Editor’s Note: Due to a reporter’s error, a previous version of this story incorrectly described the circumstances prior to the July 30, 2018 incident involving Aurora police officers and Richard “Gary” Black Jr. Black was holding both a gun and a flashlight when officers arrived. The Sentinel regrets the error.
A few days before Christmas, Aurora residents met their very own Saint Nick. But it wasn’t the cherubic reindeer musher familiar to most holiday revelers. This Christmas maven was sporting a short goatee, a Motorola radio and a balanced baritone.
The introduction came shortly before 10 a.m. on Dec. 21, when the social media handles for the Aurora Police Department launched an artistic salvo that quickly became the darling of Colorado’s microcosm of likes, shares and re-tweets.
The unexpected post featured a video of the city’s 55-year-old chief of police, Nick Metz, playing an electric piano, singing a retooled version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and making a cacophony of sound effects — including barking and sniffing like one of the department’s German Shepherds.
“I was just told to show up at a studio and play a few chords on a piano, and then the next thing I know I’m doing the singing and doing the background noises,” Metz bashfully said of the video’s genesis. “I got duped.”
The nearly 90-second clip provided a rare peek behind the private curtain that Metz diligently maintains, and rarely peers out of, since he took the reins of the nearly 1,000-person police agency in early 2015.
“He will never be able to do something that tops that,” Barbara Shannon-Banister, the recently retired head of Aurora’s community relations division, said of Metz’s foray into YouTube stardom. “The chief of police playing piano? C’mon.”
The video, which boasts more than 15,000 views on YouTube and Twitter, encapsulates the persona Metz has carefully crafted during his some 35-year career in law enforcement: comfortable on camera, stoic yet charming, always polished and polite. And it highlights his seemingly lifelong flare for the limelight — he and some friends were featured in brief B roll on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” in his native Minneapolis when he was about 8 years old.
Those characteristics have slowly helped build Metz’s brand as the tactful skipper of an evolving and sometimes contentious organization.
Locally, it’s an onerous task to find a negative word against the city’s top cop, whether it be from his own brass or circles known for being cynical of police.
“Officers see him in a positive light,” said Officer Judy Lutkin, the newly elected president of the Aurora Police Association, which serves as the department’s union. “He has taken the reins and done some amazing things that I would say the majority of officers appreciate.”
TRIAL BY GUNFIRE
It was four years ago this month that Metz got the call from former City Manager Skip Noe letting him know he beat out three other finalists to become the city’s next, and first African-American, police chief. That was no small feat, considering he — a journeyman cop who worked his way to an assistant chief’s position with the Seattle Police Department — was up against two longtime Aurora officers who were highly regarded among the rank and file.
“We didn’t know what to expect when Metz first got here because he was a complete unknown to us,” said Lutkin, a 23-year veteran of the department.
It didn’t take long for Metz to have to prove he was worth his salt. In his first official week on the job, a member of the Aurora police SWAT team shot and killed an unarmed black man as he was walking along East 12th Avenue.
Metz quickly met with faith and community leaders to help inform how he should handle the impending blow-back from the community. He also spent personal time with the family of the man who was killed, 37-year-old Naeschylus Carter-Vinzant.
Those meetings had a significant impact on the Carter family and their attorney, Qusair Mohamedbhai.
“He met with them and he, to the best of his abilities, tried to answer all their questions,” Mohamedbhai said. “After a high-profile, police-involved shooting, most departments generally turn inward and become extraordinarily silent in terms of dissemination of information to the family, and Chief Metz has not done that.”
On the contrary, Metz has repeatedly and vocally striven to release information and body camera footage following contentious events, often to the chagrin of local district attorneys.
“Without hesitation, every time one of these events has happened he has said, ‘Hey, George I want to release the body camera footage,’ and I’ve said, ‘pretty please with sugar on top don’t do it.’” said George Brauchler, district attorney for the 18th Judicial District. “I can’t have stuff in the public stream that could poison the jury pool.”
In the 17th Judicial District, which covers the Adams County portion of Aurora north of East Colfax Avenue, District Attorney Dave Young echoed Brauchler’s sentiments, saying he regularly asks law enforcement officers like Metz to withhold disclosing information immediately after officer-involved incidents. Young said several investigatory elements, including privacy concerns, ensuring citizens and police are afforded a fair trial, and even his own Bar license, could be thrust into jeopardy if officials preemptively release information or body camera footage related to an active investigation. Young said he sends a letter to local public service officials once a year advising them not to release information while investigations are pending.
Those directives boiled to the forefront last summer, when Aurora police became embroiled in another officer-involved shooting that garnered international attention. Following a bizarre home invasion and assault in a north Aurora home on July 30, an Aurora officer shot and killed 73-year-old Richard “Gary” Black Jr. Black had shot and killed a naked and drug-addled intruder moments before police arrived.
“The 17th judicial District Attorney’s Office has asked that we not provide information until certain aspects of the investigation are complete, and we have agreed to do that,” Metz said in a YouTube video posted shortly after the shooing. “Even with that, we remain incredibly frustrated that we are not able to get that information out to you in a more timely manner.”
