Police and city officials say a record-keeping backlog reported in a scathing study of the Aurora Police Department has not delayed criminal investigations, contradicting suggestions by the study’s author and raising more questions about the release of the document that preceded Police Chief Vanessa Wilson’s firing.
The study by PRI Management Group sounded the alarm on thousands of police reports which, as of March 11, APD’s records section had yet to “transcribe” — the process of checking reports for form and attaching national crime category numbers that help with the collection of criminal justice statistics.
“We’ve seen this narrative out there that we’re not investigating murder cases,” said Acting Police Capt. Chris Amsler during a Friday interview with The Sentinel. He said he spoke with a lieutenant in the major crimes unit who told him that none of the police reports in the backlog had negatively impacted any murder investigation.
While Amsler acknowledged that records specialists have not reviewed every one of the 2,512 backlogged reports — reduced to 295 cases pending transcription as of Tuesday afternoon — he said police “do not believe that any of those cases that were in the transcription queue affected any of our investigations.”
Officials described transcription as a clerical process that is not required before criminal investigations and follow-up take place. That conflicts with dire warnings from the study’s author that violent crimes were likely going cold and dangerous criminals walking free because of the backlog.
Police also said statements by others that thousands of crimes had been left uninvestigated were inaccurate.
“That’s not the case at all,” Amsler said.
Report release preceded Wilson’s firing
Soon after the report by PRI Management Group became public on April 5, city council members who endorsed Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly’s decision to fire Wilson characterized the backlog as a critical public safety threat and as evidence of leadership collapse.
Mayor Mike Coffman wrote in an April 5 statement that there was “no excuse” for the “catastrophic failure of leadership within the department,” regarding the PRI report.
“The result of this backlog means that crimes, whether it’s a murder case or a motor vehicle theft, are going cold before they are ever investigated and that habitual criminals are allowed to reoffend before the rank and file at APD is made aware of the crimes that they’ve already committed,” he wrote on April 5.
Coffman told Denver talk radio host Jimmy Sengenberger of KNUS the next day that police reports must be transcribed before they are shared among police officers.
Numerous police and city officials said police records are immediately available to other police personnel once submitted, prior to transcription.
Councilmember Dustin Zvonek also posted on Twitter on April 6 that “over 2500 victims … didn’t have their case investigated” due to the backlog.
Police and city officials also said the transcription process does not and did not preclude police from pursuing case resolutions.
While the PRI study did not claim 2,512 cases went cold because of a report backlog — describing transcription as “the process of reviewing reports for quality control purposes” — the author and PRI’s founder, Ed Claughton, said “reports do not get routed by the system for follow-up action or investigation until the transcription process is complete.”
“As a result of the delays in processing police reports, violent crimes reported to the Aurora Police Department may not be investigated for months, enabling suspects who might otherwise have been investigated and taken into custody, to re-offend,” Claughton wrote. “It is a near certainty that violent offenses are being reported without timely investigation.”
Police officials said they have not uncovered any crime that was not investigated because of the backlog, though they pointed out the report publicized last week was only part of a larger study being completed by PRI.
Amsler also said police officers can and regularly do view records that are in the transcription backlog queue, and that a detective who pulled up information about a case associated with backlogged reports would automatically be notified about the existence of those additional reports.
Aurora police work to clear and solve cases, regardless of record transcription
Once a police officer is called to the scene of an alleged crime, they’ll write an initial report associated with the case called a general offense report, Amsler said. Officers who showed up at the scene or were otherwise involved will also prepare supplemental reports, describing their involvement.
Officers are required to submit reports by the end of each shift. Once a report is completed by an officer, they submit it to a sergeant who routes the case to other officers or detectives for investigation, or closes the case. Amsler said felonies are referred to investigative units while misdemeanor cases are often handled by patrol officers.
“There are certain crimes where a watch commander or a patrol sergeant is making immediate notifications to different detective units to let them know (that) we have this case,” he said.
National Crime Information Center codes are also attached to cases based on what the offense is alleged to be — some codes entered by officers, including those for crimes against children, cause the report to be automatically and immediately forwarded to the relevant investigative unit.
The sergeant also proofreads the report, checking for any mistakes and making sure the officer entered all necessary information. Once it’s approved, the report is sent to the records section for transcription.
Depending on the seriousness of the crime and other factors, such as an arrest or a next-day court date, the sergeant may assign the report a higher or lower priority, moving it up or down in the transcription queue, Amsler said. A request for a report from a citizen or police officer will also increase the priority of a report.
Amsler and Sgt. Faith Goodrich both said reports in the queue are still accessible by officers, and an officer pulling up information about a case in the department’s Versadex records management system would be automatically notified about associated reports in the queue.
