Sifting out troubled officers and unsuitable police recruits has become a major focus in the struggle to reform Aurora’s Police Department, guided by a comprehensive consent decree agreement between the City of Aurora and the Attorney General’s office.
Stepping up efforts to recruit diverse candidates into the mostly white, mostly male department has been one result of the agreement.
The reform process has also involved a transfer of power away from Aurora’s Civil Service Commission — a panel of five Aurora City Council appointees established in 1967 to ensure the city’s police officers and firefighters are hired, fired and disciplined fairly.
Aurora is one of just a few Colorado cities to have a civil service commission armed with the power to reduce or veto discipline against police officers and firefighters. Until recently, it also had the final say in hiring first responders.
While the group has repeatedly expressed its commitment to the consent decree, commissioners have pushed back against what they see as infringements on the role carved out for them in the City Charter, questioning the attorney general’s understanding of their job at the time the consent decree was introduced as well as the city’s authority to dismiss the commission’s attorney earlier this year.
Members of the commission have argued that an independent and autonomous commission serves as an important check on the power of the police department. When asked whether he believes the other parties to the consent decree respect the independent role of the Civil Service Commission, Chairman Desmond McNeal said, “Probably not.”
“I don’t think they’re looking at it from our standpoint of the process needing to stay independent to avoid nepotism and things like that,” he said.
The commission is one of several government entities that play a part in holding Aurora police accountable, even though it has butted heads recently with the architects of the city’s consent decree.
Despite concerns about the group’s independence coming under threat, members can only be removed by a supermajority vote of the Aurora City Council, and while they no longer have the final say in police and fire hiring, they’ve retained the power to overturn discipline imposed by the chief of police.
McNeal said he is waiting to see how the changes to the hiring process impact recruitment before judging the new process.
Public perception of Aurora’s commission has changed over time — a blow to the group’s reputation came in 2018 with its decision to reinstate a police officer, Charles DeShazer, who made racially-charged comments at the site of an officer-involved shooting.
When Denver police chased a Black man into an Aurora condominium complex in June 2017, leading to a car crash and shooting, neighbors quickly gathered around the scene of the shooting and formed what city officials would later describe as a large and unruly crowd.
It was the type of tense situation that police officers are taught to handle with care, where saying or doing the wrong things can escalate a conflict. DeShazer, then a lieutenant, was one of the Aurora police officers who responded to the complex. Police secured the shooting scene, and DeShazer began talking with a sergeant about what had happened and whether the necessary officers had been notified.
DeShazer went on to describe officers’ efforts to contain the scene.
“We’ve got the Alabama porch monkeys all contained,” he said, apparently referring to the Black residents among the crowd.
The sergeant gasped and switched off his body-worn camera.
DeShazer had been reprimanded before for making inappropriate comments on the job, including comments of a “sexually offensive” nature, city officials later said. In 2006, a disabled Black woman also accused DeShazer of using a racial slur while arresting her and her daughter. The woman later received $175,000 in a settlement with the city.
While DeShazer was allowed to keep his job after the previous incidents, once the “porch monkeys” comment was reported internally, then-chief Nick Metz decided DeShazer had to go, firing him a few months later.
In many police departments, that would have been the end of it. But under the system used by Aurora and just a few other Colorado cities, DeShazer was allowed to appeal his firing to the Aurora Civil Service Commission.
He did so, and in June 2018, the commission drew national scorn for reversing Metz’s decision, inviting DeShazer back into the department.
Critics described the group as shielding bad cops, armed with the ability to unilaterally throw out discipline against officers. Reports prepared by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office and consultant 21CP Solutions in 2021 noted the decisions regarding DeShazer and other officers as a source of animosity in the community.
21CP Solutions said community members described the group’s decision to reinstate officers involved in “highly-publicized, racially charged incidents” as “an ongoing betrayal of the values and expectations of the community it serves.”
They also wrote that “many” of the community members interviewed for its report “identified the authority of the Commission to override the Chief’s disciplinary decisions as undermining the ability of the APD to effectively manage its employees.”
The DeShazer decision led to something of a reckoning for the commission that became part of the broader push for accountability among Aurora police. Progressive Councilmember Juan Marcano and other elected officials started disseminating information about how people could apply for seats on the commission not long after in an effort to recruit a more diverse group.
Membership on the commission has since turned over completely, and today, half of the commissioners are people of color. The attorney general’s office wrote in September 2021 that the effort appeared to have improved the public’s confidence in the group.
“Community members expressed optimism about the Commission’s efforts to diversify its membership,” the office said, “but shared concern that those efforts would be insufficient to create actual change.”
In one notable example of the commission upholding consequences imposed by the chief of police, the commission voted last year to sustain the firing of former police union president Doug Wilkinson, who was dismissed for sending an email criticizing the department’s diversity policies in a way that commissioners said “denigrated and showed hostility toward women and minorities.”
Aurora’s police unions have expressed skepticism about the approach to reform outlined in the consent decree, particularly as it was undertaken by former police chief Vanessa Wilson.
Wilson was fired last year following a 2021 vote of no confidence by members of the Aurora Police Association and Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 49 and months of criticism by council conservatives.
Former commission chairperson Jim Weeks, who joined the group after the DeShazer decision, described the rejection of Wilkinson’s appeal as “entirely consistent with the philosophy of the commission,” arguing at the time that the commission had not lost the faith of the community or infrequently sustained discipline brought by the chief.
Weeks acknowledged the current commission for “carrying the torch forward.” But as it’s done so, the commission’s role has changed, spurred on by the reforms included in the consent decree.
Part of the decree directs the Aurora Police Department and Aurora Fire Rescue to take over more of the hiring process. Prior to April, the commission made the final determination of whether to hire a police candidate. Today, commissioners are in the minority on the oral interview panel that also includes agency representatives, a “citizen assessor,” and a city human resources employee available to break tie votes.
While the architects of the consent decree have said the change means police and firefighters will get the chance to meet and interact with candidates before extending a job offer, commissioners say police and fire reps sat in on interviews in the past and reached the same conclusions about candidates as commissioners.
McNeal described the place of the commission in the new process as an “oversight” role and said he welcomed the greater level of involvement from the police department.
“We’ve never kept them out of the process. But now that they own it, it’s like they’re more committed to it, which is good. They’re gonna get increased numbers that way, and that’s a good thing. That’s what everybody wants,” he said.
The power struggle between Aurora’s commission, police, the city and the firm hired to monitor the city’s compliance with the consent decree flared up earlier this year when the city decided to transfer background investigations out of the commission’s budget and dismiss its attorney.
Scotty Krob served in the role of the commission’s attorney during disciplinary hearings for decades, until around April, when he was directed by the City Attorney’s Office to cease work for the commission.
The city says Krob was ultimately accountable to the City Attorney’s Office and that the dismissal had to do with a disagreement over the scope of Krob’s work.
Commissioners have questioned this version of events, saying they were given inconsistent explanations by the city and that the city attorney needed to remove himself from the process to preserve the integrity of disciplinary hearings.
McNeal said the commission is still exploring its options to push back on the firing of Krob.
“If you were to ask the commissioners, we would tell you that we don’t think the city attorney has the right to fire the commission’s legal counsel,” he said. “That process has to remain independent.”