AURORA | Aurora’s interim police chief has altered two department oversight boards and unilaterally upended discipline of at least two officers amid demands for more police department transparency and accountability.
Reacting to part of the story, first reported by Channel 4 News on Friday, interim chief Dan Oates said, “As chief, it is my sole responsibility to decide what discipline is appropriate,” in a written statement to inquiries by Channel 4 investigative reporter Brian Maass. “I know how to hold cops accountable for misconduct. But when an internal affairs investigation does not prove misconduct, it is also my job to stand by that finding as well.”
The Sentinel contacted Aurora police for comment from Oates but as of Sunday the department had not responded.
On Friday, the city posted a job opening for a new interim police chief, with a job application window of only three days.
City officials said Sunday that Oates’ contract is in effect through Nov. 26, and that the posting allows for the city “keep every option open,” according to a statement.
City records show Oates reversed internal decisions against a police commander rendered by two internal peer review boards of “behavior unbecoming an officer’’ and then promoted her to a top police department post. At about the same time, the interim police chief also halted the firing of a newly hired officer charged with disorderly, drunken behavior.
A spokesperson for Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said they had “no comment on the story at this time.”
City officials provided documents in connection with the new-hire officer. But both Denver and Aurora police refused Colorado Open Records Act requests for internal investigation reports and Denver police reports connected to the police commander case.
Proponents for police reform in Aurora’s embattled police department were critical of news that Oates had recast the police department’s internal affairs unit and dissolved the Aurora Chief’s Review Board.
“That the police and city are dissolving things and doing a one-eighty on police reform doesn’t surprise me,” said Lindsay Minter, local reform activist and former Aurora Community Police Task Force member.
For the past three years, the embattled police department has been the subject of local and national scrutiny and headlines, accused of deep-rooted problems with accountability and transparency. The issues came to the forefront after the 2019 death of Elijah McClain and a string of disconcerting instances of abuse of power, especially involving people of color.
As a grand jury indicted a handful of police officers and firefighters in the death of McClain, the state’s attorney general created a seminal consent decree last year, mandating a host of reforms countering years of insular handling of police malfeasance.
Many of the reforms were spearheaded by former Police Chief Vanessa Wilson, who was sacked in April, creating consternation among police reform advocates. Wilson’s unyielding demands for police accountability proved unpopular with police rank and file and some city lawmakers, allies of police unions.
City Manager Jim Twombly said Wilson was fired because of management deficiencies, not her police reform tactics.
She was replaced by former Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates to serve as interim chief, who oversaw APD from 2005-2014. Now retired after serving as chief for several years in Miami Beach, Florida, Oates returned to Aurora as a stopgap while the city searched for a new, permanent chief.
That process has been held up after two of three finalist candidates last month withdrew from the search, and the remaining candidate did not garner a majority of city council support.
For now, the hiatus leaves Oates in charge of a department accused of systemic racism, low morale, diminishing ranks and a lack of community trust among people of color.
Top police commander discipline halted by Oates
For the past few months, police officers and leaders have reported to The Sentinel anonymously and off the record that they were upset about Oates actions regarding police discipline.
“All of this is happening outside of the public purview at a time the department is being accused of hiding how past chiefs “looked the other way” for favored officers and not others, one high-ranking, veteran Aurora police officer said on the condition of anonymity, fearing retribution if being publicly critical.
That officer and two others were critical of Oates unilaterally changing the police oversight systems, without making the changes public, and also unilaterally overturning two recent cases of disciplining officers, including a prominent department commander.
According to documents obtained by The Sentinel and sources knowledgeable of events, Oates on June 29, 2022 reversed a critical finding by the Chief’s Review Board. The board, composed of police department peers, found that Commander Cassidee Carlson had violated the department’s policy against conduct unbecoming of an officer.
Three days later, Oates promoted Carlson.
Police spokeswoman Faith Goodrich confirmed in July that Oates had dissolved the Chief’s Review Board, which, records show, occurred the day before the date of the Carlson finding.
Goodrich, writing in an email, said that Oates believed, “as the final decision maker in all discipline, the Chief of Police should be present and invested in all facets of the discipline process.”
The review board was created by former Chief Nick Metz several years ago amid criticism that the Aurora police department had become too insular and that police discipline cases should undergo more scrutiny and oversight. The job of the board, composed of a variety of police officers, was to hear disciplinary cases from internal affairs and render review and judgment, of which the police chief could accept all, part or none.
