In The Blue is a project of the Sentinel Colorado Investigative Reporting Lab. The Lab’s mission is to engage with readers, journalists, decision makers and citizens around impactful accountability reporting that serves all communities of Aurora. The series is an extended look at local police reform and related issues.
AURORA | A firm tasked with monitoring Aurora police says interim Police Chief Art Acevedo has put the department “back on track” to complete mandated reforms in the next few years and that the city has fulfilled roughly a quarter of its mandates so far.
It was the fourth of 12 reports planned by Florida-based risk management firm IntegrAssure, which the city hired last year to supervise its compliance with public safety reforms imposed by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.
In the April 15 report, the monitoring team noted how, in the first year of IntegrAssure’s contract with the city, three different people held the title of police chief. After Vanessa Wilson was fired last April, the city invited former chief Dan Oates to take the reins on an interim basis.
Wilson was fired by then-City Manager Jim Twombly, who said he took issue with her management of the department. Oates left in December of last year after his six-month contract expired.
The monitoring team wrote tepidly about Oates’ tenure from June until December, though they had previously waved off suggestions that Wilson’s departure would impact the pace of reforms.
“The first change of leadership came with a shifting of some focus away from the reforms called for by the Consent Decree,” the team wrote in its latest report.
“We are happy to report, however, that the current leader of the department, Interim Chief Art Acevedo, understands not only that reforms are sorely needed, but that the Consent Decree offers the best roadmap and impetus for achieving those reforms.”
Acevedo stepped in after a national search for a new chief of police ended in failure. Since taking over in December, he has focused on meeting deadlines that were missed under Oates, introducing new policies on stops and searches as well as racial bias, the report said.
Acevedo said he believed Oates had to commit a significant amount of police resources to managing crime, along with the tail-end of the COVID-19 pandemic and other problems. Acevedo said that, since he arrived, he had witnessed a “great desire” to successfully implement the reforms in the decree.
“That’s from the command staff on the executive team all the way down to the officers,” he said. “I think the sooner that we can restore trust and restore the luster and the shine of our department, the better.”
He anticipated the next reporting period would see the department continuing to grapple with staff shortages and said that although the department may not meet every one of the deadlines in the decree, officers were committed to “getting it right” when implementing reforms rather than working hastily.
And he said he was proud that recent crime reports published by the department show across-the-board reductions in all categories of crime. Denver police report similar general reductions in crimes for the same period, year over year.
“I don’t think people have an appreciation for the workload the department faces. And we’re not NYPD with tens of thousands of officers or billions of dollars in a budget,” he said. “But we’re doing the work. And we’ll take any positive characterization of our work, and we appreciate that, and that was very generous of the monitor.”
The report includes updates on the status of 68 of the 79 individual reforms mandated in the consent decree as well as recommendations in light of numerous personnel controversies that have dogged the department in the past year.
As of Feb. 15, Aurora was said to have fully complied with roughly a quarter of the mandates in the decree, including:
- Nine mandates related to the administration of ketamine and other sedative drugs by Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics.
- Five mandates related to law enforcement policies and training on stopping members of the public and documenting those stops.
- Two mandates related to policies on mitigating racial bias in policing.
- One mandate related to the creation of a policy on cooperation between the Aurora Police Department and Aurora Fire Rescue.
- One mandate requiring the Aurora Civil Service Commission and the City of Aurora to hire an outside expert, in this case IntegrAssure, to advise regarding recruiting and hiring processes.
Aurora Fire Rescue and the Aurora Civil Service Commission were also said to be in full compliance with a mandate requiring the city’s public safety agencies to submit new policies to the monitor for final approval, and the fire service was in full compliance with mandates requiring agencies to submit training plans for approval and create procedures to streamline policy development.
Several mandates described as being on a “cautionary track” in the previous report, meaning the monitoring team was uncertain whether the city would meet expectations, were said to be on the “right track” under Acevedo’s leadership.
