Following more than a year of repeated maelstroms within the Aurora Police Department, a city commission aiming to overhaul policing in Aurora is set to soon unveil an ambitious plan creating an independent police watchdog office. 

The city’s Community Police Task Force began meeting after the death of Elijah McClain to reimagine policing in a city known nationally for police brutality cases and scandals. The board, made up of activists, community leaders and residents, is slated to release its centerpiece April 5: A proposal to create a community police oversight board with power to monitor police and even discipline offending cops. That day, the city council will comb through the policy suggestions. 

Those recommendations weren’t yet available to the public at press time. But the unveiling April 5 is sure to invite a period of fierce political debate about the power of the oversight body. 

Task force members said they support the creation of an oversight mechanism with “teeth” that can exercise serious power. Whatever model the group recommends pursuing, they will join a cacophony of reform efforts already underway in the city. 

Last summer, City Manager Jim Twombly added a staffer to the city auditor’s office to focus on police-related issues, such as body-worn camera protocols and how local cops use dogs when interacting with residents. 

In October, Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson unveiled a multi-pronged plan centered on mending her department’s ties with Aurorans. Pieces of the plan promise quicker release of internal reports and body camera footage, more community input on internal boards that evaluate local cops’ use of force, and additional contributions from residents whenever police place bids to purchase certain equipment or enter into contracts.

And in February, Twombly said he plans to stand up a new office of an independent monitor in the city, although it’s not clear what kind of model Wilson and city council members would like to see in place.

“A system of accountability should not be dependent on who sits in the chief’s chair,” Twombly said when announcing the new office on Feb. 23. “It needs to be put into place so that it functions and represents the community’s desire for constitutional, unbiased and respectful policing that holds officers accountable. I believe an independent monitor can help us achieve that.” 

Whatever form the new monitor’s office takes, Twombly has said the task force’s recommendations will be blended into the final shape of the city’s new law enforcement ombudsman.

“We absolutely want to take their recommendations and fold those into what the mayor and council choose to do, how they choose to shape an independent monitor office,” Twombly said in February.

Representatives from the Aurora Police Department’s primary labor union were at the table when City Council Member Nicole Johnston began laying the groundwork for the task force at the end of 2019, though political spats ultimately precluded a union member from joining the board. Council members in June opted to appoint another ex-officio officer to the panel in lieu of Sgt. Marc Sears, who is president of Aurora’s branch of the Fraternal Order of Police union. 

Sears has been critical of the group, as well as certain members, in recent months. In August, he expressed his desire to pursue criminal charges against Task Force member Candice Bailey for her role in a demonstration protesting McClain’s death earlier in the summer. The charges never materialized. 

In December, Sears said that it’s “ludicrous” for Task Force members to believe they’ll successfully overhaul policing.

“The people on that task force are such radicals, and if the City of Aurora allows them to actually have that much of an impact, you’re going to have a city that is going to burn down,” he said. 

Police officers and sheriffs deputies in riot gear forced protestors from The Great Lawn, claiming unlawful assembly, June 27, 2020, at the Aurora Municipal Center. Thousands gathered to protest and pay tribute to Elijah McClain, who died last year after an encounter with three officers from the Aurora Police Department.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Experts told the Sentinel that U.S. cities have handled an independent monitoring system in vastly different ways. Some monitors, as in Boulder’s system, can only make recommendations about police discipline and suggest policy changes. In systems like Pittsburgh’s Citizen Police Review Board, independent investigators can compel evidence from police in response to citizen complaints and launch their own inquiries with subpoena power. 

That body and many others can’t impose discipline over cops, as some Aurora Task Force members would prefer. The Sentinel did not find a precedent for that power in other police watchdogs. 

Other cities have established their unique blend of various models and powers — some willingly, but some under orders from the federal government after acts of police brutality. 

Whichever form it takes, a new monitoring body would bring Aurora into a small club of Colorado cities with cop oversight groups. Denver established its Office of the Independent Monitor in 2005, and Boulder followed suit last year when officials hired the city’s first Independent Police Monitor. 

Lindsay Minter, a member of Aurora’s Task Force, said the group is recommending that the oversight body would do more than just monitor police, and it wouldn’t be called an independent monitor. The body would also have the power to investigate police officers’ own investigations of other cops for misconduct. The oversight body would have the ability to subpoena cops for interviews and records — a “groundbreaking” prospect, she said. 