Carlson, an APD veteran since 2003, became the subject of an internal affairs investigation earlier this year after she assisted another Aurora police officer, Detective Julie Stahnke, in an incident where Stahnke allegedly violated a restraining order protecting Stahnke’s estranged wife.
According to Denver Police records, Stahnke was charged with domestic violence after police were called to the Denver home of Stahnke and her estranged wife. Those charges were later dropped.
But Stahnke was arrested in the incident and jailed Nov. 22, 2021, according to Denver police.
Carlson picked Stahnke up from jail the next day and drove her to her Denver home, according to three sources speaking to The Sentinel, citing information from the internal affairs file and all asking for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the issue.
The Sentinel issued a Colorado Open Records Act request for Carlson’s internal affairs investigation report on Oct. 5 but was refused. Police officials denied providing the report, saying the matter was still under investigation.
Channel 4 reporter Brian Maass, who first reported the story about Carlson, extensively cites the APD internal affairs investigation in his reporting. Police spokesman Matthew Longshore said Friday that police had not provided “the entire internal investigation to anyone” and that the documents used by Channel 4 “were obtained otherwise.”
The Sentinel was able to confirm the Channel 4 story citations from three city and police officials who had access to and had read the report.
When Stahnke was released from jail for the initial domestic violence incident, she was issued a restraining order, prohibiting her from contacting her wife or being within 100 yards of their home, which was the site of the alleged domestic violence. Such orders are automatic and standard under the Colorado Revised Statutes.
Despite that, Carlson drove Stahnke to the Denver home so she could retrieve her vehicle.
Sentinel sources confirmed Channel 4 reports that Stahnke’s trip back to the Denver home allegedly violated the restraining order, and that Carlson was subsequently confronted with that by internal affairs investigators.
The next day, Stahnke and Carlson went back to the Denver home, went inside and removed items from the house. They then returned the items, according to Aurora Police internal affairs reports, Channel 4 reported and Sentinel sources confirmed.
It was the second time Stahnke allegedly violated the restraining order.
At the time, Carlson called a fellow Denver police officer she knew to provide what’s known as a “civil assist,” where a law enforcement official observes an interaction involving parties to a restraining order, according to Channel 4’s account of the IA file, confirmed by Sentinel sources.
When confronted about abetting Stahnke in violating the restraining order, Carlson told Aurora police investigators she did not know about the order, despite arranging for a civil assist, Channel 4 reported from the Internal Affairs file and Sentinel sources confirmed.
Later on in the Internal Affairs investigation, it was revealed that the police officer called by Carlson was her cousin, who subsequently faced review for his actions in the event, according to Channel 4 reports and Sentinel sources.
Investigating officers were critical of Carlson for withholding that information, which Carlson said was inadvertent, sources and Channel 4 reports say.
Stahnke is scheduled for a Nov. 11 trial on charges against her for violating the protective order last year.
On Oct. 6, The Sentinel requested the Denver Police report of the details leading to Stahnke’s trial and Carlson’s involvement. Denver City attorney officials prosecuting the case refused, citing fair trial concerns about pretrial publicity in the case.
Internal affairs investigators confronted Carlson about conflicting stories she told regarding when she knew Stahnke was violating the restraining order and why Carlson previously told investigators she was unaware of such an order.
Carlson told investigators that even after being made aware of the order, she was unaware of the order’s details, according to Channel 4 reporting and confirmed by Sentinel sources.
Carlson told investigators she did not intentionally omit information about the restraining order or that the officer she called upon for a civil assist was her cousin, Channel 4 reported from the Internal Affairs file.
Despite that, Internal Affairs members found that Carlson’s part in helping Stahnke endangered her credibility as a police officer and a top-level official, according to Channel 4 reporting, confirmed by Sentinel sources.
In addition, the IA board found that Carlson was deceptive about the details of the case, and violated the department’s policy against behavior unbecoming an officer.
The Chief’s Review Board, composed of top-level police officials, ruled, however, that Carlson had not been deceitful about the details of the case, but the board did find that she was guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer.
Current and former police officials say such a disciplinary finding would be cause for demotion or even dismissal.
Despite both entities finding against Carlson, Oates reversed the rulings in both cases.
“I reject the recommendation of the (Chief’s Review Board) and deem that the charge of behavior unbecoming is NOT SUSTAINED,” Oates wrote in a June 29 memorandum, provided by police.
Three days later, Oates promoted Carlson from commander to top-level division chief, supervising all of patrol.
