Aurora’s heavily white police force is firing at blacks

Aurora says it’s a coincidence that its predominately white officers are shooting at black subjects. Watchdogs don’t buy that theory.

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Aurora’s heavily white police force is firing at blacks

Sam Schanfarber, CU News Corps

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This story was produced by CU News Corps for the Colorado Independent and ran on April 13, 2016.

Aurora police are shooting black people at a rate that’s more than three times higher than that city’s black population.

A statewide review of police shootings by The Colorado Independent andCU News Corps found that of the 24 officer-involved shootings in Aurora over the past five years, 13 — or 54 percent — have involved black subjects. Aurora’s black population is 15 percent.

Aurora officials say the disparity is a statistical coincidence, not a racial problem. After all, they argue, Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz, is himself, an African American. Aurora hired Metz in January 2015, so he’s been on the job for just a portion of the time the data cover.

But watchdogs counter that the findings are cause for alarm.

“I don’t think the reason for this is that there is some inherent criminality in people who are African American,” said Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. “So if it’s not that, then there has to be some kind of racial bias going on.”

Statistics about police shootings are now available under a state law passed in May 2015 to increase transparency of police departments across Colorado. That law, formerly called Senate Bill 15-217, requires city police departments and county sheriff’s offices to disclose details about officer-involved shootings, including the ethnicity, race and gender of the people at whom police are aiming their guns.

Police Lt. Marcus Dudley, the executive officer to the city’s police chief, says the distinct circumstances and details of each separate incident, not aggregate number, tell the real story of police shootings in Aurora. He rules out race as a factor because his department conducts a thorough investigation of every officer-involved shooting, and all have been found justified.

“I can tell you that that process is extensive and it has occurred,” said Dudley, who is black.

“I know that my city — which we are very proud of being very much diverse — we’ve taken a number of steps to improve police community relations,” Dudley added. “It would be wrong to characterize even those efforts in the vein of us looking or feeling like there is something wrong with the way that we conduct law enforcement activities within our community.”

Despite the Aurora Police Department’s public relations efforts, civil rights groups aren’t convinced there’s no racial problem to address.

“It doesn’t mean it has to be a conscious racial bias,” the ACLU’s Woodliff-Stanley said. “It also may reflect some of the other disparities that affect the African American community in our nation, in our cities and in Aurora, but underlying racial issues are part of that equation.”

He’s quick to assert that racial disproportionalities in officer-involved shootings aren’t unique to Aurora, but are a trend nationally. A 2015 study by Mapping Police Violence found that 37% of unarmed people killed by police in 2015 were black. That’s almost three times higher than the nation’s black population, which is at 13 percent. The Washington Postreported in January that 26 percent of the 990 people shot dead by police nationally in 2015 were black.

Regardless of city or state, Woodliff-Stanley said, the only way to fix the problem is, first, to recognize it.

“Dealing with that, the essential first step in responding to that is to acknowledge that it’s not just a coincidence, because nothing will be done to actually correct it as long as it’s written off in that way.”

“I think that the first step is admitting that this is a problem — publically and internally saying that this certainly can’t be right,” added Roshan Bliss, a Black Lives Matter and police accountability activist.

As Bliss and an increasingly large chorus of watchdogs tell it, racial disparities in police shootings stem from disproportionately high numbers of police patrols in predominantly black neighborhoods. An increased police presence could yield higher tensions and a greater risk of violent interactions between citizens and cops, which Bliss sees as a national problem rather than one specific to Aurora.

Law enforcement agencies aren’t required by Colorado’s 2015 disclosure law to include details like patrol areas in their reports about police shootings, making Bliss’s theory difficult to quantify.

In a time of rapidly changing demographics in Metro Denver, watchdogs say cities like Aurora should better understand those changes, and tailor their policing accordingly. If police violence and high numbers of patrols in predominantly black neighborhoods are correlated, it’s the responsibility of a department to attempt to alleviate the problem.

Of the Aurora officers involved in the 24 shootings since January 2011, only three were identified as a race other than white. This is reflective of the Aurora Police Department’s general dearth of racial diversity. As of the 4th quarter of 2014, the department reported 3.9 percent of its officers were black and 84.2 percent were white. Those numbers are out of whack with the city’s 15 percent black population.

Carol Oyler, a Denver activist who monitors police abuses, sees the fact that the department is whiter than the community as the cause of disproportionate shooting figures.

“You’re looking at a predominantly white police force that probably didn’t grow up in a multicultural society. They probably grew up all amongst whites,” she said. “They’re shooting at people that they’re scared of. Whereas if they see a white person who maybe does the same actions as them, the police can understand those actions.

Fear is a common defense given by officers in shooting investigations. Explaining a shooting by claiming that it stemmed from self-defense generally leads to the shooting being deemed justified.

As Oyler tells it, this disconnect can be solved through cultural sensitivity training. By making officers more aware and involved with cultures dissimilar to their own, she says, officers’ fear – and racially charged police shootings – can be reduced.

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