EDITORIAL — Job One for Aurora in 2020: Repair the city’s ailing police department

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Aurora’s new mayor and city council have an undisputed priority for 2020: Fix the Aurora Police Department.

The once rock-solid police agency has been destabilized by a wide range of serious problems, all of which have to be not just addressed, but changed or restored next year.

The most pressing and far-reaching problem stems from Aurora police mishandling a growing number of investigations into themselves. For the past few years, police have drawn suspicion about how officers have handled incidents where people have been injured, abused or died at the hands of cops. More importantly, police have come under scrutiny for how they’ve handled internal investigations and relayed information to the public.

The most recent incident, involving an officer who passed out drunk in his own police car, avoided drunk-driving charges and ended up back on the force, was the last straw in pointing out this police force cannot investigate its own wrongdoings.

In many of these cases, it could be that the result of injurious or lethal police interactions were inevitable, or at least justifiable. But by police mishandling information relayed to the public, including gaffes that border on outright deception, Aurora police credibility is nearly non-existent.

The biggest obstacle Aurora police have faced has been the easiest one to remedy: adopting a system of independent, outside review of controversies involving the department. It is unacceptable and unwise to allow Aurora police or related agencies to investigate themselves and then render judgment on their own actions. Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz and others have stood in the way of that unavoidable conclusion.

Aurora’s new mayor and city council have a rare opportunity to get around the dilemma because Metz will retire from the force at the end of the month.

In looking for a new chief, the touchstone must be a leader who understands the wisdom and inevitability of implementing independent review of controversial police actions.

But the department has a wide range of pressing problems the new chief must address.

Aurora has fumbled growing its police force, and especially growing the number of minority officers, for years now. Rather than comply with a decades-old department-size mandate, police and city officials have only worked to find ways around it.

Aurora is now losing veteran officers to Denver and other departments, chiefly because of poor pay and benefits. For the safety of Aurora residents and officers, recruitment and retention must move to the forefront of city council, right behind a program of internal review.

The city’s new police chief must be a staunch proponent of determining the size and structure of the department and work to find a way to make that sustainable as the city gears up for extensive growth over the next several years.

Police discipline has also long been a problem in the Aurora police department. The city’s system of allowing the Civil Service Commission to override and even reverse suspensions and firings for notorious police offenses must end. The city council and the next police chief must find a way to ask voters to amend the Aurora charter and provide personnel oversight that is fair to officers and the public.

Finally, Aurora must find a chief who will ensure that the police department is accountable to residents all of its actions are transparent and open to the public. Aurora’s current system of keeping the public informed of a wide variety of police activity is dismal at best. Rather than working with the news media and city social media channels, Aurora police have taken to providing often useless tweets and Facebook posts about serious crime incidents and issues.

Aurora’s next police chief must go beyond empty words and make transparency and public information paramount in running the department.

While the Aurora City Council has myriad responsibilities all vying for immediate attention, public safety and the lack of it created by problems in the Aurora Police Department must become the primary issues for city lawmakers as the new year begins.