If this Aurora police thing seems oh-so familiar, it’s not just you.
To nearly game-show fanfare, Aurora Interim Police Chief Art Acevedo was cheered onto the local media stage two weeks ago.
Chief Acevedo, come on down. You’re the next contestant on the Plight is Fright.
While too many Aurora councilmembers, administrators and much of the public forget, this is about being afraid — of the city’s own police officers.
Sure, there’s talk about the business of police reform and the “consent decree.” But while Aurora is trading police chiefs as if they were baseball cards, just about every person of color still lives in dread or paralyzing fear of having to come in contact with an Aurora police officer.
Latino moms, South Asian bookkeepers and even Black superintendents of districts all admit, and regret, that seeing APD red-and-blue flashing lights in the rear view mirror isn’t just unnerving like it is for white guys like me. Seeing a cop walking up to your car window still borders on terror for people of color.
“I am a man. I am a Black man. I am a Black man in America,” Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn wrote in an essay for the Sentinel in 2020. It was at a time less than two years ago when massive protests shut down Aurora highways, and one of Aurora’s former police chiefs worked to build trust and confidence in a police department that had obliterated it.
“I am a Black man in America who holds a position of relative authority and privilege,” Munn wrote. “All of these things are true, and all of these things hold meaning for me, especially at this moment in time. I love this country. America has afforded me the opportunity to worship as I please; to get a college degree and a law degree. In America, I have been able to earn a living, marry the girl of my dreams, raise two beautiful children and participate in the civic and cultural life of my community. But also in America, I have been spit on, called a nigger, harassed by the police, denied opportunities and watched Black friends and loved ones systematically jailed, impoverished and dehumanized. My relationship with America is complicated; I am outraged by injustice but never surprised by it. I celebrate what is good about America, but I never forget the lessons my father taught me.”
Munn’s father, who died this year, taught him that Black people in America must fear encounters with police, because too many police officers can’t be trusted to treat them as if they were white.
Those fears have been well-founded across the nation, and in Aurora.
There’s been much more than the horror of police tormenting, torturing and then killing Elijah McClain in August 2019 — and then three officers mocking his death for fun and selfies. The repeated grisly abuse of people of color, and even white people, at the hands of Aurora police officers is appalling.
The entire planet was subjected to video images of Aurora police forcing a car-full of Black girls and women being cuffed while face down on a scorching parking lot, during what was a botched stolen-car stop to begin with.
A young Black man was pistol whipped by an Aurora cop during accusations of vagrancy, and the police body cam offered up the entire episode for the world to watch in horror.
Those are just a couple of APD “incidents” so horrible and happening so frequently that they prompted the state’s attorney general’s office to intervene. The state is demanding changes in Aurora because of “patterns and practices” of abusive force on people of color, and even white people.
Just as grievous as the episodes of calling Black people “porch monkeys” or forcing them to ride in the back of patrol cars cuffed and face down on the floor, begging for help, are the repeated and seemingly endless episodes of concealing the ugly truth about some police in the department.
The Aurora and Colorado Attorney General Consent Decree is about accountability and transparency as much as it is about getting police to stop abusing minorities.
As the sordid reality of what’s been going on at APD for the past decade began spilling out, and ranking APD commander Vanessa Wilson was ushered in as chief, change in earnest began.
Wilson promised accountability and transparency in the department, and she delivered it. Regularly.
She fired cops who pistol whipped Black men. She excoriated a police union chief for sending off patently racist and sexist emails to the rank and file.
She not only listened to people of color in Aurora, she acted on what they told her.
Wilson was making headway in insisting that most Aurora police really can and should be trusted, and so should the department. She had gotten the attention, and the trust, of Aurora communities of color.
Then, the city fired her.
Despite incredible explanations why, it’s become clear over the past several months that more APD upset was the result of thin-majority of recently elected white city councilmembers. These lawmakers publicly side with cops angry over Wilson’s demands for reform, accountability and the notion that police should be held to a high standard for their behavior.
Councilmember Danielle Jurinsky took to far-right radio airwaves to call out Wilson as “trash.”
That led to the return of former Aurora police chief Dan Oates, whose 15-minutes of fame sizzled in a column last year he wrote for the Washington Post, arguing that police chiefs need to be able to fire rogue cops when they go rogue.
During the past six months, while Oates was holding the reins of APD, he talked about the need for trust, transparency and accountability.
Oates, however, looked the other way as a prominent police commander, Cassidee Carlson, became embroiled in a sordid episode of violating restraining orders while intervening in a pal’s messy divorce. Then he rebuffed two police boards demanding her discipline. And then he promoted her instead.
He did all that, and he diminished the APD internal affairs unit, and he obliterated the Chief’s Review Board, and neither he nor the city ever said a word to the public about what he’d done. If not for reporters at the Sentinel, the public would never know what Oates did while city administrators and council members stood by and watched.
Last week, the same city leaders didn’t rebuke Oates for secretly altering city police accountability, taking care of an old pal and undermining what little trust and credibility the department has clawed back. They threw him a party.
And, so here we are again. It’s the same city council members who lauded Oates for his dubious brief tenure. The ones who looked away despite Oates also secretly un-firing a new Aurora officer sacked after being arrested for participating in a drunken brawl off duty, scrapping with the cops who arrested him.
The result is a city where more than half the residents are people of color, afraid that a slim majority of city lawmakers will stand behind their preferred concern about how Aurora cops are treated, and not the racial minorities those cops encounter.
So, welcome to Aurora, Chief Acevedo. Your message about transparency, accountability and showing the entire region that the Aurora Police Department, and every officer who works there, can be trusted to do the right thing is desperately needed and welcome.
Hundreds of thousands of people of color who live, work and shop here are anxious for you to make good on a promise that needs to be fulfilled now.