EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this editorial wrongly stated that Councilmember Juan Marcano led the effort to keep Civil Service Commissioner Harold Johnson on the panel. Marcano did not lead the effort for the change.
We haven’t been alone in pointing out that the absence of two things, above all others, are to blame for so much going wrong in the Aurora police department: accountability and transparency.
Many others have shared that assessment. The lack of accountability and transparency was to blame for much of the Elijah McClain debacle over the last few years, according to an exhaustive investigation by three experts in police department procedures.
City Manager Jim Twombly began an address to the public, just a few weeks ago, regarding the findings of the scathing report by telling residents, the lack of accountability has created the police department’s biggest problem.
A majority of city council members have stood behind that assessment and even stipulated it after the report was made public earlier this month.
Given this, it is mind-boggling that a majority of city lawmakers apparently took leave of their sensibilities about accountability and transparency and inexplicably reversed the firing of a civil service commissioner who lied about being fired from a previous job.
The March 9 losing vote was split 5-6 for removing Harold Johnson from the commission. Council members Dave Gruber, Marsha Berzins, Francoise Bergan, Curtis Gardner and Mayor Mike Coffman voted to fire Johnson.
Council members Nicole Johnston, Juan Marcano, Alison Coombs, Crystal Murillo, Allison Hiltz and Angela Lawson voted to let him remain on this critical city committee.
What makes this conundrum even more astounding, is that it involves what could easily be the third biggest impediment to Aurora repairing the sullied reputation of its police department: The Aurora Civil Service Commission.
This unworkable city entity is charged with being the virtual board of appeals for all cases of fire and police discipline. It has notoriously handed down rogue reductions and reversals against errant cops and firefighters. Most egregiously, the civil service commission reversed the firing of an Aurora officer for recorded vulgar racist remarks, putting him back on a force under fire for systemic and blatant racism. Whether this vital arm of the police department can be modified —, or must be entirely scrapped in enacting critical and meaningful police reform — what happened last week only made a grave situation much worse.
“A 2015 order of disciplinary action from the Denver Fire Department stated that Johnson broke 13 of the entity’s rules,” according to a March 9 Sentinel story by reporter Grant Stringer, “including lying to the internal affairs panel, neglecting his duties and exhibiting ‘extremely offensive, lewd, lascivious and disrespectful communication to staff.’”
Apparently, city staff and lawmakers didn’t know any of this when they chose Johnson earlier this year to serve on the Aurora Civil Service Commission. That’s partly because Johnson lied on his application, and during his interview with city lawmakers. He said he “retired” from the Denver Fire Department, instead of admitting he was fired.
After finding all this out last month, city council members began the process of removing Johnson from the commission, and rightfully so.
Given the Aurora police department’s disastrous reputation, the absence of public trust, the lack of accountability and transparency and the quagmire of the civil service commission itself, a commissioner who lied about his own firing from a neighboring fire department checks all the boxes of the worst thing Aurora could do.
Actually, that’s the second worst thing. The worst thing came when some city lawmakers reversed their planned reversal and agreed to keep Johnson on the commission, after having private conversations with him.
Johnson is Black. Gleaning from comments made last week by council members who had private talks with Johnson, he said his trouble and firing from Denver was racially motivated.
A majority of left-leaning city council members — who are arguably the biggest proponents for change in the police department and have been the most vocal critics of the problems that have decimated its reputation — agreed to overlook Johnson’s critical lie and keep him.
Councilmember Curtis Gardner summed it up in a letter to the editor of the Sentinel the next day.
“The simple fact remains this individual lied on his application, an infraction that would lead to termination for a regular city employee,” Gardner wrote.
Without doubt, it would be wrong to hire Aurora police or firefighters who lie on job applications about being fired from a previous job. How can the city now hold those people accountable when others who have lied, publicly no less, are placed in a position of power and judgment?
Just as importantly, the decision was made to keep Johnson after city lawmakers had private conversations with Johnson. That’s not transparency. It’s the appearance of impropriety, which is just as lethal to trust and integrity as the cronyism it looks like.
The easy solution here is for Johnson to resign. He cannot effectively serve on this board. It doesn’t take much foresight to see that police union lawyers, who always represent members on issues coming before the board, will make hay in appeals courts on Johnson’s position on the panel.
If he won’t quit the board, someone on the prevailing side of the issue must recall the appointment for a more sensible outcome. It does not matter if Johnson was wrongfully fired from Denver. It only matters that he lied, until he was caught, and that a police department smoldering under intense scrutiny for heinous accusations just got lit on fire by the worst thing the city council could do — so far.