Conservative lawmakers reportedly scrutinizing Aurora civil service commission after cop union leader’s firing is upheld

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Councilmember Danielle Jurinsky speaks during a recent city council meeting. SENTINEL SCREEN SHOT

AURORA | Aurora’s Civil Service Commission’s changing image may be making it the target of reform efforts by council conservatives, after years of criticism that it obstructed efforts to hold police officers accountable for misconduct.

On July 12, the commission voted to uphold former chief Vanessa Wilson’s firing of Doug Wilkinson — the ex-president of the Aurora Police Association, who last year sent an email to association members mocking the police department’s program to recruit a more diverse pool of officer candidates.

“To match the ‘diversity’ of ‘the community’ we could make sure to hire 10% illegal aliens, 50% weed smokers, 10% crackheads, and a few child molesters and murderers to round it out. You know, so we can make the department look like the ‘community,’” the email read in part.

In their decision, commissioners blasted Wilkinson over the email, which they said “denigrated and showed hostility toward women and minorities, included negative stereotyping, had the effect of creating an intimidating, hostile and offensive work environment, and adversely affected employment opportunities for women and black officers within the APD.”

It was the latest in a pattern of decisions to uphold discipline against officers, made by a roster of commissioners that has turned over completely since the group’s contentious ruling in the 2017 case of one officer who was rehired after losing his job for calling a group of Black people gathered at the scene of a police shooting “Alabama porch monkeys.”

Commissioners declined to talk about the Wilkinson decision and changing perceptions of the group, citing a rule barring members from discussing cases until the 30-day window has passed for defendants to appeal the group’s decision in court.

Others, though — such as progressive City Councilmember Juan Marcano, who around 2019 helped recruit commissioners interested in police reform — said the commission has begun to shed its reputation of protecting bad cops.

“It’s a relief to our community. I think it’s a positive change,” Marcano said. “My concern moving forward is we’ll lose the ground we have gained.”

Two days after Wilkinson’s firing was upheld, at a meeting of the City Council’s Public Safety, Courts and Civil Service Policy Committee, conservative Councilmember Danielle Jurinsky asked staff about the logistics of removing commissioners or even eliminating the commission altogether.

Wilkinson later told The Sentinel he has had “confidential conversations” with recently-elected conservative council members about changes he thinks should be made on the commission. He said he believes the commission was operating with a political bias in his case.

The fired officer endorsed Jurinsky in her bid for office in 2021. Jurinsky did not respond to requests for comment.

Part oversight, part jury, part recruiter

Aurora’s charter defines the roles of the Civil Service Commission, including screening new police officers and firefighters, and administering exams for promotion within those agencies.

The commission is also the arbiter for employees appealing discipline imposed by the police and fire chiefs.

The latter responsibility gives the commission the power to uphold, reverse or modify penalties for officer misconduct — a prominent case of which emerged in 2017, when Aurora Police Department officer Charles DeShazer was caught on body-worn camera calling Black citizens “porch monkeys.”

It wasn’t the first time DeShazer faced sanctions for his behavior, or even his first time being accused of using racist language on the job. In 2006, a disabled Black woman accused DeShazer of calling her a “n—-r” while arresting her and her daughter. The city paid $175,000 to the woman in a settlement, although an internal review board cleared DeShazer of wrongdoing.

Then-police chief Nick Metz fired DeShazer after the “porch monkeys” incident in 2017. But in 2018, the Civil Service Commission gave DeShazer his job back, albeit demoting him, arguing DeShazer shouldn’t have been terminated because other officers were given lesser punishments for “comparable” offenses.

Metz told 9News at the time that veteran officers were “disappointed” in the commission’s ruling. Aurora’s then-mayor, Bob LeGare, released a statement endorsing Metz’s firing of DeShazer and calling the decision to reinstate the troubled officer “a slap in the face.”

Aurora’s interim police chief, Dan Oates, has also come into conflict with the Civil Service Commission and Aurora Police Association leadership in the past, when he previously served as chief, for trying to limit officers’ ability to appeal discipline to the group. Oates declined to comment for this story.