For example, two of the mandates having to do with addressing racial bias in policing and three mandates dealing with stops were marked as complete after the monitoring team expressed doubts in January. The team wrote that the introduction of the constitutional policing and bias-based policing policies along with officer trainings had satisfied the relevant mandates.
The constitutional policing policy lists several different types of stops and searches, and describes when officers are allowed to initiate each and what officers are allowed to do during these encounters while respecting the public’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Training on the policy was completed in February. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens against “unreasonable” searches and arrests. The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees a right to due process.
A separate policy on bias-based policing reiterates the importance of officers relying on the constitutional policing policy when making stops and describes the negative consequences of officers stopping citizens based solely on demographics when those demographics aren’t part of a suspect description.
“Taken together, the policies on Bias-based Policing and Constitutional policing send a powerful message that conduct that violates either the Fourth or Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution will not be tolerated,” the report says, adding that the team would “be reviewing the operational integrity of this policy in practice to ensure that, indeed, no violation of Constitutional rights are occurring.”
The department’s inability to view the data it obtains through a new data entry system meant to collect information about stops continues to be a problem after it was noted in the previous report, though the monitoring team said it wasn’t directly the fault of APD. The team again suggested the department consider setting up its own IT unit to help address the problem.
Police did receive praise, however, for moving closer to implementing a public data dashboard that will include information about crime, arrests, contacts, offense reports, summonses, uses of force, consent decree progress, demographics of APD employees and police discipline. The department was said to have identified a vendor that they are working with on the project.
Other reforms included in the decree address when and how Aurora police use force against members of the public. Several of those mandates were said to be on a cautionary track in the most recent report, with the monitor reminding police of missed deadlines for new policies and training, even though they estimated that the milestones would be met prior to the next report.
The monitoring team also described progress made toward transforming the internal Force Review Board into an entity willing to hold police officers accountable for inappropriate uses of force.
The team said the board was becoming more willing to critically evaluate incidents, but repeated its criticism that “there is currently no critical analysis of officers and the number of use of force incidents in which they have been previously engaged.”
The board has been particularly reluctant to consider officers’ past uses of force when determining what remediation is appropriate, and can still do better when evaluating incidents involving a mental health crisis, the report said.
Police told the Sentinel last month that the department’s rewritten use-of-force policy would be finalized by the first week in May and that the department previously underestimated how long the policy-writing process would take.
“While there were some concerns raised in the last reporting period due to missed deadlines, the Monitor believes that APD, through the leadership of interim Chief Art Acevedo, … has put the department back on track to achieve full compliance with the Consent Decree within the five-year period envisioned by the Consent Decree,” the monitoring team wrote.
New issues regarding old problems
The team also dedicated part of its report to recent personnel scandals, which, to some, have illustrated why the consent decree is still a necessity. Scandals such as the January arrest of officer Douglas Harroun, who was accused of attacking a disabled woman and charged with felony assault. He resigned from the department on Jan. 30.
The team wrote that the arrest demonstrated why internal affairs investigations should be allowed to move forward regardless of any pending criminal proceedings. Prior to a rule change under Acevedo, police postponed internal affairs investigations until the conclusion of any criminal case.
“This often led to extremely lengthy delays in the adjudication of those matters and kept officers on the City’s payroll when termination was the ultimate outcome,” the report said.
“APD will no longer wait for the conclusion of the criminal investigation to conduct its own internal investigations. … The Monitor applauds this change and recommends that the policy be retained irrespective of who the next APD Chief is.”
The monitor also blamed the Civil Service Commission for hiring Harroun in 2020, at a time when the commission was hiring applicants “with no input from the agencies and unilaterally set cut-off scores on the written exam and acceptable minimum score for the job suitability assessment without agency input,” according to the team.
On the subject of Zachary O’Neill — a rookie police officer who last year was arrested for a drunken disturbance in Arkansas but kept his job, at the behest of former Chief Oates, on the condition that he attend counseling and adhere to other probationary employment conditions — the monitoring team suggested that Aurora police use body-worn camera footage to closely monitor the performance of officers in O’Neill’s situation.
