EDITORIAL: Analysis shows a way out of Aurora’s insufferable police imbroglio

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Despite the horrific recent history of Aurora police, making it seem that they’re adroit only at doing all the wrong things, there’s strong progress  being made in turning around the department, and its reputation.

This week, city officials were briefed on a comprehensive, independent analysis of the department. Police department consultants 21CP Solutions conducted the investigation into the structure of APD’s bureaucracy and how so many unnerving incidents of police brutality, racism and incompetence among officers has played out over the past several years.

Just as recent highlights, Aurora police have garnered unwelcome, international fame after a police officer was so drunk he passed out behind the wheel of his squad car, and then stayed on the job. The world saw video images of Aurora police officers forcing several young black women and girls face down on hot asphalt, hands behind their backs, in what turned out to be a wrongful stolen-car stop. Other officers became infamous for making light of the gruesome death of Elijah McClain at the hands of police and rescuers responsible for his death. Three officers took selfies while mocking the chokehold used by another officer, which may have contributed to McClain’s death. And just last month, APD again made international news when an officer pistol-whipped an unarmed young Black man and strangled him during an arrest while another officer watched the cop brutalize the victim.

Much of what the 160-page report found reflects what’s long been known from data or from the department’s behavior.

Without doubt, Aurora police use brute force against people of color during interactions more than they do when encountering White people.

The report underscored the already clear fact that the convoluted and antiquated bureaucracy governing how police are hired, disciplined, promoted and fired serves no one — not police, not the community nor police administrators.

What has long been alluded to by police and city administrators, now appears to be fact.  A small number of the department’s approximately 700 officers and employees are responsible for the bulk of complaints about racism, brutality and incompetence.

The report found that 35 officers accounted for an astounding 40% of police misconduct cases during the past few years. Similarly, 27 officers were cited for a whopping 466 use-of-force allegations just last year.

Repeated comments by Police Chief Vanessa Wilson and others — that the vast majority of Aurora police serve as competent, fair and trustworthy cops — gets a boost from the report. It doesn’t mean that rooting out a minority of cops ill-fitted for the job solves the department’s problems. It does mean that structural changes to the Aurora Police Department will get an immediate push toward restoring confidence in APD.

Aurora has already implemented a host of reforms, some underscored or prompted by recent statewide police reform laws. Proof of progress there came during the recent police brutality debacle. The APD officer accused of not intervening while another officer clearly brutalized a man was fired and charged for her passive complicity. Wilson has consistently made clear the department’s intolerance for brutality, and she’s acted on that consistently.

But as Aurora navigates a nearly overwhelming amount of large and small changes, failure will be assured without certain foundational changes.

• Aurora must create a truly independent system of oversight. Anything less undermines progress already made.

• The city must allow for greatly increased transparency in department workings, especially when officers are accused of misconduct.

• Aurora Police must not only expand training among new and existing officers, it must offer proof to the community that retrained officers are competent in key issues, such as ways to safely de-escalate situations, safely make arrests and be cognizant of and appreciative of problems surrounding conscious and unconscious racism.

• Aurora Police changes must provide for transparent accountability for officers accused of wrongdoing and found guilty during investigations.

While this report mirrored past scrutiny of APD, essentially asleep at the wheel of a tortuous department, sullied by rogue cops and misplaced authority, it also offers a way out of the morass.

So far, Wilson and Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly have shown a great deal of insight and temerity needed to keep the critical job of effective police reform on track and avoid the dangerous political ploys created by some police union and city council members. Each change in policy and each time those new policies are upheld move this crucial reform effort forward.

It’s clear that as reforms move ahead, the issue of “fairness” to officers will be used as a weapon to scuttle vital reforms. The city cannot back down from the practical and moral reality that those we entrust to uphold the law must be held to a higher standard than any civil employee. They must be willing to undergo scrutiny of everything they do as officers, or they must find another vocation.

This report makes it appear, so far, that the bulk of Aurora’s police force is fit for duty and should be lauded and rewarded for their often thankless and dangerous work. Without transparency and accountability, however, they will be nothing more than part of a tragic and broken police department. 

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Joe Felice
Joe Felice
1 month ago

All it takes is common sense.