Reports on challenges facing the Aurora Police Department completed last year by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office and consultant 21CP Solutions both noted the Civil Service Commission’s decision in DeShazer and similar cases as a source of frustration and controversy within the community.

21CP Solutions 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 consultant said those interviewed also described the commission’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.”

In the wake of the DeShazer case, and as tensions over policing in the city were escalating, Marcano and other council members looked at reforming the commission by recruiting a more diverse group of commissioners.

Marcano said he and others disseminated information about the commission online and in person to constituents at events.

Today, the current commission includes multiple women and people of color. The Colorado Attorney General’s Office wrote in September that the effort appeared to have improved community 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.”

Commission is key to ordered police reform efforts

The commission was also among the entities targeted for reform in the City of Aurora’s consent decree — specifically, making the discipline and hiring processes more transparent.

Marcano and former mayor LeGare said they thought the Wilkinson decision was the kind of example set by the commission that would help build trust.

“I think the decision was a good one based on what I’ve read, and the way it tarnishes the other officers on the force,” LeGare said, adding that “in the past, it was very difficult to understand why they overturned things.”

Both of the commission’s rulings this year have upheld the discipline imposed by former chief Vanessa Wilson.

But during the July 14 meeting of the city’s public safety committee, Jurinsky expressed interest in removing commissioners from the group or taking other actions that would dilute the power of existing members.

She asked whether the city is required by its charter to have a Civil Service Commission. Deputy City Manager Jason Batchelor replied that it is. He also told Jurinsky that removing a commissioner would require an eight-vote supermajority of city council members.

The charter also specifies that the group should consist of between three and five commissioners, and that the council can establish the cap by ordinance. Deputy city attorney Julie Heckman said the current five-member cap could be reduced to three by a vote of the council to overturn the ordinance establishing the cap after Jurinsky asked whether the council could pack the commission with new members.

While Jurinsky didn’t mention any of the commissioners by name or say why she wanted to implement changes, Wilkinson said he had spoken with conservative council members about his concerns regarding commissioners.

“I don’t think they want me to name them specifically, but the newer, more conservative council members want (the commissioners) to be more objective,” he said.

He said some officers believe the goal of the commission has shifted from what he views as its legitimate purpose — acting as a check on the truthfulness of internal affairs investigators and the chief’s office — to “weeding out people who shouldn’t be cops.”

Wilkinson said he thought the commission would be improved if more of its members had a legal background or experience with police administration.

“We’re not trying to stack the commission with people who let the cops get away with criminality or anything like that. We just want a fair hearing,” he said.

Former commissioner Jim Weeks, who joined the group after DeShazer, and at one point served as chairman, said he viewed the Wilkinson decision as “entirely consistent with the philosophy of the commission” and disputed the idea that the commission previously lost the faith of the community or that it infrequently sustained discipline brought by the chief.

He acknowledged the current commission for “carrying the torch forward.”

“​​When it comes to disciplinary hearings, I think they’ve been consistent,” Weeks said.

While Marcano said he thought the commission could still be improved, he was largely laudatory of the changes made since DeShazer.

He said, though, that he was concerned about the changes that Jurinsky and the rest of the new majority-conservative council could make to the group.

“The commission is kind of like a snapshot of the values of the council that appoints them,” Marcano said. “That’s why I’m very suspicious of efforts by this council to change the number of commissioners.”

Weeks said commissioners during his tenure at times faced intense outside pressure and even threats, especially after Elijah McClain’s death — he recalled one public commenter in particular warning commissioners, “I know where you live.”

“But we don’t let that affect our decision making,” Weeks said. “We try to rule depending on who puts the best case forward.”

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Joe Felice
Joe Felice
6 months ago

Scrutinize away. It’s a given that anything they don’t like will be challenged. And great amounts of money are about to be raised to mount a court fight. They were emboldened by getting away with firing our Chief of Police and putting their guy back on the job.

Doug
Doug
6 months ago

Elections matter. Jeeze people. Vote. And vote 🔵
Any other way results in a SCOTUS situation. Danielle thinks if she “protects” the cops and pays for their coffee and dinners she maintains their endorsement of her. This is NOT the way to support our APD!

