Photo courtesy of Dave Russell of Buffalo Heart Images.
To everyone reaching out about Elijah McClain–thank you for doing what you’re doing.
For far too long we’ve allowed injustices to go unchallenged and we’ve put off hard conversations about the effectiveness and legitimacy of our institutions. I hear you, I see you, and I want to help direct your energy and passion so it can be as impactful as possible.
The purpose of this post is to give you a run-down on how our municipal government is structured, what we’re able to do, and how to make sure your time and efforts are spent as effectively as possible.
If you don’t have enough time to read 1,450 words, here’s as brief as summary as I can manage:
- Aurora City Council is a legislative body and doesn’t have the power to re-open Elijah’s case, but we can hire an independent investigator, which we’re doing.
- The independent investigator may present new evidence which will allow District Attorney Dave Young (or his replacement) to re-open the case.
- If there is an active case, this opens an opportunity for our police chief to take action.
- We’re doing a lot of legislative work on short-term reforms and mid-to-long term systemic change to make sure this never happens again. Stay tuned.
How Aurora’s Government Works
Aurora uses a council-manager form of government. This means that our mayor is the head of state (think Queen of England) of Aurora and not the head of government (think Prime Minister, Governor, President). In Aurora, the mayor by and large just chairs our meetings and can only vote to make or break a tie. For comparison, Denver has a mayor-council form of government, meaning their mayor is a strong executive like our governor or the president. Aurora’s executive powers are given to a city manager that is hired by a majority vote of city council. The city manager has no voting power and handles the day-to-day affairs of the city. He also hires our chief of police and fire chief with the consent of city council–similar to how a Supreme Court nomination requires a vote of the U.S. Senate–and it is they who oversee our civil service employees (fire and police). The city manager also manages the city’s career service employees (parks and recreation, finance, public works, etc.).
Aurora’s city council is a legislative body and has no executive authority (again, this rests with the city manager). City council is prohibited by the city charter (equivalent of the city’s constitution) to call for the termination of any career service or civil service employee.
Here is a link to the part of the city charter that limits council’s power.
Neither the council nor any of its committees or members shall direct or request the appointment of any person to, or his removal from, employment by the city manager, or in any manner take part in the appointment or removal of employees in the administrative service of the city, except as otherwise provided in this Charter. The council and its members shall deal with that portion of the administrative service for which the city manager is responsible solely through the manager, and neither the council nor any member thereof shall give orders to any employee of the city either publicly or privately. Any violation of the provisions of this section by a member of the council shall constitute misconduct and shall be punishable in such manner as may be in the discretion of the other members of the council.
This is why we’ve been “silent” relating to the asks to terminate specific employees. Again, we are literally unable to do what many of you are asking us to do. That doesn’t mean we’re not taking action, though.
In The Works
My colleagues on the Public Safety, Courts, and Civil Service committee requested that our city manager terminate the contract with the original independent investigator into Elijah’s case due to concerns over impartiality. I strongly agree with this move.
A new independent investigator will be hired by the city manager–a formal presentation on his plan has been requested for the July 16th Public Safety, Courts, and Civil Service meeting. This is important because nothing can be or will be done by District Attorney Dave Young unless new evidence is brought forth. If this happens, it creates an opportunity for the Chief of Police to take action if they chose to do so. That is the extent of the direct action we can take as a city council as it relates to the murder of Elijah McClain. We’re not stopping here, though.
The issue we’re dealing with is systemic and has been with us long before Elijah was added to the scrolls of Black people killed by police in the image above. I and several of my colleagues are working on a number of short-term reforms and broader systemic changes that will be brought to the Public Safety, Courts, and Civil Service committee in the months to come. We are working on issues including use of force, demilitarization, prohibiting the use of sedatives (including ketamine), reallocation of funds, redelegation of responsibilities, reevaluating staffing requirements, and more. All of this ties right into the selection of a new Chief of Police for Aurora.
I am also co-hosting a forum entitled But Why Though?: Police and Public Safety in Aurora with Councilmember Coombs (Ward 5) and Councilmember Murillo (Ward 1). We will be discussing the history of policing in the United States, the ways which our current laws criminalize poverty, the school to prison pipeline, and what abolition of the carceral state means and could look like. It is sure to be a thought-provoking event and I hope you tune in to listen to our panel and ask tough questions. The forum will be on Monday, June 29th at 6:30 PM MST. You can find a registration link for the Facebook event here and a registration link to participate via WebEx here.
If you live in Judicial District 17 (Adams and Broomfield Counties) there is an election in November that will determine who will succeed District Attorney Dave Young. This is the same district that will handle Elijah McClain’s case should it be reopened. I suggest you contact the candidates and bring your demands to them directly.
If you live in Judicial District 18 (Douglas and Arapahoe Counties) there is a primary election on June 30th and a general election in November. In the interest of full disclosure, I have endorsed Amy Padden in this race because I believe we have shared values when it comes to criminal justice reform and I trust her to do the work that needs to be done. I suggest you contact the candidates and grill them on what they will do to live up to the challenges we’re facing as a country.
If you live elsewhere, know that district attorneys have enormous power to hold our institutions accountable. Find out who is running, do your homework, ask them hard questions, and vote accordingly in your primaries and general elections.
If you live in Aurora, a lot of the work we’re doing is not likely to be universally popular and will require community involvement to get done. Whether it is Breonna, Elijah, Eric, George, and all the other names on those two scrolls, we need to remember that these issues are institutional and the only way we can meaningfully address them is by changing the institutions themselves. My colleagues and I have the courage to bring these works forward, but the opposition (which includes the Fraternal Order of Police) will be doing everything they can to keep reform and institutional changes off the table. We’ve already received threats of censure, recall, etc., and it’s going to get louder and meaner as the ordinances are rolled out. We will need your power to push through.
As an activist, I am awed by your energy and enthusiasm. As I am writing this, we’ve gotten over 27,000 emails addressed to all of council, and I have received over three thousand voicemails and texts. I don’t know how many calls our council staff has received but I imagine it’s in the thousands by now as well. I can’t respond to each and every one of you so please don’t believe I’m ignoring you–I simply don’t have the resources to do so.
Judge us by the actions we can take and are taking.
Myself and many of my new colleagues were elected on November 5th 2019 and sworn in on December 2nd 2019. This yielded a majority on the Aurora City Council which is willing to act in meaningful ways. Things move agonizingly slow in government, especially with a “part-time” city council (another topic for another day), and especially on matters as pressing as this. Know that I and most of my colleagues are doing what we can to live up to the challenge of the moment.
I believe our goal should be to work to build a society where these kinds of tragedies will never happen again, and a city where our budget is geared predominantly towards meeting our residents’ needs. We will pay for public safety one way or another–whether it is proactively through housing, supportive services, and direct investment in our community, or reactively through police, courts, and jails. I choose to be proactive. It is our duty to build a city, a country, and a world worthy of the people whose sacrifices have led us to this point.
We hear your anger, your pain, your frustration. It is righteous. It is justified. We hear your call to action, and we are at your service. Black Lives Matter. Elijah McClain matters. We have not forgotten what happened in our city last August.