Aurora police must retool discipline, use of force guidelines, hiring practices, consultants say

Screen grab from a video taken by bystander Jennifer Wurtz depicting Aurora police wrongfully arresting a family with children.

AURORA |  Aurora City Council members on Monday night reviewed a hulking report commissioned by city management that urges the Aurora Police Department to overhaul how officers use force, diversify its ranks and retool how personnel are disciplined for breaking the rules, among a slew of additional changes. 

The roughly 160-page report runs through more than 47 recommendations for the beleaguered department that has weathered a barrage of scandals in the past two years, including an officer found to be drunk while on duty in 2019, a mistaken arrest of a young Black family last summer and the recent, in-custody assault of a man arrested for an outstanding felony warrant. 

Officials hired the Chicago-based consulting group which penned the report, 21CP-Solutions, to compile their “comprehensive review” of the city’s police force one year ago last week, the same day an attorney representing the estate of Elijah McClain sued the city, and Attorney General Phil Weiser revealed that his office had begun investigating patterns and practices of possible constitutional rights violations within the Aurora Police Department. The group interviewed about 220 people to compile their findings. 

McClain’s death in August 2019 spurred months of protests in the city following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and compelled a bevy of agencies — from the Department of Justice to the state health department — to investigate Aurora police practices.

The recommendations discussed Monday touched on nearly every facet of policing in Aurora, from hiring to internal discipline. 

“Ultimately, this report does not have all of the answers,” the consultants wrote. “We do not have all of the answers. For that matter, it is unlikely that any one of Aurora’s stakeholders alone have all of the answers.”

The city has so far paid $350,740.75 for expenses related to the report, according to Michael Brannen, spokesperson for the City of Aurora. Officials may still pay about another $25,000 to the consultants to fulfill a prearranged contract.

The document’s authors chided the city’s current methods for punishing officials who break the rules, citing the average 200-day turnaround time between when allegations are levied and a misconduct case is wrapped.

“Ultimately, the byzantine and convoluted nature of APD’s current discipline system – involving various tracks, review boards, and adjudication levels – does not seem to be inspiring confidence, neither within the community nor the Department, in the fairness of process or outcomes of the misconduct process,” the report reads.

The authors found that a small pool of police staffers — 35 officers — accounted for 40% of the department’s misconduct cases in recent years. Between 2017 and 2020, the department recorded 478 allegations of misconduct. About a third of cases against male officers were eventually thrown out, and about half of cases against female officers were tossed.

A similarly small crop of personnel used an outsized amount of force in the city in 2020, with 27 officers involved in one quarter of the city’s 466 incidents last year, the report shows. And as The Sentinel has previously reported, the report found that Aurora police use force on Black men at a higher rate than any other demographic group, with 29% of all incidents of force reported against Black males despite the subset only accounting for 9% of the city’s population.

Consultants spent multiple pages calling for a renovation of the department’s use-of-force guidelines, saying they need to be “substantially revised” as the current protocols merely parrot state law and leave interpretation up to officers.

“The deferral to Colorado state statutes suggests to officers that the City of Aurora and its police department expect them to meet nothing more than generic, minimum standards,” the authors wrote. “Officers are left to feel on their own to determine how to comply with the broad parameters of state law in the context of the particular concerns and needs of the Aurora community.”

The report further states that the department should diversify its overwhelming white, male ranks, including opening its 17 current command staff roles to more external applicants, including non-sworn civilians.

“The APD command staff is not as representative of the diversity of the Aurora’s communities as it should be,” the report reads. “There are three women and two Black command staff members. Although the Latino population comprises 28% of the Aurora community, there are no Latinos on the staff.”

A retired civilian commissioner with the Philadelphia Police Department who addressed the council Monday underscored that placing non-licensed officials in clerical roles can lead to a necessary diversity of thought in the agency. The commissioner, Nola Joyce, said that only internally promoting employees can lead to a stale stasis. 

“You kind of in-breed the culture, you have a stagnant orientation and you begin to develop groupthink,” she said.

Consultant Jessica Drake highlighted the tangled role of the city’s longstanding police-area representatives, who told the 21CP group that the officers tasked with responding to all manner of incidents within certain pockets of the city see themselves more as tools for their fellow patrol officers than resources for residents. 

“The PAR Unit is the junk drawer of the department,” one former officer told consultants. 

During the meeting with council members, consultants acknowledged that city management and police brass have already started implementing some of the suggestions, including the creation of a force investigation unit, bans on certain maneuvers and the recent addition of a police auditor and the promise of a new monitor position to oversee the department. A citizen-led task force has also met for more than a year to issue additional guidelines for the department, a process that culminated in a series of recommendations issued earlier this spring. When those suggestions could be adopted remains undetermined, according to task force members.

Police Chief Vanessa Wilson briefly addressed the council, saying the department has already made inroads on several of the recommendations, including a new data-tracking system for use-of-force incidents and a pilot program that will add six non-sworn staffers to investigate traffic incidents. Consultants urged police leaders to decrease police calls to lower-level encounters such as traffic calls, which make up more than a quarter of the department’s requests for service. Less than 2.5% of Aurora police calls, or about 25,000 requests, from 2016 to 2020 related to violent crimes like murder, assault and rape, data show.

City Manager Jim Twombly recently penned a column published in The Sentinel reminding residents that many recommendations will take time to implement, and a slew of investigations into the city remain pending. 

This is not a sprint nor is it a marathon — it is both,” Twombly wrote. “I support our reform efforts and I support our officers. We can and should support both.”

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T. Stinnett
T. Stinnett
1 year ago

When do the citizens and taxpayers of Aurora get to see the full 160 page report? Where’s the recommendations of the Community Police Task Force published?

Kara Mason
Kara Mason
1 year ago
Reply to  T. Stinnett

Hi there! Managing Editor here. You can view the report here, starts on page 315:

Avoiding Racial Harassment
Avoiding Racial Harassment
1 year ago
Reply to  Kara Mason

This is why I donate to the Sentinel. Thank you.

1 year ago
Reply to  Kara Mason

Did we, the citizens of Aurora, really spend $350,000 for this 160 page report?

William Malone
William Malone
1 year ago

$350,000.00 dollars for a report? The cops just got robbed and the taxpayers picked up the tab. Same story some bad apples did all the damage, and the command staff failed for years to do their jobs. How many of that Command staff are still in position? This expensive report wont do a damn thing as long as the real problem is not eradicated.