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Aurora City Council presses interim police chief over protest response during special meeting

Interim Chief Vanessa Wilson did apologize for the chaos that ensued after police dressed in riot gear and surrounded people participating in a violin vigil.

AURORA, Colo. — At a special Aurora City Council meeting Tuesday held virtually, Aurora Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson defended her department’s use of force against what she called a small group of "agitators" that showed up to protest the 2019 death of Elijah McClain on Saturday. Police have said that a group of protesters was throwing rocks and water bottles at officers. 

RELATED: Coffman calls special Aurora City Council meeting to address PD response to McClain protest

Wilson also apologized for the chaos that ensued after police dressed in riot gear and surrounded people on Saturday participating in a violin vigil for McClain – the 23-year-old was pronounced dead on Aug. 27, 2019, a few days after he went into cardiac arrest following a struggle with Aurora police officers who contacted him after receiving a call of a suspicious person in the area. 

RELATED: FBI, DOJ eyeing Elijah McClain case for potential federal civil rights investigation

Wilson said her goal was to protect the peaceful protesters that had gathered to play instruments from a separate group of protesters that police said became violent toward officers. 

"I failed to communicate with that group what was going on," said Wilson. "That’s on me. I should have let them know what the intent was."

RELATED: Q&A: APD interim chief stands behind police response to weekend protesters

Wilson defended her department’s use of pepper spray, less-lethal weapons and batons to clear protesters from the Aurora Municipal Center where the protest was taking place. Police said they gave dozens of warnings to protesters to leave the area, including declaring the protest an "unlawful assembly."

During the special council meeting, Wilson said the department had intelligence that showed a small group of agitators came to the protest to create trouble.

Aurora Police set up a fence in front of police headquarters, which protesters tore down. Wilson said officers heard protesters say they wanted to storm inside the building. She said she was worried that could endanger the evidence lockers inside the police department headquarters.

"For us to lose this building, to a fire or things we’ve seen in Minneapolis or Seattle where they overtook the police department, could ruin tens of thousands of cases," said Wilson. 

Members of the public were allowed to submit written comments to the council Tuesday. The clerk read more than 100 submitted comments throughout the evening. 

A group of people gathered outside the building where council meetings normally take place upset over the lack of public comment during the special meeting. Protesters told 9NEWS they feel like they're being silenced.

"The response from the police is yet another instance where we are showing the world what type of mentality we’re fighting – especially here in Aurora," said community organizer Terrance Roberts.

Members of Aurora City Council pressed Wilson and other Aurora Police leadership about their use of pepper spray and other non-lethal ammunition on the protest. 

Councilmember Juan Marcano said he was at the protest Saturday. 

"People in the crowd, myself, I don't think any of us felt unsafe until the riot police showed up," said Marcano. "Then I saw grown adults cry and children run off screaming."

Other council members seemed to defend Aurora Police's actions and questioned why protesters didn't heed the warnings given by police to leave the area. 

"I'm just concerned that nobody apparently listens to the police anymore," said Councilmember Francoise Bergan. "We just have complete chaos."

While council members questioned the police department’s use of force, it’s not clear if council will take any action against the department and how it handled the protest. The special meeting was called specifically to address police use of force during the McClain protest. 

The investigation into the photos mocking McClain's death was not discussed.

RELATED: 3 Aurora officers allegedly snap photos depicting choke holds near site of fatal struggle with Elijah McClain

> 9NEWS reporter Jordan Chavez contributed to this report.

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