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 residents around impactful accountability reporting that serves all communities of Aurora. The series is an extended look at local police reform and related issues.
AURORA | Aurora city and police officials say years of upheaval are likely to blame as the police department reports the leanest staff in several years.
While some officials differ on what local police turbulence affects recruitment, others point to a lack of police recruits across the region and the country.
In April, the Aurora Police Department employed a sworn staff of 679 people, including 14 officers undergoing field training and 10 studying in the academy, according to data provided by police. May numbers showed little improvement, with the department reporting a total sworn staff of 682.
The figures represent the smallest sworn staff employed by the department since May 2017, when the city was home to at least 24,000 fewer people.
During that time, public trust in police declined with the widely-protested deaths of George Floyd and other unarmed Black men at the hands of police. The death of Elijah McClain following an encounter with police and paramedics made Aurora a focus of the police reform debate in Colorado, coinciding with a rise in attrition at Aurora’s Police Department.
Today, roughly 1 in 11 sworn positions in Aurora’s police department are unfilled. The city isn’t alone in its retention and recruitment struggles, though city leaders say the past three years of instability at APD have fueled the problem.
Even though rates of shootings and other crimes have fallen since their peak in 2022, interim police chief Art Acevedo said the staffing shortage has impacted the department’s visibility in the community, adding to the perception that people can commit crimes without consequences.
“One of the most effective strategies for preventing and disrupting criminal activity is visibility,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to respond to calls for service, but more than responding to calls for service, we need to be able to disrupt and prevent crime from happening in the first place by being visible.”
He said the shortage has also burdened the officers who have stuck with the department with more work. The amount of overtime worked by Aurora officers has climbed as staffing has fallen, with officers working 100,702 total hours of overtime in 2022 compared to 61,223 hours in 2019, according to police.
Marc Sears, the president of Aurora’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 49, said overwork is one of the most significant contributors to low morale in the department.
“The men and the women are so beat up, and they’re just so tired, because we don’t have the numbers right now, and it’s very, very obvious,” Sears said.
He also questioned why lieutenants weren’t being deployed to take on more of the duties of patrol officers and said officers have been unable to take vacation days because of the staffing situation.
Councilmember Danielle Jurinsky, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, said delays in hiring that she said were the responsibility of the Aurora Civil Service Commission as well as a loss of confidence in leadership among cops had contributed to the department’s staffing problem.
While Jurinsky said rank-and-file officers had reacted positively to the firing of former chief Vanessa Wilson in 2022, she described lingering frustration over the fact that former police officials had protected the jobs of some cops involved in misconduct.
Jurinsky also said suspect officers remaining on the force also worked against building confidence in the department among rank and file officers. She specifically mentioned Nate Meier, who admitted to driving drunk on the job in 2019 but kept his job under then-chief Nick Metz, and Cassidee Carlson, who in 2021 participated in an incident where another Aurora cop, Julie Stahnke, violated a restraining order against Stahnke’s ex-wife, in spite of which former interim chief Dan Oates promoted Carlson to the rank of division chief.
“Nate Meier is one person, and he doesn’t define the rest of the department, but for a lot of people that kind of thing is hard to move past,” Jurinsky said.
“People know they have support now from our current chief and from city council, but the past few years have taken such a toll on the numbers. Officers are working 12-hour shifts. They need support, and we’ve got to get people hired.”
Wilson’s firing in 2022 came after months of criticism from council conservatives and from police unions that her approach to police reform was alienating officers. She maintained that the decision was retaliation for her trying to implement reforms meant to fix patterns of racist policing identified in an investigation by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.
Since then, Aurora police have served under a succession of acting and interim chiefs. Acevedo became the latest to hold the interim chief title in December, replacing Oates after a national search for a new permanent chief ended in failure.
Sears said the decline in trust among some members of the public was the fault of past police leaders rather than the majority of officers in the department. He also said the recent instability at the top of Aurora’s police department was scaring potential candidates away from the department.
“Chief Acevedo, I think he’s doing a fine job trying to get this police department back in line. But he’s not the chief,” he said. “If you’re trying to be a police officer, and you want to come to the city of Aurora and be a cop, but you don’t even have a police chief, who’s going to want to do that? … It’s no foundation for the men and the women of this police department.”
