EDITORIAL: New hope from Aurora’s seemingly hopeless police department

Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly, left, watches the replay of Aurora Police body camera video as a man is strangled after being pistol-whipped by an Aurora officer. To his left, is Police Chief Vanessa Wilson, looking down as the video replays. PHOTO BY PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

The duality of the latest Aurora Police brutality debacle illustrates how reforming the agency will be an arduous and prolonged endeavor.

Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson accurately described how an Aurora police officer brutally and cruelly pistol-whipped and then strangled a man during an incident that police say had something to do with alleged trespassing.

“This is not policing,” Wilson said during an emotional press conference. “This is criminal.”

Given the police department’s recent past, it was both relieving and encouraging that Wilson and the department reacted to this new catastrophe as assertively and quickly as they did.

It’s impossible for the public not to stiffen in horror when watching for themselves on video how anyone — and especially a police officer — could be so ruthless and cold blooded as an APD officer appeared in quickly released footage. The police body camera video made public graphically and unequivocally depicts Officer John Haubert sadistically bullying the young man as his panic built over what Haubert would do to him. At several points, the man hysterically begged Haubert for his life.

When conversing with other officers who arrived as the young man was apprehended, Haubert could be heard saying “All that blood on him is from me f****** pistol whipping him … I was wailing the f*** out of him,” Haubert said, according to the video and his arrest affidavit.

Given the recent history in Aurora, where police have been under intense scrutiny and criticism for how officers are responsible for the death of Elijah McClain, forced young black girls face down onto a hot parking lot pavement during a mistaken traffic stop, and infamously had officers take pictures of themselves making light of McClain’s gruesome death, it seems surreal that such a blatant episode of police brutality could occur here — again.

As of today, there’s a new list of dead wrongs in the Aurora Police Department that require explanation to the public, including:

• How did someone like Haubert ever get hired? In March of 2009, Haubert was accused of DUI, felony menacing and a misdemeanor weapons charge for being drunk with a gun, court records show. He pleaded guilty to the weapons charge in October of that year. The other charges were dismissed.

• How many other officers have similar backgrounds?

• How  and when are officers checked for behavioral or psychological problems, which may have bearing on this episode?

• What kind of training has Haubert, and a second officer implicated in the debacle, undergone recently? APD officials have been very public about pressing for police reform, pointedly addressing the very behavior Haubert inflicted on his victim. Were these officers newly trained?

Despite this new APD horror that only increases the public’s distrust of Aurora police —  especially people of color who fear coming in contact with local cops — there was clearly a reason for hope. Wilson, the city, the local district attorney and key police officials were unprecedented in how they handled the disaster.

Whereas in the past, police have always been afforded a separate system of justice addressing potential or obvious criminal acts committed in the line of duty, Haubert’s assault was treated as the crime it clearly was.

It now will be up to a court to determine Haubert’s culpability and punishment.

Not only was Wilson’s action swift and genuine, it was far reaching in that it demonstrated that much recent talk about a new direction for the beleaguered police agency is more than just talk. The response by Wilson, administrators and the DA puts every Aurora officer on notice that the tolerance, at least for such overt acts of malfeasance, is nil.

Just as important, Wilson and APD for the first time reached for new state police reform laws that make it illegal for police to ignore dubious, racist or bullying behavior by fellow officers, and certainly patently felonious acts like this. Aurora Police Officer Francine Martinez faces misdemeanor charges of not intervening in nor immediately reporting Haubert’s attack.

Wilson’s fast actions were hamstrung by incomplete reform and structure in the Aurora Police Department. The clear attempt to provide speed, transparency and independence in the investigation shows the department is on the right track in how it will handle inevitable problems.

This success in handling the problem would only have been strengthened by an independent entity concurring with Wilson’s moves.

Egregious problems like this, however, must end. Wilson has assured the public that Haubert’s behavior is anathema to the profession and repugnant to every other cop on the force.

The challenge now is to prove it and ensure it, since the public’s tenuous faith in this department has just been devastated. “Trust us” won’t cut it.

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Joe Felice
Joe Felice
5 months ago

Somehow, the rank and file needs to get it. We, the citizens whom they are supposed to serve and protect, demand it.

5 months ago

Well defund the police has made the pool of candidates that are not the cream of the crop… but someone with an ego to take a THANKLESS JOB. Holding the second officer so accountable as to fire her- does not help the situation. I can only say blue flu is as contagious as the pandemic. There is too much fear of making any… error in tense situations causing an end to a career path. I am not advocating that abuse is good… only fear to act is worse. Taking people off the force may be needed- but lack of support is taking Aurora down the same path as Other gravely lawless cities… Did I say democrat lead?

Joe Felice
Joe Felice
5 months ago
Reply to  vern

There is no movement to defund police. No one can even tell us what that means, but it hasn’t happened, and never will. Most cities have, in fact, increased budgets for public safety, just as Aurora has done. There is no party that advocates any type of defunding. The paid agitators muttered those words last year at the racial protests and the right wing latched onto them, as it is wont to do. The talk about defunding is not even germane or appropriate at this point.

The only fear police have today is for their lives, since they know that every person is armed. The behavior of some has led to disrespect and has created a dangerous situation for all. No one faults anyone if he makes a “mistake,” but really, if police follow the mandated guidelines and common sense, fear of this should not even be a thing.

This is not a political issue, much as you would like to make it so. Democrats are in favor of law and order in the same manner as all other Americans, There is not a one of us that wants a lawless society. But as we argue and lay blame, that is exactly what we are creating. Blaming this on 1/3 of the Country will not lead to solutions. It will only make things worse.

Joe Felice
Joe Felice
5 months ago

In order for police to be successful, a lot of things have to change at the root level of society. The problems run deep into society, to its very roots, I’m afraid. Those who would like to make it a simple political issue are severely deluded. It has nothing to do with politics or ideology. It has everything to do with families, schools, mental health, sociology and psychology, etc. We’ve got to learn to dig deep instead of just reacting in a knee-jerk fashion.

Police departments, by and large, are not under the direct control of politicians, be they city officials, legislators or mayors. Police may answer to these, but do not take direct commands from any. The only choice at this point is to reign the police in legislatively, but when this is done, some bristle as they decry any attempt at regulation. I don’t know how they expect reform to occur otherwise. But really, the problems run so deep that I don’t know how we, as a society, can even begin to correct them at the root level. It will take a lot of study, collaboration and money, none of which we seem willing to do at this point in time.

I do know that demanding politicians do “something,” or that electing people who say they are “tough on “crime” (Who doesn’t?) is not the answer. Politicians will say whatever they need to in order to get elected. The voters lap it up and elect them, and then are left to find fault and complain when nothing changes. And then there are those who do not want anything to change, except for the outcome. Well, it doesn’t work that way.

Unfortunately, we are severely screwed. As people complain, find fault, and argue, nothing ever gets resolved. And those who make it a game of political blame seal the deal.

Jeff Brown
Jeff Brown
5 months ago

Riddle me this Editor, How can the Chief and City Manager adequately recruit, vet, train, retain, supervise and maintain discipline within the police force when the city’s primary source of funding is sales tax and the city’s retail economy is 59% weaker per capita than Denver’s?

Aurora’s management strategy of habitually cutting corners has been clearly exposed. No meaningful reform can be sustained without fixing the retail tax base.