The devil will be in the details. The final product will likely require some buy-in from Wilson, Twombly and a majority of city council members. 

“We’re going to have to figure out: Are we getting empowered by the city? That’s where the rubber is going to meet the road,” said Task Force member Kevin Cox, who also serves on the Aurora Public Schools Board of Education. 

Wilson endorsed the concept of an independent monitor after a team of independent investigators criticized Aurora cops’ interaction with Elijah McClain and the department’s handling of internal investigations that could have resulted in discipline or charges. 

“With Mr. Twombly’s desire to create an independent monitor’s position, I have to agree with it because I feel that is the only way we are going to regain the trust of the community,” she said at a Feb. 23 press conference.

Aurora police did not immediately respond to a recent request for comment on the forthcoming task force recommendations or plans for a monitor’s office.

McClain suffered cardiac arrest after his interaction with Aurora police officers and firefighters in August 2019 and never regained consciousness. One of the three officers who primarily interacted with McClain, Jason Rosenblatt, was fired from the force last summer after he responded “ha ha” upon being texted a picture mocking the carotid hold applied to McClain’s neck. The other officers involved in detaining McClain, Nathan Woodyard and Randy Roedema, remain on the force despite a steady repeated calls for their terminations.

Jonathan Smith of the Washington D.C.-based Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs led the independent investigation into McClain’s death. At the core of its findings was the conclusion that police had failed to adequately investigate members of their own ranks. 

It’s a key argument among police reform activists, including many on Aurora’s Community Police Task Force, that an outside body needs to monitor or conduct serious investigations. 

Specifically, Smith and his colleagues found that the Aurora Police Department’s Major Crime/Homicide Unit conducted a lax investigation of fellow officers, which “revealed significant weaknesses in the department’s accountability systems.” 

Investigators had “failed to ask basic, critical questions” of the cops who stopped and subdued McClain, investigators said. “Instead, the questions frequently appeared designed to elicit specific exonerating ‘magic language’ found in court rulings,” the report reads. The investigators also said the review by the department’s Force Review Board “was cursory and summary at best.”

Other cities, other models 

David Harris, a professor and police accountability expert at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, said cities have often attempted to set up police oversight boards after a major controversy. 

In Aurora, McClain’s death kicked off the process. In Chicago, it was the death of Laquan McDonald at the hands of police and a subsequent cover-up in 2017. And in Pittsburgh, Harris said the spark was the police killing of Black businessman Jonny Gammage in a nearby suburb. Voters then created the Citizen Police Review Board after inaction and opposition from city officials, according to Harris. 

Harris held up Pittburgh’s oversight system as close to ideal. 

It’s a separate city office with an independent budget, staff investigators and a board of civilians without law enforcement experience, who are appointed by the mayor and city council. That group recommends courses of action based upon the findings of a lead investigator. 

Mostly, the group’s investigators follow-up on civilian complaints about police officers, from routine gripes to serious offenses like shootings and beat-downs. 

To that end, investigators wield subpoena power — a key power, in Harris’ view — to legally compel officers’ testimonies and glean paper evidence that cops otherwise might not provide in a timely manner, or at all. 

Despite the system, he said Pittsburgh residents are sometimes confused and frustrated that the review board can’t fire cops them elves. That power still lies with the police and city officials. 

Lindsay Minter stands for a portrait near her Aurora home. Minter serves on the Community Police Task Force.
Portrait by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

In Colorado, cities have handled oversight differently. 

In some systems, like Boulder’s, an independent monitor has the power to physically sit in an interview room when police investigators are scrutinizing one of their own for possible misconduct. But the office can’t conduct its own investigations. 

That independent monitor, Joseph Lipari, works with a civilian oversight board made up of service providers and Boulder residents, including a member who used to be homeless, young lawyers and a member who works in theater at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The oversight group just began meeting last month. 

He said it’s critical that these civilians receive legal and use-of-force training early on, so that they can accurately assess police behaviors.  That’s still a work in progress.

In Boulder’s system, like Pittsburgh’s, Lipari can make disciplinary recommendations to the chief of police. The board can also make big policy recommendations unrelated to a specific incident, such as the department’s use of force policy. 

Denver’s system also allows for its independent monitor to physically watch police investigate one of their own. The interim monitor, Gregg Crittenden, can also ask for the police department’s internal affairs department to redo an investigation; if police refuse, he can issue subpoenas and kick off the office’s own inquiry. 

