AURORA, Colo. (KDVR) — The civil rights attorney hired by the City of Aurora to lead an investigation into the death of Elijah McClain said he is “deeply committed” to doing an independent, fair investigation.
“We will take it where the facts lead us,” said Jonathan M. Smith, the executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “I certainly am not coming in having pre-judged the situation in any way. I want to see what exists in terms of the information and evidence that’s available, and we’ll come to the conclusions we come to.”
Smith’s experience as a civil rights attorney spans three decades, including a stint as the chief of the Special Litigation Section for the Department of Justice.
“I’ve had the opportunity to see what’s going on in a lot of departments around the country and can bring some sense of what is happening in other jurisdictions, where best practices lie, (and) what other decisions could’ve been made in terms of training or supervision in these kinds of circumstances,” he said.
Smith said his DOJ role allowed him to work on investigations at more than 20 departments in diverse regions including Puerto Rico, New Orleans, Cleveland, Albuquerque, Seattle, Newark and Portland, Oregon. “Those were large and complicated investigations, and I’m really proud of the work that my section did to do reform in all of those cities.”
Smith said he is a current consultant to the City of Fort Worth, Texas, where he is helping review policies and practices after the 2019 police shooting of Atatiana Jefferson, who was killed after being shot by a police officer through a window of a home.
While at DOJ, Smith also supervised the investigation into the Ferguson, Missouri police department after the controversial shooting of Michael Brown, a black teenager who was killed by a white police officer in 2014. The DOJ found a pattern and practice of racial bias and that officers routinely stopped citizens without reasonable suspicion and made arrests without probable cause.
Smith said his investigation will not be providing insight on whether anyone should be prosecuted, and he said he will be cautious to avoid interference with the ongoing state and federal investigations.
“We will be very careful as we approach this that we don’t interfere with that investigation or significantly interfere with the rights of officers in the context of that investigation, and that creates certain barriers,” he said. “We will work around those to get to the right result.”
Smith said his previous investigations have relied heavily on law enforcement experts – usually people who have been chief executives of law enforcement agencies. He expects the City will select someone like this to join his investigation in Aurora.
“As the team develops, we will have someone who has the kind of experience that law enforcement officers have had — have walked the street and has had to make the decision about the exercise of the use of force — and what have you. That’s going to be an important part of the inquiry.”
Smith said he hopes the forthcoming review will be healing for the community.
“If we find that there was something that happened that was avoidable — if the use of force was avoidable or the death was avoidable — and we can identify that there was a problem with a policy or a procedure – if there was a deficiency in training, if there was a practice that should be different that would’ve avoided this – we’ll bring that to the attention of the city and the objective here is to give the city that appraisal. What happened here? Did something go wrong? And if (it) went wrong, how do you prevent it from happening in the future?”