Doug King
Doug King
29 days ago
Reply to  Joe Felice

It’s gonna take a bit more then that now, but yes, that’s a start

Don Black
Don Black
1 month ago

The gap between the unrealistic approaches being offered here and what it takes to be effective are so large as to be totally unworkable. Working police officers look at this stuff and shake their heads. You cannot impose all the pie in the sky things being offered by consultants ( I realize they are not experts) and expect the police department to function effectively. When you have that many layers of second guessing you will not have officers who can act in uncertain and rapidly changing circumstances. Everything being suggested is politically correct but often completely untrue. Let us start with the disproportionate use of force against black persons. First, they are disproportionately involved in crime. Everyone disregards this fact. Sort of like Biden with the border or Afghanistan. Easy to just ignore reality. If you work in a primarily black area, how could your arrests be proportionate to the population of Aurora. If you work in a violent area, your use of force is going to be far greater than someone working in a white upper class neighborhood. Transparency is fine and usually benefits the officers more than the criminal. You, the public don’t get to see the thousands of interactions with people who lie and fight. You see a few interactions where the perceived excessive force is something the press feels fits their narrative. Usually, you see it fast and it is emotional. You don’t understand any of the dynamics and legalities involved. Slow down the video of Vinson being pistol whipped and you will see that he never cooperated to any degree and violently resisted. You will also hear him say that he can’t go to jail. He never intended to cooperate. The gap between what an experienced officer understands and what a citizen review board understands is too great to allow them to decide an officer’s fate. The police promotional system and training have been broken for a long time. That is why people like Chief Wilson can make it to the top with little expertise or real police experience. You and the author of this article continue to be completely unaware that the new state reform bill created vague standards that are not workable. The silly report by the consultants criticize APD for simply parroting the state’s vague new guidelines on use of force. You don’t understand that the new guidelines are so vague that no one knows what they mean. That means that police chiefs can only copy those guidelines and say to their officers that this is the new guidance. Attorneys and chiefs cannot tell you what they mean. You cannot expand upon guidelines that you cannot understand. As a retired officer who still teaches law enforcement, I have spoken to officers from all over the state. They all say the same thing. We aren’t doing anything now. You cannot do police work with no support and vague standards. The guidelines before the new police reform bill were clear. What has always been missing is competent and ethical leadership. That hasn’t changed. Picking leaders because they fit your idea of diversity doesn’t make for competent leadership. I expect that the current trend will continue without any real dialogue from professional police officers. Dialogue with police politicians will make you feel good about progress but will do little to address crime. Just keeping voices from mine being heard will not change the realities we face. Just thinking that those who disagree are bad cops is simplistic and untrue. My friends and I realize that the public would just rather not know the truth. That ignorance on the part of the public and the politicians is destroying any chance that law enforcement can protect you.

John David McInroy
John David McInroy
1 month ago
Reply to  Don Black

Do you have a solution or only criticism?

Doug King
Doug King
29 days ago

Only criticism that I have seen.

Michael J. Case
Michael J. Case
25 days ago
Reply to  Don Black

That’s a lot of words just to say that you’re a racist.
why be coy about it?

Doug Wilkinson
Doug Wilkinson
1 month ago

While most of the report was politically correct word salad (and will likely be ignored like the past studies we’ve paid for), the sections about training and IA are worth reading. I would have added a few concepts to “opaque” and “byzantine”, but those are adequate to make the point. If officers don’t know what they are supposed to do on high risk calls and don’t trust the system to investigate them then their only option is to avoid bureaucratic jeopardy. The voters are going to get what they asked for in these new laws and the leaders implementing them.

Doug Wilkinson
APA President

John David McInroy
John David McInroy
1 month ago
Reply to  Doug Wilkinson

Doug, what is the Union doing to help the situatation and restore the creditability and reputation of the department? I see no positive solutions in your response.

Doug King
Doug King
29 days ago
Reply to  Doug Wilkinson

Represent the officer yes. But do help to make them better. You aren’t supposed to provide protection for bad cops.

Doug King
Doug King
1 month ago

All true. We also need to come up with new ideas to help relieve the pressure on our APD

John David McInroy
John David McInroy
1 month ago

How long must the citizens of Aurora wait? We need action now! I don’t believe in defunding the police but is this what it takes to get their attention for the much needed reform? Teachers no longer teach the policeman is your friend. Why not?
How long does it take to set up an independent review board with the authority to make changes? It can be done this week if you have the will. It’s not political, just fair minded, educated citizens. If Mayor Coffman can’t lead, he needs to get out of the way of others.

Ray Harlan
Ray Harlan
1 month ago

From my letter to the editor at the Post:
The listed recommendations to fix the APD’s problems had a glaring omission. Simplifying and speeding up the discipline process, increasing management diversity, improving recruitment, and establishing permanent oversight are all needed improvements. But when 3% of the officers create 24% of the problems that means that vetting of applicants is woefully inadequate. The present practice of hiring one retired officer to do a background check is a recipe for disaster. 

Good vetting requires a trained cadre doing face-to-face interviews with supervisors, coworkers, spouses, roommates, neighbors, landlords, teachers, poker pals, and fishing buddies. An applicant who is dishonest, financially irresponsible, racially prejudiced, or simply brutal cannot hide his character from everyone who knows him. Is it worth the expense to do vetting the right way? Just consider what we pay in court settlements to victims battered by three percent of the force.