After an investigation, Crittenden’s watchdog office can spell out discipline recommendations for the police chief or sheriff. 

But in Pittsburgh, Boulder and Denver, the power of the oversight group ends with the discretion of the police chief or sheriff, who can decide whether to make any suggested policy changes or disciplinary recommendations. 

Meanwhile, some cities only allow for their monitors to loosely review police investigations, while other watchdogs focus largely on department-wide culture or policy issues. 

Aurora ambitions 

That type of arrangement doesn’t sit well with some Task Force members in Aurora, who want the watchdog to have power even when Wilson doesn’t share its point of view. 

Cox and Minter said the city council should sign off on an oversight body called the Office of Police Accountability, Transparency and Transformation. The details are far from hammered out, and there’s no indication yet that the city council would support the concept. 

But the duo said they want the group’s recommendations to somehow carry weight. Ideally, Minter said the system would ensure that the watchdog’s conclusions are “completely noted” by officials. 

Minter said there’s no precedent for that power in other oversight systems. 

That’s a controversial idea in city government. And, to a lesser degree, Aurorans can expect political fights over appointments to the proposed watchdog office. 

Lipari, Boulder’s independent monitor, worked as a subordinate police monitor in New York and Chicago before arriving in Boulder last summer. He said the process of setting up a police watchdog becomes “very political” when council members or mayors turn to appointing its members. 

Aurorans caught a glimpse of what that process might entail last month, when council members appointed new members to the city’s Civil Service Commission. 

It’s an important office in the city’s policing landscape that has a final say over police and fire department discipline. 

A majority of council members approved appointing Harold Johnson, a former fire department official in Denver, to the board. But a week later, some council members were calling on their peers to reverse the appointment because of revelations that Johnson had violated a slew of Denver Fire Department rules and was fired in 2015, despite him saying he’d retired. 

Ultimately, a majority of lawmakers voted to keep him on the board after some said they had private conversations with Johnson. 

Lipari said cities usually get a rocky start when setting up a police watchdog, and “growing pains” can drastically reshape the city’s landscape for years. He urged patience on all sides. 

Cory Christensen, chief of police in Steamboat Springs and current president of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, said his group does not have a formal position on the establishment of monitors in Colorado, but advocated for scrutineers tailored to individual municipalities. 

“We do strongly believe in each jurisdiction’s efforts to police their community in the way that particular community wants to be policed,” he wrote in an email. “Each community is different and local input and control is important.”

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Doug King
Doug King
9 months ago

I’m just wondering what happened to all our police presence in Aurora?

9 months ago
Reply to  Doug King

Many have left and/or retired. The others are directed to tread lightly or choose to simply avoid confrontational situations because they can now be personally sued.

Mary Reynolds
Mary Reynolds
9 months ago
Reply to  Doug King

Senate Bill 217. Thank your legislator and governor.

9 months ago
Reply to  Doug King

Their at their mak shift cigar club again, .. poker in the front- liquor in the rear!!!

9 months ago

Let the lawsuits begin! I hope ALL the panel members have to have their social media histories checked and past negative comments toward the PD will mean they have to step down or not be considered at all. How many hours a month will they have to ride along and on the different shifts so they can get a real feel for the job not just watch CNN or ABC, CBS local news. The subpoena power and questions they can ask an officer would have to be narrow and realize that the officers have rights and will be allowed to have council with them at the time of interview. The members of the board should be open to being personally sued if the talk about the case outside of the hearing.
If these things are NOT agreed to the union should NOT allow it to go forward and the rank and file should be ready to call a work slowdown or stoppage should they not agree.
Though this group may think they are honest brokers there are signs of disdain and revenge in comments that have been made and the VAST majority have no idea of what police work is like in most cases they themselves would never be able to handle the job.

Marvin Young
9 months ago

Discipline is a DEPT. / Chief function – not citizens who have never policed! These citizens should be required to complete the Citizens Academy and Advanced Use of Force, PPD, and Legal training. Thorough background investigation should also be part of the application process. Good luck recruiting anyone to an agency with so many problems with NO political or other support and this can be the final nail in the Aurora coffin.

