever was immune to the deadly antics of crazy people.
No, from what we’ve learned, police handled the situation as expertly as a seat-of-the-pants caper like this can be carried out.
In fact, police were so professional and accommodating, that many people are overlooking the most galling point here: that police essentially stopped and rounded up about 40 people in 20 cars on an unremarkable public street in hopes of finding a crook, and they handcuffed a bunch of innocent people.
It’s chilling. Not so much that they did it, but that police officials believed they could. That they should. That they might do it again. Because there are so many compelling and dramatic issues here, and because it’s clear, at least to me, that police acted in good faith, it’s easy to overlook the big picture. We cannot, under any circumstances, allow the police or military to round people up, detain and handcuff them, unless cops have a valid and compelling reason to suspect they’ve committed a crime. This kind of policing is what the Fourth Amendment was created to prevent. By law, we prohibit police from stopping groups or individuals unless they’re suspected of committing a crime.
Just as unsettling is how dangerous the operation was, knowing that this robber was inside one of 20 cars all within shooting range of each other, and that the robber was so unhinged and so dangerous that police would go to such an extreme to get him, dozens of innocents were put at risk. That they had to handcuff people makes it obvious there weren’t enough police to handle such an improvisation.
This isn’t a decision for the Aurora police to make, at least not without the review and sanction of the public and civilian leaders.
It’s not a leap to see that such stunts are far too dangerous, and Aurora’s city council needs to step in to ensure this kind of policing, however well-intentioned, ends here.
Reach editor Dave Perry at 303-750-7555 or [email protected]