New Aurora police reforms draw praise, criticism from cops and community

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AURORA | Aurora police chief Vanessa Wilson’s department reforms elicited support from council members Oct. 19 but drew condemnation from rank-and-file officers and skepticism from some members of a civilian task force eager to make its own recommendations.

Wilson and City Manager Jim Twombly announced the list of reforms and initiatives to rebuild community trust during an Oct. 19 city council study session.

The changes span from efforts to increase diversity in officer ranks and required trainings to civilian appointments on critical internal review boards. Wilson told city council members the reforms will take place alongside existing investigations into department protocols and the Community Police Task Force that has yet to float its own reforms.

“Obviously, trust in the community has been shaken. We’ve seen that, we’ve heard that,” Wilson told council members Monday. “Restoring faith in the community is rightfully my number one priority.”

She later said the reforms were “actual steps” to rebuild community trust and “just the tip of the iceberg.”

The reforms come after more than a year of numerous controversies involving police handling of people of color, internal problems and several public protests alleging police brutality.

If the reforms become reality, civilians will have more opportunities to participate in department reviews of misconduct and speak with cops about being policed by APD. Wilson said she’ll be adding civilian slots and more community involvement to critical oversight boards within the department, including the Chief’s Review Board and Force Review Board.

The department will also expedite release of internal affairs investigations reports, body-worn camera footage and demographic information revealing who is policed in Aurora — and how.

Some of the changes were inevitable under a comprehensive state law focused on police reform at agencies across Colorado.

Wilson also said the department’s public information bureau will be hiring a professional communications manager with the help of city communications brass.

Along with the accountability measures, Wilson announced steps to shift the culture and racial makeup of rank-and-file cops.

Wilson said she’s creating a regular panel of residents to share their experiences of being policed with new recruits; establishing a mentoring program to shore up diversity, while promoting at least one Black police officer; and requiring all cops to read “Difference Matters,” a book on diversity and identity theories written by Brenda J. Allen, a former communications professor in the University of Colorado system.

In a statement, City Manager Jim Twombly said the reforms will build on the work of city council members, who have imposed a slew of reforms on APD amid national attention and relentless scandals this year. Council-driven reforms have included bans on department lobbying and so-called no-knock warrants.

Twombly, who oversees the day-to-day operations of the city government, has himself mandated investigations and reforms within the department. In August, he said he was planning to create a new auditor position solely focused on scrutinizing police patterns and practices.

Wilson reiterated that position will be created Monday.

“We recognize there have been problems in the past, areas that will need to change, and the paramount importance of the work ahead of us,” Twombly said.

Wilson and Twomly’s initiatives, which they’ve dubbed “A New Way,” drew fierce criticism from Marc Sears, president of the Fraternal Order of Police union representing the bulk of Aurora’s more than 700 cops.

He said APD is saturated with morale problems because of “ridiculous” reforms driven by a police chief beholden to leftist politicians and protesters.

“Shame on you, city council, shame on you, Mayor Coffman,” Sears said Tuesday.

He said Wilson’s reforms are more of the same efforts to inject police department practices with the oversight of untrained civilians who know nothing about policing. He also questioned the value of department “diversity” for its own sake. He prefers well-trained and moral cops regardless of race or ethnicity.

“If the community really wants to be part of this solution, we’re hiring all the time,” Sears said.

Sears also noted the reforms come as Aurora and the U.S. are seeing spikes in crime during the pandemic.

Councilmembers on the liberal and conservative sides of the aisle thanked Wilson for the initiatives Monday.

Councilmember Nicole Johnston reiterated that the city’s 12-member Community Police Task Force will proceed with its own reform recommendations. That board is a crucial part of city government scrutiny of the beleaguered police department.

None have come down the pike from that group yet. Pastor Thomas Mayes, a member of that board and a former candidate for city council, questioned the Task Force’s purpose if Wilson makes her own reforms unilaterally.

“I would prefer not to waste time with a token police task force,” Mayes said.

Councilmember Francoise Bergan and Mayor Mike Coffman echoed Sears’ concerns about rising crime rates.

Bergan said her constituents “ feel like we’re neglecting the really important job of police which is…protecting society from criminals.”

Coffman wondered whether excessive reforms and oversight would dampen the department’s ability to reduce the crime rate.