Gerti Ingalls
Gerti Ingalls
6 months ago

“confidential conversations”

Absolutely disgusting. Flagrant corruption. The man who controls the powerful APA money ordering his bought-and-paid-for Councilwoman to get his revenge on the people who held him accountable. In addition to being a racist, a sexist, and a corrupt cop, Doug Wilkinson has anger issues and he is using Danielle Jurinsky as his gun to shoot people who make him mad. He is the perfect example of why policing needs to change, why cops need new leadership and new job descriptions. When they talk about bad apples, they’re talking about Doug Wilkinson, the foul decayed apple that is spreading his rot to all of the Aurora Police Department.

Don Black
Don Black
6 months ago

The challenge is to find a fair Civil Service Commission. Like everything else, it seems to go from one extreme to another. Right now, it is catering to the systemic racism theme created by Weiser and the left. In the past, Chief Oates tried to destroy the Civil Service Commission out of a desire to have absolute control. That would not be bad if we could count on always having a fair chief. However, chiefs have been regularly guilty of favoritism and incompetence. That is why the training is so bad and why bad officers have regularly been retained. I certainly had no sympathy for Deshazer and his racist attitude. The chiefs have been guilty of playing favorites and often incompetent in how they presented cases to Civil Service. This has often forced the Union to defend officers not because they were innocent but because all of the policies were violated to try to get the officer. Civil Service performs one function that the public does not understand. It protects officers who rightfully are trying to improve the department function by pushing for better training and equipment that will prevent unnecessary deaths. Officers who are vocal in trying to get rid of bad officers, point out department brutality, and otherwise present what the chief sees as a threat to his control are at the mercy of a bad chief. Unfortunately, there are more bad chiefs than good chiefs. That is the reason law enforcement is in the position it is in. So, in the past, when an officer who was doing his proper diligence was attacked by the Chief’s Office because he was perceived as a threat, Civil Service was there to protect an officer from administrative misconduct. Civil Service actually was a way to protect officers who were trying to do the right thing. Without Civil Service, you have departments open to cronyism and misconduct that can be easily hidden by the chief. The “blue wall” starts at the top. I know. When I tried to report misconduct by other officers, the culture of silence created by the chiefs kept things quiet. When I tried to get equipment that would keep us from unnecessarily shooting subjects, I was disciplined by the chief. Without Civil Service, I would never have finished a career with APD. Anyone who spoke up would have been gone.

Now, let is look at the present trend. Civil Service has been stocked with people who fit the popular narrative. In a recent case, an officer who was sustained for using too much force had to face the reality of a commissioner whose only real concern was race. In this case, the officer’s conduct was unprofessional and deserving of punishment. His use of force, however, was not excessive. Multiple experts testified to that fact. In addition, there was testimony that a department top officer had lied about the findings of a review board. When asked how they could find the force excessive, a commissioner simply said “she was just a little black girl”. It did not matter that she was disregarding orders and needed to be physically restrained. The type of restraint applied was extremely minor. The Supreme Court has established that use of force should be judged from the viewpoint of a reasonable officer at the scene and not from the 20/20 hindsight of someone else. The emotional hysteria and lack of knowledge that is now being used to judge officers is causing them to either leave the job or do nothing.

This type of emotional response has created a police reform bill here in Colorado that is entirely vague and unworkable. The fact that no chiefs are standing up to point out its flaws shows you what kind of people are inhabiting chiefs’ positions. Quiet, political types who care for their own power and careers have been the been the curse in police work for decades. The wordings of the police reform bill that require minimum force instead of reasonable force would make the officers’ conduct at Uvalde proper. They indeed tried to deescalate and talk to the shooter. In Colorado, if you used force that wasn’t the minimum necessary you would be subject to being fired, sued, and prosecuted. Anyone can argue that the shooter might have responded to talk and therefore it should be attempted. Again, we must use minimum force and some very liberal people in the public, the media, and the legislature can scream that at any time.

Civil Service needs to be balanced and fair. It is not that right now. We don’t want Civil service that will rubber stamp officers’ misconduct. We simply want fair Civil Service people who judge based upon the facts and what is right for the people of our city. Certainly, judging everything from a race based approach is not fair.