“Detectives or other officers can go in and view anything in the transcription queue,” Goodrich said. “(A report) being in the transcription queue doesn’t mean it’s just lost and nobody can look at it, or see it, or do anything with it. In fact, the system is built to send you a notification and say, ‘Hey, go look over there.’”
During the transcription process, a records section staffer will make sure the proper data is submitted for the National Incident-Based Reporting System as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program.
Records staffers also make sure there are no duplicates among the “entities” mentioned in the report, which are tracked by police and include suspects, witnesses, victims and others contacted during an investigation.
Sometimes records clerks have caught mistakes, Goodrich said, bringing information they believe could have been overlooked during an investigation to the attention of officers.
“That is helpful,” Goodrich said, “but it’s not their responsibility.”
“It’s much more administrative or clerical,” public safety media relations manager Reagan Peña said. “It doesn’t prevent any investigation from happening.”
Claughton also indicated that delays in transcription could lead to data not being submitted in a timely way to the Colorado Crime Information Center, which helps criminal justice agencies track information about stolen property.
“A stolen vehicle which has been recovered and returned to its rightful owner must be removed from CCIC, lest the owner risk being pulled over by an officer and detained at gunpoint based upon a computer query which indicates the car is still stolen,” he wrote.
Goodrich said the entry of CCIC information about stolen property does not depend on transcription, writing in an email that “officers notify records directly with information about the stolen property so it can be immediately entered into CCIC.”
Police spokesman Matthew Longshore also said that information about stolen cars is generally reported to CCIC in real-time.
Claughton also warned in his study that Aurora’s problems could hinder police from intervening prior to an event like the mass shootings in Charleston, South Carolina and Parkland, Florida.
“I don’t know the answer to why they think that,” Goodrich said. “It’s unfortunate.”
Other police officials also said they were confused by the example, since the Parkland or other shootings the PRI report referred to were not deemed to have been caused by problems with police records.
Amsler noted that the police department’s intelligence unit accepts tips about individuals who officers or members of the public believe could pose a threat in the future.
“That’s primarily how we get things moving in our department, is making those in-person contacts instead of relying on reports to make it through the transcription queue,” he said.
Claughton’s firm did not respond immediately to an email asking how he arrived at the conclusions about the transcription backlog impacting investigations and how the problems in the records section could be setting the city up for an incident like the Charleston and Parkland shootings.
“PRI commenced work for the City of Aurora in January 2022 … during which time our team identified critical levels of backlogged work which, in no uncertain terms, had created significant risk and liability to officer and public safety,” the firm said in an April 7 statement. “We also determined woefully inadequate measures, and urgency, had been given to the matter by the police department, hence our March 14th project update.”
City spokesman Michael Brannen said PRI’s contract with the city is worth up to $46,150. The firm’s report was released as partisan, political controversy swirled over the leadership of Vanessa Wilson, Aurora’s then-police chief. A few weeks prior, Wilson’s attorney said City Manager Jim Twombly had pressured her to resign.
Some council conservatives were also advocating for a shake-up, blaming department leadership for the rise in certain crimes and alleged low morale among rank and file officers.
The day after the report was released, on April 6, Twombly announced his decision to fire Wilson. When asked by reporters, he said the report was not considered when the decision was made to fire the chief.
Though Claughton blamed department leadership for the problems facing the records section, PRI later said in a statement that Claughton’s report was not meant to “evaluate or impact the employment of the Chief of Police.”
“To suggest anything to the contrary, or to politicize this matter, is very unfortunate, mostly for the citizens of Aurora, and for the very important institution of journalism,” the firm wrote in an April 7 statement. “Our work is based on fact-finding, objective analysis and was completed as per the requirements of our scope of work in response to a competitive solicitation for these services.”
The Sentinel previously reported on social media activism by Claughton and allegations of professional misconduct dating back to his firm’s 2012 audit of the Milwaukee Police Department.
After scrutiny of the PRI report
Elected officials who commented on the report did not immediately distance themselves from earlier statements made about the public safety consequences of the backlog.
Coffman did not respond to a request for comment on the discrepancy between his characterization of the transcription process and police officials’ descriptions.
Zvonek said his statements were consistent with the suggestions made in the report and information shared with him by City Manager Jim Twombly. He said that he would be asking questions of records section representatives at the public safety policy committee’s April 14 meeting, adding, “I have a lot of questions.”
“I’m worried that some are attempting to downplay it to avoid the scrutiny,” he wrote in a text message. “I also worry others may have over responded to the report out of fear of how bad it could have been given what (was) suggested (in) the report.”
17th Judicial District Attorney Brian Mason and 18th Judicial District Attorney John Kellner said in a joint statement last week that they were “alarmed” by the report.