Oates reversed the firing of a new-hire arrested out of state
When he was first brought on board as interim chief in spring, Oates said he was “not coming in with an agenda to change the discipline process.” During an April press conference, he said he was committed to respecting accountability measures and said that disciplinary actions should be handled transparently.
“The way I think an ideal police department should operate is that the chief decides what’s appropriate discipline in a transparent way, for the cops and for the community, and if the community and the elected officials are unhappy with those decisions, then you get rid of the chief,” he said at the time.
This summer, Oates made the decision to terminate and then suspend the termination of probationary APD officer Zachary O’Neill, according to APD documents obtained by The Sentinel through an open records request. The termination and suspension documents were written and signed on the same day, and it’s unclear whether O’Neill’s termination ever formally took effect.
In response to an Oct. 5 inquiry from The Sentinel, an APD spokesperson said that Oates had not modified any disciplinary penalties imposed on officers accused of misconduct during or prior to his most recent tenure as chief.
A disciplinary order written by Oates dated July 25 states that in May, O’Neill was arrested in Mena, Arkansas by officers from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office in connection to a family altercation.
“Deputies were dispatched to Officer O’Neill’s location in reference to a verbal family dispute,” the order said. “Upon contact, deputies observed that Officer O’Neill was staggering, had slurred speech, watery bloodshot eyes and the odor of intoxicants was emitting from his person. Prior to Officer O’Neill’s arrest, PCSO deputies attempted to assist him by taking him to a hotel, but he later became argumentative and hostile toward the deputies, to include the Polk County Sheriff who also responded. While in jail, Officer O’Neill was uncooperative and disruptive.”
Online court documents from Arkansas show that O’Neill was given misdemeanor citations for public intoxication and disorderly conduct in Mena on May 6. The Polk County Sheriff’s Office denied a Sentinel request for the arrest affidavit, with a department secretary saying that the sheriff had told her she was not able to release any information about the case.
Arkansas court records show that in July, a plea and arraignment hearing for O’Neill was continued for six months until Jan. 10, 2023.
The disciplinary order from Oates goes on to say that based on O’Neill’s behavior, his employment is terminated, and that because he is on probationary status he does not have the ability to appeal the decision. The order was written July 25 and signed by Oates, O’Neill, Deputy City Manager Jason Batchelor and a member of the City Attorney’s Office Aug. 3.
In an addendum to the order, also dated July 25 and signed Aug. 3, Oates said that he is deferring O’Neill’s firing, and that as long as O’Neill is not found guilty or does not plead guilty and follows certain conditions during a probationary period he will not be fired.
The addendum said that the prosecuting attorney in O’Neill’s case has agreed to dismiss the case in January if there are no new charges during the six-month continuation period.
That, along with other mitigating factors, including that O’Neill had no prior criminal or disciplinary history, and that the charges stemmed from “an emotionally volatile family situation,” led Oates to defer disciplinary action, he said.
To avoid being fired, O’Neill must not plead guilty or be found guilty in the criminal case and must check in with the APD Wellness Unit at least every two weeks for six months. He also may be immediately fired if he violates any City of Aurora or police department policies during the deferral period, which will last until the beginning of 2025.
The alteration is an about face from policy made public by former Chief Vanessa Wilson, who said during press events that she made clear to all police officers that if they are arrested, they would be fired.
Aurora Police and former Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz were heavily criticized for overlooking a 2018 incident where a police officer passed out drunk inside his police cruiser, prompting promises of more transparency and accountability within the department.
Wilson was repeatedly criticized by Aurora police union members for her zero-tolerance of Aurora officers running afoul of the law. She was heavily criticized for dismissing a veteran police officer who showed up to work intoxicated.
“Since my appointment as interim chief, and now as the newly appointed chief of police, I have pledged to hold my officers accountable for their actions,” Wilson said in a statement in 2020. “Being transparent regarding issues of officer misconduct is paramount for rebuilding trust and legitimacy with our community.
Oates returned to Aurora because of police controversy
Oates was tapped to serve as interim police chief in April after former chief Vanessa Wilson was fired by city manager Jim Twombly in a controversial move that many alleged was politically-motivated.
In a notice dated Sept. 27 that was sent to city and police officials, lawyers for Wilson said they planned to sue the city, alleging that her termination was a violation of her civil rights and part of a “conspiracy” by officials to force her out.
Wilson’s lawyers accused council members Danielle Jurinsky and Dustin Zvonek as well as former Aurora Police Association president Doug Wilkinson in particular of pressuring Twombly to fire Wilson for her efforts to reform the department and address the problem of racially discriminatory policing.
