EDITORIAL: Aurora lawmakers set fire to smoldering police foibles

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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.

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Dennis Duffy
Dennis Duffy
25 days ago

Seems like the question is this..
If he were White would he have been fired? Personally I am White and very confused, Yesterday I was in line at Costco, a older black lady was waiting in line in front of me, I thought nothing of it until she turned around stared at me silently and I had the weirdest feeling that in her mind she was thinking I was a racist simply because I am white. I am in my 70s, I lived through Vietnam, Watts riots, the murder of Dr. King, I have been aware of the great change that has happened since MLK taught us all a reasoned lesson in humanity but now Suddenly I am order to feel like somehow I am a racist and that my black or brown neighbors will look at me as such.
We need to understand skin does not make a person, values do…

Don Black
Don Black
24 days ago

As in all things to do with the Police and Civil Service, there is a total lack of understanding. I will agree with the thought that Johnson should resign or have been removed by Council. Anyone who takes a look at our Council will easily see that the radical side of Council has agendas against the police and has bias for anyone black or gay. No fair impartiality here. What few understand while they attempt to destroy Civil Service is that it is all that prevents total corruption in the Police Department. Officers who are trying to improve training, equipment, and leadership in the department can speak up while they have Civil Service protection. They can bring the corrupt nature of their bosses to the attention of the City Manager and Council without fear of losing their jobs. In my time trying to fix problems in the department, it was all that kept me on the job. I brought problems to the attention of the City Manager, like the type of training and equipment that should be adopted to prevent excessive force. All of that was ignored. Unfortunately, our systems do not allow the officers to bring the problems to the attention of the press or the public. Whatever problems exist in law enforcement are due to long existent patterns of picking “yes men” who are political types who never addressed either training or personnel problems within the department. Since they rule through the same system of favoritism, they allow misconduct and supervisory incompetence in those they favor. They use Internal affairs as a hammer to go after those they dislike. Their distorted use of the system and a lack of knowledge of proper procedures force the police union to defend many who go to Civil Service. They most often are forced to defend those who should be fired, like the racist mentioned, not because he should be defended, but because of the way it is being done. I had friends on the union board and friends in Internal Affairs who spoke often about the incompetence of the command staff and their misuse of Internal Affairs. Law enforcement trainers and officers have complained for many years about the total lack of ethical leadership in police work and the way they ignore the training that would have prevented many police uses of force that were excessive. The problems in police work are the result of the same type of cronyism that exist everywhere. City managers look for “yes men” with spotless records who never stood up for anything that was wrong in their departments. They should have been looking for people who bucked the system and tried to fix things. They should have been looking for people with ideas on how to give better service. Instead they pick the people who never made waves and spent their careers currying favor. They simply reinforce the problems. Notice right now that the police chiefs are silent. They are political types who have caused the problems and now won’t stand up for the things that are right in police work. Now that the legislature has put a spike through the heart of law enforcement with their vague use of force guidance and desire to have criminals sue the police, we are seeing the death of proactive police work and any chance of real community policing. All of these politics leave the public in jeopardy.

Joe Felice
Joe Felice
24 days ago

Sometimes, there is just no explanation for politics.

FeelingsAreNotFacts
FeelingsAreNotFacts
24 days ago

Hear, hear, Dave Perry! Another rare occasion where I wholeheartedly agree with you. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut every so often.

J dougherty
J dougherty
24 days ago

Well said!

DICK MOORE
24 days ago

Thinking a step ahead, now the time is excellent to eliminate the Civil Service Commission, altogether. There must be a cheaper way to handle their annual chores with a budget just short of one million dollars. It’s obviously more political than it should be anyway.

Jason Swan
Jason Swan
23 days ago

If he were white, he’d be removed. (Systemic racism).