“Failures in processing police reports of new crimes or processing reports in ongoing investigations must be remedied immediately to both protect the public and the integrity of existing cases,” they wrote. “Once that is done, we urge city leaders to determine how these failures occurred and ensure that they do not happen again.”
Chris Hopper, director of communications for Mason’s office, said April 11 that Mason “did not have any additional context or information to supplement what was contained within the report” and that the DA “simply made his statement based upon what he read in the report itself.” Kellner’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Since the public revelation of the transcription backlog, which dated back to March 11, the department has been able to cut the size of the backlog down from 2,512 reports to just 295 as of April 12, according to Goodrich. Amsler said the majority of reports left in the queue are “minor cases.”
Twombly has said that, since March, before Wilson’s firing, the department implemented a host of new strategies, which Wilson’s lawyer says were recommended by the ex-chief, including:
- Assigning a police lieutenant with prior records management experience to oversee the section.
- Transitioning to fully in-person work in the records section.
- Temporarily closing the section to the public on Wednesdays to focus on transcription.
- Training sergeants on quality control measures to fix reports before they’re submitted to the records section.
- Temporarily assigning officers on light duty to the records section.
- Automating more of the records management system to reduce errors.
- Adding more records technicians and a supervisor as well as an open records coordinator to process CCJRA requests.
- Conducting a pay study to ensure the city can continue to hire and retain records staff.
- Prioritizing “significant” cases that require more investigation or jail follow-up.
City spokesman Ryan Luby said that, later this month, PRI is expected to return its completed staffing study. Peña said the city hopes the finished study will help clarify where and how records section employees work to ensure a backlog doesn’t build up in the future.
“What we’re hoping to do is see (whether there is) a best practice on how we should be allocating staff and prioritizing the numerous things besides transcription that are actually going on down there,” she said.
Amsler said the department is also looking into further automating transcription. Regardless of the critical light shone on the records section, he insisted that those staffers responsible for transcribing reports were not to blame for the backlog.
“Our records staff are some of our greatest employees,” Amsler said. “This is not their fault. They’ve been working hard, they’ve been understaffed, and they have really been trying to work on this issue.”
Ousted as chief, supporters and former foes rally to Wilson’s defense
STORY BY CARINA JULIG AND KARA MASON, Sentinel Staff Writers
Surrounded by supporters on the steps of the headquarters of her now-former employer, Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson said Monday she intends to continue to fight to ensure police reform continues, that policing is improved and those officers who abuse the system or citizens are held accountable.
“Leadership is not a popularity contest,” she said, attributing her ouster to political pressure stemming from police who do not want to see changes. “There should not be partisan politics in public safety.”
Supporters took turns praising the work Wilson did and criticizing her ouster.
“When Chief Wilson was in charge, I found my voice,” an officer of color said anonymously as it was read by Aurora Police Sgt. Paul Poole. “I worry about the direction this department is going.” The officer said he or she doesn’t want to return to unethical officers not being held accountable. “Which of the officers that Chief Wilson fired do you want patrolling your neighborhood?”
Some current city lawmakers also warned about the consequences of the ouster.
Councilmember Juan Marcano said, “what you are seeing is a concerted, organized campaign to undermine and sabotage” the changes that community members demanded in 2020. “You are seeing a police department at war with itself.”
Former city and state officials also decried the ouster.
“APD is broken, and council’s solution was to destroy the only thing that had been going right,” said former Councilmember Debi Hunter Holen.
Wilson was fired by City Manager Jim Twombly last week for what he said was a lack of confidence in her ability to lead the department. The ouster came after months of criticism by conservative members of city council, and more recently, days of rumors that the termination was imminent.
“Chief Wilson prioritized community involvement. This is something we all recognize as a strength of hers,” Twombly said at the press conference. “However, there is more to achieve that involves management of the police department. There also needs to be effective management of department operations, engagement with officers and staff, and a strategic approach to moving the department forward. There are two main themes that continue to rise up top of concerns overall management, and overall leadership. This is a decision that came with a considerable amount of thought and ongoing discussions with officers in the police department.”
Twombly didn’t offer a specific event or instance that led to his decision, but he told reporters that he didn’t decide based on the rise in crime or a recent outside report by PRI Management Group detailing problems in APD’s records section.
That report was leaked to the press one day prior to Twombly’s decision to fire Wilson. City Council members said they received the report from the city manager that same day. Two city council members said Twombly told them the report revealed critical concerns.
Wilson, who would have marked her 26-year anniversary with APD this December, was appointed by Twombly to lead the department in August 2020 after serving as interim chief for seven months. She took the helm at a time the department was reeling from protests following the death of Elijah McClain and several other scandals, and much of her tenure was spent attempting to rebuild the public’s trust.