Young said he understood Metz’s frustration, but stood by his advisement to remain tight-lipped.
“I think he (Metz) struggled with that because there’s a balance: the public wants to know, but the integrity of the investigation is always going to outweigh that,” Young said. “That was a struggle for him and the entire department, quite frankly.”
Young’s office ultimately exonerated Officer Drew Limbaugh in a formal review of the case released last month. At the same time, police released the body camera footage of the incident.
Mohamedbhai, who also represented the Black family following the shooting, largely praised Metz’s actions following the incident, though said he disagreed with the chief’s assessment of the legality of the Black shooting. Metz paid multiple visits to Black’s widow, Jeanette, and attended the Vietnam War veteran’s funeral.
“That’s not common — police don’t just do that,” said Mohamedbhai. “But the humanity he showed the Black family was recognized.”
FRIENDS, ROMANS, COUNTRYMEN, LEND ME YOUR EARS
Meeting people where they are has been a touchstone of Metz’s tenure in Aurora. In the months following the Carter-Vinzant shooting, Metz made himself available to community leaders, clergy members and activists across the metro area, attempting to learn more about Aurora’s sometimes greasy cogs.
“He essentially went on a one-year listening tour,” said Mohamedbhai, who has also worked closely with Metz as general counsel for the Colorado Muslim Society. He said Metz has made “dozens of trips” to the Islamic Center on South Parker Road to better understand the local Muslim community — particularly after controversial or tragic national incidents.
“Whenever there is a targeting of a religious institution … he will proactively increase patrols for religious institutions without anyone having to ask,” Mohamedbhai said. “He recognizes national trends and will adjust his resources accordingly.”
Metz shared a stage with Mohamedbhai at Temple Emanuel in Denver after a lone gunman shot and killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last October. He reached out to Mohamedbhai and the Colorado Islamic Center after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, and after President Donald Trump announced proposed Muslim travel bans.
Metz was particularly vocal regarding immigration issues following the President’s proposals in early 2017, saying Aurora police would never serve as quasi-immigration agents. As city politicos squabbled over whether Aurora was a so-called sanctuary city, Metz made the rounds and vehemently told Aurora’s immigrant communities not to fear deportation upon interacting with police, and to continue to report crimes.
“He didn’t miss any community around,” Shannon-Banister said of Metz’s early efforts to interface with Aurora residents. “If there was any kind of community in our city or geographically connected to us, he hit it. He made his presence known, told people they were welcome, and they embraced him.”
Still, despite all the meetings, videos, tweets, mentorship programs, and jabs about Seattle Seahawks fandom, Metz and the Aurora Police Department face a constant public-relations dilemma.
CASH RULES EVERYTHING AROUND ME(TZ)
Since Metz joined the department in early March 2015, the Aurora Police Department has paid at least $3 million — the bulk of which came from the historic $2.6 million payout in the Carter-Vinzant case — to victims and their family members in settlement agreements, according to a recent lawsuit filed by ACLU Colorado that alleges Aurora officers have repeatedly and consistently mistreated people of color. The department paid at least an additional $1.6 million in settlements in the decade before Metz arrived.
At least one other case filed against Aurora police in U.S. District Court last year used the record of alleged APD abuses outlined in the ACLU lawsuit as an exhibit. The plaintiff in that case, a black man, claims an Aurora officer unlawfully took his vehicle and charged him with crimes he says he didn’t commit. Metz is listed as one of the defendants.
“I think that Chief Metz really needs to take a good, hard, long look at how the Aurora Police Department is dealing with persons of color,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director for ACLU Colorado. “When our clients are talking to us about Aurora cops, they’re talking about the guys who are swinging batons — not the guy who’s sitting in his office. But we need the guy sitting in his office to do something about the ones who are swinging batons.”
Metz has doggedly tried to diversify a department that is predominantly white but patrols a city that increasingly isn’t.
Less than half of the city’s some 370,000 residents identify as white, with nearly 30 percent identifying as Hispanic or Latino, 16 percent identifying as African American and some 5 percent identifying as Asian, according to the city’s 2016 demographic data, the most recent comprehensive data available. In 1970, the city was 97 percent white.
More than 80 percent of Aurora cops, or 568 sworn officers, were white in 2017, according to the department’s annual report from that year. About 4 percent of Aurora police were black, 10 percent were Hispanic and 1.5 percent were Asian, according to the report.
Race in the department became a central issue last summer after Metz attempted to fire an officer caught using a racial slur. Metz’s decision was eventually overturned by the city’s Civil Service Commission, and the officer remained on the force. Along with Mayor Bob LeGare, Metz publicly condemned the Commission’s decision and vowed to relegate the involved officer, Charles DeShazer, to a role removed from the public sphere.