Nathan Meier is yet another example of an Aurora cop who hung onto his job after a run-in with the law. Meier passed out drunk behind the wheel of a running police vehicle in 2019 and had to be dragged out of the vehicle by other officers, though he escaped DUI charges thanks to Aurora police officers’ mishandling of his investigation.
This year, Meier earned a promotion to the rank of agent, a decision which, according to the monitoring team, caused “significant alarm in the community and called into question the promotion process and minimum qualifications for promotion.” Acevedo has said the promotion was automatic and that he would have been unable to block it under existing rules.
Meier was demoted following the drunken driving incident, but the rules of the Civil Service Commission allow a person to test for promotion two years after they’re demoted against their will. The monitoring team questioned in the report whether a two-year moratorium was enough, and whether an officer’s history was weighed heavily enough in the promotional process.
David Sandoval also broke state law when he used a police database to find the home address of his ex-girlfriend, who had accused him of stalking her, according to APD internal affairs documents dating back to 2019. The sergeant was subsequently chosen to lead one of APD’s Direct Action Response Teams, which were reconstituted last year.
The monitoring team stressed that an officer’s disciplinary history, skills and experience should be considered in such high-profile appointments and that the appointment process should be transparent. The team said they were continuing to review the matter.
The team also questioned the decision to hire Chandler Phillips, a former Glendale police officer who made headlines for shooting a member of the public to death and then making a social media post joking about his department’s decision to place him on administrative duties while the incident was investigated.
Phillips was mentioned in a Facebook post by Mayor Mike Coffman introducing new Aurora police officers in January, and his name was included on a roster of current Aurora Police Department employees that the department shared that same month.
The monitoring team said Phillips’ hiring “does raise questions about APD’s decision-making process” and suggested that a member of the public be consulted in lateral hiring decisions in the future
“While the Monitor appreciates the critical need to hire more officers for APD, it is imperative that officers hired through both the entry-level and lateral process are aligned with the core values and the mission of APD,” the report says.
In light of the reinstatement of Matt Green — the K-9 officer who threatened Elijah McClain with a police dog while the 23-year-old was restrained on the ground — the monitoring team encouraged those involved in the reinstatement process “to ask themselves for each potential reinstatement, ‘is the reinstatement of this officer what my community would want?’”
A Sentinel story earlier this year about Green’s rehiring drew sharp rebukes from some readers and local officials.
The team also dismissed criticism of new rules related to police hiring, which include rolling back restrictions on people with criminal convictions becoming officers, as well as people who have used drugs in the recent past or whose background check turns up “dishonesty and / or integrity issues.”
“The clear purpose of the change is not to reduce standards for hiring, but to eliminate potential barriers for the best candidates to be hired, as many well qualified candidates may nonetheless have blemishes in their background,” the monitoring team wrote in defense of the changes.
“The change recognizes that those without minor arrests may very well have engaged in minor criminal behavior and were lucky enough not to have been caught or arrested. Likewise, it recognizes that some individuals may lie about drug use, where others tell the truth. Moreover, it recognizes that a single bad decision does not necessarily define an individual.”
The next regular update by IntegrAssure is scheduled to be published in October.
In The Blue series is produced by Sentinel staff journalists Max Levy, Philip Poston, Carina Julig and Kara Mason with investigative journalists in residence Brian Howey and Trey Bundy.
PAST STORIES IN THE SERIES:
IN THE BLUE: Bar none — Dearth of Aurora cop recruits prompts city to advance, hire applicants who test poorly
IN THE BLUE: Aurora cop disciplined but not charged for stalking former girlfriend, now heads DART squad
IN THE BLUE: Aurora officials say lower police, fire hiring standards make for better departments
IN THE BLUE: Aurora commission says rehiring controversial canine officer justified