Bart Emanuel
Bart Emanuel
6 months ago
Reply to  Don Black

So many words wasted. All you had to say was “we should treat racists with a badge and a gun with kid gloves.”

Don Black
Don Black
6 months ago
Reply to  Bart Emanuel

Missed every point. Stick with the emotional hysteria and ignore facts.

DICK MOORE
DICK MOORE
6 months ago

When volunteering with the Citizens of Aurora Budget Committee in the 1990’s one of my first tasks was auditing the roughly one million budget of the Civil Service Commission. My conclusion then, after that audit, was that it was a complete waste of money. I’ve never changed my mind. I suppose, without looking it up, their budget is now around three million a year..

Everything they do, can and should be handled by the Department Head like any other City Department, the Chief of Police and Fire Chief, at a dramatic savings to our City. All the Commission does is to hire, review firings and complaints about City employees who are police and firemen.

To eliminate this Commission would be worth the major hassle it would take but now more than ever it would be worthwhile.

Zero
Zero
6 months ago
Reply to  DICK MOORE

The fact that someone ever appointed someone as blatantly bigoted as you to a commission is blowing my mind right now. Please share which elected official made that horrible judgement call, so I can know who to NEVER support or vote for in the future, if they’re still kickin’ in politics. My cancel culture stamp is ready, just point me in the right direction, Dick.

DICK MOORE
DICK MOORE
6 months ago
Reply to  Zero

To think that I’m blatantly bigoted, truly explains your fake name, Zero. I’m many possible negative things but the only people that I’m bigoted against is stupid people of any color and socialists.

I’m proud of my roughly 15 years of service on CABC and the Council people who appointed me in the past. Two Mayors, Steve and Bob and a Council member, Nadine. I doubt if you will ever get to not vote for them and if you want to cancel culture them with your stamp then that’s your direction to take. All three were great contributors to our City being a better place to live and I did my best.

Don Black
Don Black
6 months ago
Reply to  DICK MOORE

If you really want to look at waste, look at the 4 million that the City is going to pay the monitor of the consent decree to push the department to police racially proportionate when the crime is being committed disproportionately.

DICK MOORE
DICK MOORE
6 months ago
Reply to  Don Black

I personally understand, Don. I, unlike, Joe ” I know everything” Felice appreciate your past service and knowledge of policing. I really do await your comments on APD related matters many of which I follow up with some of my past APD friends.

Jim Weeks
Jim Weeks
6 months ago

Mr. Levy interviewed me for his article since I was on the CSC and chairperson during a very challenging time. No Commissioner, staff or our legal adviser used the term “poor little black girl” in my presence as Mr. Black alleges. I know this for a fact. I was at the hearing, participated in the deliberations, and signed the Decision Order. If Mr. Black had taken the time to read the Decision Order there is no statement that accuses, alleges or even infers the officer in question engaged in racial animus. The hearing was closed at the officer’s request. If Mr. Black does not think the person who rolled off of the back seat and was pinned under the officer’s seat was not in danger of her neck being broken then that is worrisome. If you heard a Commissioner make the statement you quoted have the courage to name the person or if it is hearsay admit that as well. I assume Mr. Black’s reference is to the Huffine case….if not, I would like to know what case he is referring to.

Michael Gorin
Michael Gorin
6 months ago
Reply to  Jim Weeks

I served on the Civil Service Commission (CSC) when Jim Weeks was appointed. I witnessed him at meetings and in hearings. He was absolutely fair, honest, and objective in all CSC business.

While we didn’t always agree; we treated each other with the utmost respect and civility, something others should engage in.

I cannot and will not comment on any specific CSC cases without first knowing the facts, again something others should do as well.

The city now faces a much
bigger challenge than any CSC cases.
It is the politicalization of the CSC. This should have never happened and it didn’t have to happen. Now if “one side”, or the other does not agree with a decision, then there “ must be some type of bias”.
I find it interesting that those who know the least about CSC comment the most and that incudes the Sentinel.

To those on City Council that are truly looking to straighten out this mess, which by the way was perpetrated and perpetuated by former city councils, mayors and other city officials; start with reading a city council resolution passed in November 2000, namely R2000-81.
You might finally educate yourselves to what the role of city council is vis a vis the CSC.