AURORA, Colo. — Aurora's Interim Police Chief is standing behind her department's response during weekend protests related to the death of Elijah McClain.
The Aurora Police Department (APD) has faced heavy criticism for wearing riot gear and using pepper spray and gas against protesters.
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APD released partial clips of body camera recordings taken during Saturday night's protest.
Officers in the video say they are being hit with water bottles and rocks. The department is pointing to the videos as justification for the use of force during a violin vigil in memory of Elijah McClain, who died after a struggle with Aurora officers.
Videos previously shared on social media show the perspective of protesters who were gathered listening to music when officers in riot gear cleared the Great Lawn outside City Hall.
In an interview with 9NEWS reporter Jordan Chavez Wednesday, APD interim chief Vanessa Wilson said she stands behind her department's response.
Watch the full interview:
(Editor's Note: Questions are responses may have been edited for context and clarity)
9NEWS: On Saturday, you said that members of ANTIFA were at the protest. How were you able to identify people as such?
Wilson: They actually had a flag out there and then we have an intelligence unit and they knew they were coming to this protest. We knew that they were going to come and try to disrupt the peaceful protests that were planned throughout the day. They posted things on Facebook and such calling for action and talking about things – not just ANTIFA – but other groups calling how other police departments burned and they were able to get results. Just that type of rhetoric out there. They were with the people putting on helmets, welding gloves, masking up with gas masks, face shields, goggles.
When you say "agitating," do you just mean putting on that equipment?
Wilson: They were passing out rocks, they were pulling batons and such out of their backpacks. Some of them were armed. We had a gentleman that was one of their medics who was armed with a handgun on his side. I have a photo of that I can give to you at the end of this – as well as a gentleman that was walking with a .223 rifle slung and a ballistic vest. And we also saw other people had tasers. And so, we had batons, sticks, tasers, guns, rifles, all those types of things that were out in the crowd with the other people that were just trying to have their voices be heard because that’s their right.
Were any of those weapons used?
Wilson: Yeah, the sticks and batons. We had strikes to our officers. Rocks were thrown at our officers. The flag that they were carrying was actually jabbed into officers’ chests on the line. There were people with shields trying to break through the officers’ lines – the scrimmage line.
Where's your proof this happened?
Wilson: So, in our body-worn camera video – you can...we’re still downloading it. This was peaceful for 7.5 hours. There were people out here – 2,500 people on the great lawn and they were just exercising their first amendment rights. They marched throughout the city, they marched onto the highway. And so, these people started putting on their helmets, putting on all that. Those types of things are captured on body-worn camera footage that you’ll see. There’s also still photos that I know Denver Post has taken that you can see. I think that was who had that photo with the person with a shield, a metal shield dressed in a helmet and all that that was trying to push through the line that was being pepper-sprayed in that photo.
What exact munitions were used on Saturday? Were bean bag rounds part of that?
Wilson: Yes, sir. So we have a less-lethal shotgun which shoots a bean bag round – which is what he found. As well as a 40 mm launcher and that shoots foam rounds. And those are only shot at those directed towards those that are picking up rocks or engaging in trying to take the officers’ batons – which we had several of that happening on the line.
Do you and the department really believe there was a true threat of the building being burned down?
Wilson: I believe there was a true threat of our officers being injured beyond where they were and the fact that they were their own mouths as they were trying to take our building.
What is your comment on the optics of the protest on Saturday? Officers were in riot gear feet away from people playing violins?
Wilson: I just want to make it clear, we had an issue here in front of the agency where people were taking down our fence and inching forward towards the building. At the same time, we had the peaceful violin group that had just started because we had been dealing with the issue at the police department throughout the day. We deescalated, we’d pull our officers back, they’d take the fence again – we’d have to rush out as they tried to storm the building. Then they’d back up, we’d put the fence back up, we’d give orders. This was an ongoing thing throughout the day with them and so when the peaceful violinists showed up – this is the time that a person that was armed climbed a six-foot wall, he had high-ground on my officers with a lethal weapon. And so, when you see the videos that are out there where the riot police march out, they actually were protecting that group. Because we knew we had two different factions of people that were out here. They turned their backs to those people. They were not our threat. We turned our backs facing this threat so that we could protect them. I’m sure that people were confused what was going on but we were making statements telling people at this point we feel that this threatens the safety of people that were there – not only the protesters, but the people that were here peacefully as well as the officers.
People who were at the protest say seeing officers in riot gear is what really got a lot of people riled up. Do you believe APD played a role in the protest escalating on Saturday?
Wilson: No, we were completely trying to protect that section of the violists and the families that were listening to that. That’s why the riot officers came there to put a division. We wanted to separate what was peaceful to what wasn’t.
Do you feel APD responded appropriately to protesters on Saturday?
Wilson: Yes. I was trying to protect their right to free speech and who didn't do it the right way were those agitators that were arming themselves that were putting on helmets and gas masks and were throwing rocks at my officers. They didn't do it the right way.
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