AURORA | Dan Oates is once again wearing an Aurora Police Department badge as he settles into his new, albeit temporary, job at the helm of the agency that he left in 2014.
“My intent is to do everything I can to sort of stabilize this place, get it moving in the right direction, do something about crime and then help recruit a top talent,” the interim chief said in an interview with The Sentinel June 2.
Last Tuesday was Oates’ third day back on the job. He was officially sworn in at a June 6 Aurora City Council meeting.
Since returning to the department, he said he’d met with and spoken to many officers, joining them at roll calls and even participating in a weekend street operation.
The push to meet officers isn’t just about reacquainting himself with the daily operations of the department. Oates said he hopes to rebuild morale in part by presenting himself as accessible to the rank and file.
“It was very clear that they appreciated the fact that I was out there,” he said. “Some of the feedback I’ve gotten is something that’s been missing around here is the accessibility of the chief.”
Oates will serve in his new role until the city finds a permanent replacement for former police Chief Vanessa Wilson, whom City Manager Jim Twombly fired in April. The city has said it expects to hire a new permanent chief by the end of the year.
Wilson was fired amid multiple national controversies swirling around the department, including the killing of Elijah McClain, a drunken cop passed out behind the wheel of his squad car, a group of young Black girls being forced faced down on hot pavement during a mistaken arrest and, most recently, an Aurora officer filmed pistol whipping a young Black man.
Last year the department entered into a court-monitored consent decree with the Colorado attorney general’s office to address “patterns and practices” of racism and misuse of force during contact with members of the public.
Wilson said her firing was politically motivated by critics inside the union and from some conservatives on City Council opposed to her staunch support of police reform in light of the department’s numerous problems. Twombly said Wilson was fired because of a lack of management skills.
Oates led the department from 2005 to 2014, a time period that included the Century 16 movie theater shooting. The former chief’s return comes as the department struggles to rebuild morale and community confidence.
“We are a good agency. We’ve been through some tough times, but fundamentally the people here are fantastic,” Oates said. “It’s everything I remember.”
Like many U.S. cities, Aurora is grappling with a rise in certain crimes. The rate of shootings in particular has prompted demands for immediate action from some community members and elected officials. In 2021, 33 people were shot fatally, including two juveniles, according to APD. That’s in addition to 157 non-fatal shootings that occurred the same year.
When asked during a press conference in late April what his strategy would be for addressing rising crime, Oates said he had “ideas, but no plan.” On Tuesday, he again said it would be “foolish” for him to try and flesh out a plan for tackling crime this early in his tenure. He did, however, float some specific ideas for crime reduction.
Oates said he would be interested in establishing a unit of officers who could be stationed flexibly in high-crime areas, citing Aurora’s defunct Direct Action Response Teams and a recent proposal by New York City mayor Eric Adams to re-establish plainclothes anti-street-crime units, called Neighborhood Safety Teams, as inspiration.
The department may not have the resources to staff DART groups in each district, but Oates said there may be enough officers to staff a single unit whose jurisdiction would be citywide. He said the officers would receive specialized training, possibly including de-escalation.
Oates also said he would be interested in forming an initiative to address vehicle thefts, which he described as a “huge problem.” He said cars are increasingly being stolen for use in other crimes.
“In order to get to any crime scene and commit a bad act, you need a car, and more and more, folks are stealing cars as part of an effort to get to wherever they’re going to go,” Oates said.
When asked whether he believed residents were safe in Aurora, Oates said that it was “accurate that the volume of crime is too high, as it is in most of America’s major cities, but I still think fundamentally it’s a safe city, that per capita our level of violence is not what it is elsewhere.”
He added that he recognizes “a lot of room for improvement.”
Oates also stressed that he was committed to upholding directives given by elected leaders, both in the context of Aurora’s new unauthorized camping ban and new police reform laws passed by Colorado’s state legislature.
Wilson previously expressed discomfort with the idea of committing police resources to sweeping homeless camps while the camping ban was in development earlier this year and last year.
Oates confirmed that, when the time comes to step up enforcement against homeless campers, his department will do its part.
“Whatever we’re asked as part of the (city) manager’s comprehensive strategy to enforce, we’re going to do,” he said. “I understand we’re working through the details of that.”
Regarding Senate Bill 20-217, which stripped Colorado police officers of qualified immunity and required them to intervene and make a report when other officers use excessive force, Oates said police officers “take an oath to the democratic process, and the Legislature has spoken, and we need to embrace that.”
He said an official from one of the department’s two police unions had approached him about the need for additional training so officers understand what is and is not an acceptable use of force in light of the bill.
Oates said he has heard similar questions from officers across the state and hopes to compile with the two unions’ help a list of five to 10 specific scenarios that officers want additional training on and then structure training around the list.
Also on the subject of police accountability and his relationship with the city’s police unions, Oates said he believed that “in modern American society these days, a good police chief will occasionally butt heads with union leadership over how discipline is meted out.”
“And that’s just sort of the natural order, because when it comes to discipline, we are, naturally and legally, adversaries,” he said. “My job is to do what’s right for management and what I believe is best for the organization. The union’s job is to defend the police officer. That’s their legal obligation. … But there’s no surprises here as to who I am when it comes to discipline.”
In a Washington Post opinion piece published shortly after the death of George Floyd, Oates argued for police chiefs to be given greater control over officer discipline, blaming “obstructionist labor leaders” in part for the difficulty some cities have had dumping bad cops.
On Tuesday, he again said he believed giving chiefs greater authority would help them weed out officers with behavioral problems. He also said he had done his best in his 18 years as a chief in Colorado, Florida and Michigan to hold his officers accountable for their behavior.
When asked whether he had any interest in returning to lead the department on a more permanent basis, he said that he “absolutely and definitively” did not, adding that his contract with the city barred him from applying.
“If I were to be a candidate for this, I think other candidates would think, ‘How can I win that job if Oates is in that seat?’ And that’s not what we need,” he said.
“I’m hoping that I can help recruit some incredible talent for this job.”