Making sure Aurora’s some 700 sworn officers gel and receive proper care has been a hallmark of Metz’s relatively short career in the city. In his first few months, he created an employee wellness unit overseen by two full-time officers. The team helps arrange services and counseling for officers looking for someone to talk to, whether it be about a rough patch at home or a recent incident while out on patrol.
“There’s not doubt in my mind that those two, as well as others who work with them, have not only saved careers, but saved lives,” Metz said of the unit.
More American cops die by suicide each year than while on patrol, and 2018 was no exception, according to recent data compiled by Blue H.E.L.P. a Massachusetts-base nonprofit organization that tracks officer fatalities. At least 160 cops across the country committed suicide last year, including five in Colorado, according to the organization.
Metz is exceptionally open about the stresses of police work, and an outspoken proponent of taking time off and developing strategies to unwind after shifts have ended.
“A lot of it really comes down to making sure you take a little bit of time for yourself, he said. “It’s easy to get so wrapped up in work and living this life … it’s really hard to, even when you’re at home, fully relax, because at any moment the phone can ring.”
For Metz, who is technically on call always, that proverbial stress ball comes in the form of chords and melodies.
When he’s not anxiously eating M&Ms or popping bubble wrap in his office within the bowels of Aurora police headquarters, Metz is often at the keys of his Steinway baby grand piano at his home in a southeast Aurora neighborhood. He took up playing the instrument about a decade ago after a friend showed him a few chords.
“It’s been, for me, probably the number one way of relieving stress and relaxing,” Metz said of his piano playing, which encompasses jazz, classical and pop. “It’s been a big part of my life for the past 10 years.”
Though hesitant to admit it, music is part of Metz’s DNA. He played drums and guitar as an adolescent and grew up listening to his mother, a staffer at the University of Minnesota, play jazz piano through the 1970s. And while one of his three brothers — a doctoral professor at the University of Pretoria in South Africa — doesn’t “have an ounce of musical ability,” the two other Metz brothers are “very accomplished bassists,” the chief said. But it wasn’t until his daughters — one of whom sang the National Anthem at his swearing-in ceremony in Aurora — began futzing around on the ivories that he decided he should try learning a few scales.
“Trying to get them to practice was kind of one of those things where I felt like I needed to lead by example,” he said.
In recent years, Metz has combined his love for music with travel, often heading to destination concerts in places where he isn’t recognized as “that guy from TV.”
“You kind of feel like you can’t just let your hair down a little bit,” Metz said of regularly being recognized around the metro area and on trips back to Seattle to visit his daughters. “So it’s nice to be able to go somewhere like New York or wherever, and you’re able to just kind of blend in with everybody and just relax a little bit.”
He’s traveled to Montreal to see Sting, and last month he saw Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden in New York City. And on top of musical excursions, in recent years Metz has traveled to attend law enforcement trainings and conferences in Israel, Brazil and South Africa to learn about counter terrorism, corruption and cultural assimilation, respectively.
But vacations are few and far between for Metz, who’s used to his public information officers calling him, wherever in the world he may be, in the middle of the night with details on the city’s latest crime and grime. And lately, there’s been a lot of it.
STICK AROUND, WHY DON’T YA
Metz is currently tasked with leading a department and a field that has had a tumultuous start to 2019. There have been a dozen officer-involved shootings across the state so far this year, most of which occurred in the Front Range — including one in Aurora. Those violent incidents are compounded by staffing shortages, and funding woes are on the horizon. An impending showdown between the local union and the city regarding benefits has waxed and waned in recent months, with the dilemma narrowly missing the ballot last November.
“He’s riding that bucking horse right now,” Charlie Richardson, a city councilman who recently asked to reorganize the entire department because of resource shortages, said of Metz’s balancing act regarding officer benefits.
And all of those hurdles are festering as the number of violent crimes in the city continues to rise year after year. Mirroring national trends, all seven of the violent crimes the department annually tracks have increased since Metz took over four years ago. While the numbers for 2018 have yet to be finalized, data from earlier in the year indicate crime in the city slightly increased again last year.
“Aurora’s getting really, really big city crime and, unfortunately, there are some disturbing situations arising where there might not be the best outcome from police and community encounters, and he (Metz) has to take these situations on,” Mohamedbhai said. “I think some of the honeymoon period he had is over and he has a very, very rapidly growing city.”
Aurora’s population is expected to hover around 450,000 people at the end of the next decade, according to the city’s demographic predictions.
Whether Metz will stick around to see that influx of new residents is a concern for some like Shannon-Banister, who said she wants to see him continue to build a legacy she has quickly come to admire.
“I hope somebody doesn’t snatch him up because he’s doing so many good things,” she said. “He can build a legacy here and he’s already building it — he’s made his mark here.”
Metz said he’s periodically received offers from other cities and recruiters, encouraging him to apply to departments elsewhere. But he’s adamant he’s happy with the roots he’s laid down in Colorado — he got married last summer to an Aurora-based police psychologist, Sara Garrido Metz.
“I’ve had a number of calls from other cities interested in having me apply,” Metz said. “And it’s like, you know, I’m happy here. This is a good place.”