Aurora Black police officer hiring analysis reveals a ‘racist system,’ lawmaker says

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AURORA | White people applying to become Aurora police officers are almost 4 times more likely to be hired than their Black peers, a recent analysis conducted by city staffers found.

In the past three years, only 1.1% of Black applicants who met the minimum qualifications to be hired onto the city’s police force were admitted to the academy, according to data presented to city council members Thursday. That number is dwarfed by the 4.24% of white applicants, 3% of Hispanic applicants and 3.6% of Asian applicants who make it through the lengthy vetting process.

“It’s way worse than I thought,” said Councilperson Allison Hiltz, who requested the data be presented to the city’s public safety policy committee. “I knew it was going to be bad, but I had no idea it was this bad.”

Of the 454 Black applicants who have met the basic qualifications to become an Aurora police officer since March 2018, five have made it to the academy, the analysis found. The ratio was the same for the most recent academy class, which wrapped its application process Aug. 17: one Black applicant of the 148 who applied — 114 of whom were deemed to meet the minimum qualifications — was admitted.

The data was presented at at public meeting Thursday after the city’s civil service commission, the body tasked with hiring and firing Aurora cops and firefighters, outlined its current processes.

Hiltz and the other council members who sit on the public safety committee, Angela Lawson and Curtis Gardner, excoriated the entity for failing to diversify the local police force.

“I don’t think anybody is setting out to say, ‘let’s be racist,’” Hiltz told The Sentinel. “But we have racist outcomes. We have a racist system.”

About 80% of the department’s 755 sworn officers in 2018 were white, 9.5% were Hispanic and roughly 4% were Black, according to the last annual report published on the city’s website.

About a fifth of the city’s population was born outside of the U.S., with nearly 30% of Aurora’s some 380,000 residents identifying as Hispanic or Latino and 16% identifying as Black, according to U.S. Census data.

Civil service commissioners and employees said they too acknowledge the need to recruit more non-white officers.

“I think Aurora finds itself in the same challenge that a lot of other cities are trying to address right now with how to have the diversity of the police and fire department mirror the diversity of the community,” said Matt Cain, city administrator for the Civil Service Commission.

The city spends $27,500 on police recruiting annually, according to city documents. Another $13,000 was added to the budget this year to bolster efforts on Indeed.com after the coronavirus pandemic upended traditional, in-person recruiting trips.

Jim Weeks, a former diversity and human resources chief for the Bureau of Reclamation and current chair of the civil service commission, pointed to a policy change implemented last year that allows lawful permanent residents to apply to become cops and firefighters. So far, 98 such residents have applied to the local police force, and one person has been hired.

“We’ve not had as many applications as I’d hoped we would, but I think it will improve over time,” Weeks said. “This is one of the efforts we’ve taken as a commission to improve diversity in the city’s workforce.”

He further explained that the city’s extensive application process — which involves aptitude, fitness and lie detector tests — purposefully omits demographic data of applicants in an effort to trim potential biases.

“The process is basically color blind, gender blind and age blind,” Weeks said. “That process is very neutral and when we make our decisions at the end of the process to either approve or disqualify somebody, all we have is a number. We don’t know anything else about the applicant.”

Hiltz said the process maintains room for improvement.

She said she was particularly unsettled by the polygraph and background check portion of the civil service application process, which a disproportionate number of potential Black cops passed. Only 11.9% of qualified Black applicants moved beyond that step of the process compared to 28% for both white and Latino job seekers.

Hiltz said questions about knowing a friend or family member who has been incarcerated negatively impact Black candidates at a disproportionate scale.

Though the imprisonment rate is falling, there were still more than 1,500 Black prisoners per 100,000 Black adults at the end of 2018, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics compiled by the Pew Research Center. That’s more than five times the rate among whites.

“If you’re a Black male in a America, you’re much more likely to know someone who has been incarcerated because Black men are disproportionately incarcerated,” Hiltz said. “And if that’s preventing people from moving through the process, that’s extremely concerning.”

Both Hiltz and Lawson said the new hiring data dovetails with recent use-of-force statistics in the city showing that local officers disproportionately use force against Black residents. About 47% of the 611 use of force incidents reported in the city last year involved a Black subject, according to city data released earlier this year. Two thirds of those incidents were initiated after subjects were suspected of misdemeanor crimes.

“I think it’s all connected in a way,” Lawson said of the new hiring data and use of force in the city.

For weeks, Lawson has been badgering the local police force to provide even more nuanced data on use of force incidents in the city, broken down by race and the type of force used.

“How are we going to talk about implementing further reforms if we don’t even know what’s happening?,” she said.

No formal action was taken at the policy committee meeting Thursday, although all three members who sit on the panel said they’ll be expecting updates from the city’s four current civil service commissioners regarding possible reforms to the entity.

Pam Turner, a retired teacher with Aurora Public Schools and current vice chair of the civil service commission, indicated the group will need further direction from council moving forward.

“I’m sure we’re going to have to have further discussion on what council is actually wanting form us,” she said.

Barbara Shannon-Banister, who was appointed to the commission after a lengthy tenure with the city this February, declined to comment. AJ McDonald, a retired state corrections officer, did not respond to a telephone request for comment.

Possible reforms could include updating the city’s roster of 12 background investigators, implementing oral boards and adding HR involvement to the hiring process for cops and firefighters, council members said.

In a comparison with eight other U.S. cities with similar population sizes as Aurora, all eight involved HR in the process of hiring civil service staffers, according to city documents. And of 11 metro area law enforcement agencies, all of them conduct oral boards, or interviews with department brass during the hiring process.

Aurora nixed that part of its hiring process nearly 10 years ago after the Department of Justice determined the city may have been discriminating against minority applicants seeking jobs on the local police and fire forces. The DOJ claim was eventually determined to be unfounded, but civil service did away with the interviews anyway. Currently, applicants never meet with an actual Aurora police officer and firefighter until the final stages of the hiring process. After years of asking for more involvement, civil service commissioners last September approved a department representative to participate in a final review of an applicant before a job offer is made.

Cain said that commissioners on Friday asked staffers to re-open a dialogue with the police and fire chiefs regarding the potential re-implementation of oral boards.

If the data doesn’t improve, council members said they’re open to council intervention to improve the city’s hiring practices.

“I would say all options are on the table at this point,” Gardner said.

Hiltz added that she’s open to pursuing a ballot question that would change the city charter and potentially strip the civil service commission of certain powers.

“We could look at doing a charter change and shaking up the whole system,” she said. “But the first step was to get that data out in the open.”

Aurora voters in 2006 rejected a ballot question seeking to shift civil service hiring decisions from the current commission to the city’s human resources department.