Wilson has faced criticism from activists and police reform advocates throughout her tenure, but after her firing, many told The Sentinel that, though they disagreed with her at times, they said they came to respect her a great deal.
“I hate to see Chief Wilson go, because she was really a good person,” Elijah McClain’s mother Sheneen McClain told The Sentinel. Her son, Elijah, died after a confrontation with police in August 2019 while walking home from a convenience store. The case drew international scorn and is much of the basis of state intervention in the police department and prompted hard-won police reform.
Lindsay Minter, an activist and member of Aurora’s Community Police Task Force, said that Wilson was her second-choice candidate for the top job and that, while they didn’t always see eye-to-eye, she thought Wilson “was doing the best job for the position she was in.”
Ultimately, Minter said that Wilson made too many changes that rattled the “the good old boys club” and was set up to fail.
“We didn’t always agree, but thank you for your service,” she said of Wilson.
Wilson was the first woman and the first openly gay person to lead the department, and at Monday’s press conference several of her supporters praised her for breaking barriers.
“Chief Wilson was the pathway for equity and for justice for women, for those who are LGBTQIA+, for victims and survivors like me who had no choice in how our lives played course,” Senator Rhonda Fields (D-Aurora) said in a statement read Monday by her daughter Maisha Fields.
Asked at the press conference if she believed discrimination played a role in her firing, Wilson said she was directed when she took the job to mend relationships with the community.
“To send a woman out to do that, to trust me to do that, and to hold people’s hands that were angry, and to listen to them and to try to tell them ‘please still believe in APD because of the fine men and women who work there’ … if I’m able to do that, but once we’ve crossed that bridge, now I’m told that I can’t lead,” was hurtful, she said.
Wilson took over leadership of the department right as Aurora was undergoing sweeping protests demanding justice for Elijah McClain, and when APD was in the midst of several scandals, including an incident where police officers held a Black woman and her four daughters face-down at gunpoint after erroneously accusing them of driving a stolen car.
In another incident, an investigation found that after an APD officer was found passed-out drunk behind the wheel of his patrol car while on duty, leaders in the department protected him from being criminally charged. That situation led former Deputy Police Chief Paul O’Keefe to pull his name from the running to be interim chief after Nick Metz returned in 2019, putting Wilson in the position instead.
More controversy came in 2021, when body-camera footage was released of an APD officer strangling, pistol-whipping and repeatedly threatening to shoot an unarmed man, an incident that led to two officers facing criminal charges.
In the fall, the police department entered into a consent decree with the Colorado Attorney General’s office after a “patterns and practices” investigation found that APD had engaged in longstanding discrimination and excussive use of force against minorities.
During her tenure as interim chief and police chief, Wilson fired a number of officers for misconduct, some of whom appealed her decision to the civil service commission, which has final say over the hiring and firing of officers. In the summer of 2020, she fired three officers who posed for and texted one another a photo mocking the death of Elijah McClain, and she fired one officer for failing to intervene in the pistol-whipping case (the other resigned).
Earlier this year, she fired former Aurora Police Association President Doug Wilkinson following an investigation into an email he wrote mocking the department’s diversity policies.
“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,’” Wilkinson said in the email.
Wilson’s attempts to hold officers accountable were not always popular with the rank-and-file. In the fall, Aurora’s police unions released a non-binding survey declaring that the majority of the department’s officers had lost confidence in her leadership.
In the wake of previous criticism, Twombly had stood behind Wilson. Following the no-confidence vote seven months ago, Deputy City Manager Jason Batchelor said Wilson was responsible for making “difficult, and at times, unpopular decisions” and had his full support.
“She was selected because we believed, and still believe, that she is the right person,” he said.
In a July letter in The Sentinel, Twombly detailed his commitment to the ‘A New Way’ plan put forward by him and Wilson to reform the department, but cautioned that meaningful change would take time and effort.
“I want our reform efforts to have long-lasting success and a positive impact on community members,” he said. “Some of them, which seek to solidify large-scale systemic change, will require tough conversations and adjustments along the way.”
Asked Monday to elaborate on the reasons for her firing, Wilson said she believed they were political in nature and that the issue with the records backlog was a convenient excuse.
She disputed Twombly’s assertion that he was only aware of the records problem when the PRI report came out, and said that he had congratulated her for bringing the problem to his attention earlier.
She declined to place the blame for her ouster entirely at his feet, however, saying that Twombly is “a good man” who had stood by her when she faced criticism for making tough decisions in the past.
“I would like to give him some grace in this,” she said. “I know he is under extreme political pressure whether he wants to admit it or not.”
Wilson said she is “considering all options” with her lawyer, Paula Greisen, but declined to say whether she will be suing the city.
She said she doesn’t know what her next steps will be, but she is exploring “ways I can serve this community as well as law enforcement somewhere in the future.”