They also said the city retaliated against Wilson after she was fired by refusing to let her keep her badges, which “officers in good standing are routinely allowed to keep,” and refused to issue her a Law Enforcement Officer Safety Act card, which would have allowed her to carry a concealed weapon.
Oates’ interim stint began at the end of May and his contract stipulated that he will serve for six months while the city searched for a replacement for Wilson, and that he would not apply for the permanent position. After a failed hiring search, the city has yet to select a new police chief and the six-month period will expire later in November.
The Aurora Police Department was placed under a consent decree by the Colorado Attorney General’s office last year after an investigation found that police were using force disproportionately against residents of color and paramedics had been administering sedatives inappropriately.
The investigation came on the heels of several high-profile incidents that sparked widespread protests and drew national attention to APD, including the 2019 death of Elijah McClain and a 2020 incident where several young Black girls were forced to lie face down on hot pavement during an erroneous traffic stop.
The decree requires the department to commit to a series of reforms over the next several years, including monitoring and changing use-of-force policies, hiring more police officers and firefighters of color and creating new policies for the use of chemical sedatives by paramedics.
IntegrAssure, the firm selected by the City of Aurora to oversee the implementation of the consent decree, published its first report on the city’s progress in August, which stated that so far nine of the consent decree mandates have been met.
As of Saturday, it was unclear who would assume control of the police department in the after Nov. 26, when Oates’ contract expires. The window for applications is only from Nov. 4 through Nov. 7.
“Chief Oates continues to successfully lead the department and serve as the interim chief,” Aurora Communications Director Kim Stuart said in a statement. “After coming out of retirement to serve Aurora, he has achieved a sense of stability in the department and brought a renewed focus on crime reduction, community engagement and internal leadership in line with the consent decree and city priorities.”
Stuart said the interim chief’s job was posted on Friday to comply with employment laws, requiring postings for any position that exceeds six months.
“Chief Oates has agreed to extend his service as the interim chief here, as needed,” Stuart said.
City officials have not announced whether Oates will be retained past Nov. 26, or whether a new candidate will be considered.
The position posted pays between $192,000.00 – $250,000.00 annually.
City officials said that it has no immediate prospects for a permanent police chief.
“Despite the exhaustive efforts of the city management team and the city’s seasoned police executive recruitment firm, we have been increasingly challenged in recruiting qualified police chief applicants,” Stuart said. “We have not received any formal applications since we announced the extension of the search for a permanent chief on Oct. 4.”
She said the city and recruitment firm continue to target and have “conversations with potential candidates around the country,” Stuart said.
“The city is considering all possibilities to determine the best candidate to lead the department, focus on crime reduction and continue the important public safety changes already underway,” Stuart said.
Community demands for accountability
Community activist Lindsay Minter, who sat on the Aurora Community Police Task Force before it was dissolved earlier this year, said the allegations against Oates and city officials for quietly reversing police discipline and eliminating police oversight were disheartening.
“When it comes down to it, this is about police investigating the police. And it’s all we have. If (Oates) decides he can overrule even that, what’s the point of the consent decree?”
Looking for guidance on police reform and training, the city created a Community Police Task Force during the turbulent protests in 2020 protesting the 2019 death of Elijah McClain.
City officials suddenly dissolved that task force earlier this year, drawing fierce criticism from local activists and leaders of communities of color.
Minter this week said she was most concerned about Oates dissolving the Chief’s Review Board, outside of public scrutiny.
She said the changes not only create distrust in the community but also cause morale problems in the department among officers who work hard every day to treat people they encounter with respect especially when they encounter “people at their worst.”
Aurora NAACP President Omar Montgomery said he was surprised that Oates would dissolve the Chief’s Review Board without consulting the attorney general’s team or others scrutinizing the city’s police reform and accountability process.
He said the news about Oates acting unilaterally on discipline, on top of removing a mechanism of accountability, without acknowledgement from parties of the attorney general’s consent decree, underscores the need for an independent monitor in the city, which Aurora City Council members just last week voted to defund.
Montgomery said that position would be able to navigate controversies like this and offer the public credible and objective opinions on whether discipline reversals or terminated boards are warranted.
“We’re trying to get the city to stop creating situations like this that bring bad publicity about our police department,” Montgomery said. “If it’s true that (Oates) dissolved the Chief’s Review Board, they should reinstate it and press for an independent monitor to decide whether dissolving it was called for.”
He said the Aurora NAACP will continue to monitor how the city moves through the consent decree process, but “it’s imperative now that the city fund the independent monitor.”