As of the end of April, the department had lost 30 officers in 2023, compared to 29 by the same point in 2022. More than 300 officers have left the department in total since 2020.
Councilmember Juan Marcano said his constituents have complained about police being unable to follow up on lower-priority calls due to staffing problems. He also said he was concerned about burnout and that “you can’t live your life working as hard and as much as some of these folks are.”
Marcano countered accounts by Sears and Jurinsky, saying he believed Wilson’s firing likely hurt the image of the department along with a battery of high-profile incidents of officer misconduct.
“I think this is pretty much true for police agencies across the United States,” he said. “But I think we definitely have an added difficulty given the negative press that we’ve received, and justifiably so, unfortunately, over the past six-plus years.”
However, he and Acevedo both stressed that Aurora isn’t alone in struggling with recruitment and staffing. Representatives of the Denver and Colorado Springs police departments reported staffing situations similar to Aurora’s last week, with about 8.5% of sworn positions in Denver and 9.8% of sworn positions in Colorado Springs vacant compared to about 9.2% of positions in Aurora.
The country as a whole also lost about 12,000 local police employees between the first quarter of 2019 and the third quarter of 2022 while the private sector added more than 6 million jobs over the same period, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Acevedo said he recently spoke with other chiefs from across the country about employment trends and how younger officers are less likely to stay with a single department for the duration of their career. He said Aurora’s recent decision to offer a hybrid retirement plan that includes a defined benefit would hopefully encourage young hires to stick with the department.
On Sunday, Aurora police also announced on Twitter that they had adopted a new strategic plan for recruitment, hiring and promotion.
Acevedo also spoke about dedicated recruitment programs like the 30×30 Initiative aimed at women and a new cadet pilot program being launched in partnership with the Community College of Aurora.
Aurora announced its adoption of the 30×30 Pledge in March. The commitment to increasing representation of women to at least 30% of academy classes by 2030 will involve informational academies for women, outreach through women’s organizations and activities, highlighting women in marketing materials and promoting work-life balance.
Slated to start next spring pending city council approval, the department’s new cadet program will also allow 18-year-olds to earn an associate’s degree from the Community College of Aurora at no cost while participating in a two-year “apprenticeship” with APD. The program would be able to accept 20 cadets each year, with a maximum of 40 enrolled at one time.
“I think that’s gonna be really a great tool,” Acevedo said. “Community college systems frequently are more diverse than four-year colleges, and so I think that provides us with a very rich pool of potential candidates to be police officers. And so there are a lot of things in place that I believe will help us meet the demands moving forward.”
Though staffing reached a six-year low in April and May, Jurinsky said she believed actions taken by the city council since 2022 such as providing $8,000 retention bonuses to police and city management’s decision to oust Wilson had prevented the situation from getting worse.
She also was optimistic that giving the police department and city human resources more control over the hiring process would streamline recruitment and allow the department to weed out candidates who might otherwise get involved in misconduct.
“I think this council is absolutely doing everything and has done everything in our power within our authority possible to try and turn this around,” she said.
Jurinsky said she believed the state legislature could help police departments maintain their workforces by rolling back some of the changes introduced by Senate Bill 20-217, also known as the Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act, and removing sections of law that automatically decertify police officers for civil torts and misdemeanor convictions.
Marcano suggested that civilianizing more of the department would make it easier to hire people who could take over tasks that would otherwise be handled by sworn staffers such as crime scene investigation and evidence processing.
“That will help reduce our attrition rate because people sign up to be cops to do cop work, not do paperwork or handle traffic reports and things like that,” he said. “And it’ll also improve, I think, the level of satisfaction our residents have with more timely responses, and just better customer service overall.”
He also said he thought the consent decree was attracting candidates who want to be part of the reform process and that Aurora was still a “great department to work for.”
Jurinsky said candidates needed to know that Aurora’s police force was more than the most widely-reported examples of misconduct.
“I’m never going to stand up for an officer like Nate Meier,” she said. “And I think that’s a big misconception about me. I think that I very much have been painted as so pro-police that I will just blindly defend all cops. And that’s not true. Because it’s the bad ones that have ruined it for the good ones who would be willing to give their lives to protect you or I. They run in while we run out.”
Information about becoming an Aurora police officer is available at joinaurorapd.com.
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.