Don Black
Don Black
9 months ago

As a retired Aurora Lieutenant, I can tell you that there is so much that the citizens and the council do not understand. I can tell you that the real changes that are needed in law enforcement will never be heard. Chiefs are political animals who have covered up their own failures to train and supervise problem officers. They ignore situations that officers have pointed out as dangerous to both officers and citizens. On top of that, we now have radical groups who simply hate the police and want to cripple law enforcement. The police have always feared uninformed citizen oversight. Lately, the council and the radicals have proven that they want “uninformed” oversight. They do not want anyone involved who knows anything about policing. They do not want anyone involved who could actually explain why things happen the way they do. They only want their idealized version heard. If you only talk to a chief, you are talking to a “yes person” who often knows little about their own department training. Unfortunately, in today’s environment, even a good chief will have trouble creating a good community policing effort. The radical element has created a situation whereby community policing is almost impossible. The legislature passed a police reform bill that has vague use of force guidelines. No one will talk about that. The reform bill is focused on punitive measures against officers and opens the door to lawsuits and decertification. Faced with vague guidelines and the prospect of unfair legal consequences, the officers have no option other than to pull back on stopping or contacting suspicious persons. Police chiefs don’t mind that because they won’t have to answer any questions about officer conduct. Police chiefs can always blame the crime increases on the virus or joblessness.
Community policing requires a relationship between the community and the police. It recognizes that the officers will work with the community to identify potential problems and work to fix them. So, if the community makes it clear that they don’t trust the police at all, there won’t be much of a relationship. Community policing involves proactive policing whereby the police depend upon the community to call when they see someone suspicious. If the community doesn’t’ call or if the community doesn’t want anyone stopped, then yon can forget policing.
The present environment leaves the police with only a few options. One option is to leave police work. Those who have known how to do effective police work know that they can no longer can be effective. They also know that they are hesitant to put their families through the grief that has been foisted upon what was an honorable profession. The second option is to do only what is necessary. That is to say, they only respond to calls that are dispatched. That is where we are today. It is too dangerous to get involved in anything that you observe or to stop anyone suspicious. Further, they are encouraged by their chiefs to not put their hands on anyone, even when it would be wise for their safety and the safety of others.
Police officers are looking at all the radical things being done by legislatures. The legislatures and city councils are taking radical steps to keep people from being arrested or jailed. They are taking all of the teeth out of the justice system and helping criminals. The police attitude is that apparently the public doesn’t care about enforcement. So, why should the police care? Why should an officer take the risks of arresting when they will have no support and will be second guessed by some group chosen for their hatred and ignorance about the police?
In the end, when you, the public, don’t see the police or you wonder why the criminals feel free to victimize you, you will have some understanding. It won’t help you get your car back or fix your broken car window. It won’t keep the aggressive pan handler away from you. It won’t keep the prowler out of your back yard. It won’t keep the drunk drivers off of the road. It won’t keep the pedophile or drug dealer away from your kid’s school. I could go on. Just understand that when you allow the radical elements to enact radical measures, you are the real victim.

9 months ago
Reply to  Don Black

So well stated, by someone with direct experience and insight. Imagine that.

9 months ago

Bring on the council fight to create this office. We’ll all be treated to a great deal of foot-stomping from certain councilmembers and the police union, insisting that the citizens have no role to play in policing except giving them all the budget they ask for, and no right to expect anything more in exchange than a PD that routinely harms people without cause, investigates itself, and declares itself innocent. It’s time to just politely nod and move on from these ostriches.

jeff brown
jeff brown
9 months ago

City Council can’t truly transform APD without addressing the city’s chronic revenue gap. With Denver’s retail economy burning 59% hotter when measured per capita and with Denver also controlling the labor market for officers, Aurora’s police chief and city manager have had no choice but to cut corners on discipline.

jeff brown
jeff brown
9 months ago

City Council can’t truly transform APD without addressing the city’s chronic revenue gap. With Denver’s retail economy burning 59% hotter when measured per capita and with Denver also controlling the labor market for officers, Aurora’s police chief and city manager have had no choice but to cut corners on discipline.   The high financial cost of investigating, prosecuting, terminating and replacing a bad apple has simply carried far too much weight in the past where “We made do” has been code words for “We cut corners because we have no choice with the city’s grossly anemic budget. 

Raising taxes isn’t politically viable in light of the size of the gap to be filled. The solution lies in bringing retail and dining foot traffic up at least 14% to match or exceed the state average.

9 months ago

This city Manager is as two-faced as they come!!! Look at Mr. P. Weaver’s larecrny case being covered up by these individual’s and their APD employee’s!!!