AURORA | Aurora police believe the key to curbing car thefts and other prominent crimes could be an elite proactive policing team, which cops now say has been operating around north Aurora for just over a month.
The Direct Action Response Team, called DART, was resurrected in July after being disbanded years ago by former police chief Nick Metz, who opted to increase the department’s SWAT capabilities instead, according to Special Operations Division chief Jad Lanigan.
The team also bears resemblance to proactive policing teams in other cities that have drawn the scrutiny of organizations such as the ACLU, which said it’s opposed to the Aurora program.
“DART is not a new philosophy for the police department. We’re just starting to reimagine it,” Lanigan said. “We’re going to take the data that shows where crime and violent crime are happening and ask this team to concentrate their efforts on those areas.”
The team frees officers from patrol responsibilities, ensuring they’re not “tied to a radio,” and instead assigns them to tasks like searching for specific suspects or stolen vehicles, Lanigan explained.
Using the data shared in regular meetings on crime strategy, robberies, pattern crimes, non-fatal shootings and homicides as well as data provided by police analysts — including hot-spot maps and information reported as part of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program — DART command staff determine where to deploy the team, police spokeswoman Sgt. Faith Goodrich said.
DART’s dozen officers, two detectives, two sergeants and one lieutenant have only been directed to follow the data and “saturate” the neighborhoods where certain crimes are statistically prevalent — so far, many of the arrests have taken place in north Aurora.
Lanigan said the team is empowered to work flexible hours. They’ve been equipped with covert vehicles, license plate readers, devices that fire a GPS tracker at fleeing cars and other tools to hunt for stolen cars specifically.
It’s the first major anti-crime program to come out of Dan Oates’ transitional administration, at a time when Aurora and Colorado are grappling with a rise in motor vehicle thefts, shootings and other crimes.
Aurora police last month say they logged a 34.5% increase in car thefts, comparing the number of incidents so far this year compared to to the same time period last year, along with a 27.7% increase in aggravated assaults and a 28.6% increase in murders.
In its first few weeks, Lanigan said DART managed to hunt down a dozen stolen cars, all but two of which were occupied, along with three guns and an unspecified volume of drugs.
“We’re hoping this team can go out, and give people the ability to walk the streets, and enjoy their parks, and go to the grocery store without being a victim of crime,” he said.
Oates in June described his plans to reintroduce Aurora’s DART program, modeled off New York City’s anti-street-crime units, called Neighborhood Safety Teams.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams brought the Neighborhood Safety Teams back earlier this year, despite concerns that past iterations of the teams received a disproportionate number of brutality and bias complaints.
Lanigan said DART officers were selected from a pool of about 40 applicants based in part on their Internal Affairs record of using force — officers facing an open internal affairs investigation would be turned down, as would officers that were the subject of a sustained complaint of unreasonably using force.
The candidates were interviewed, along with their supervisors. Lanigan said candidates were required to have been with the department for at least three years.
“We wanted to know, are these people out there proactively policing our neighborhoods right now? Are they good at working in a team? Because this is more of a team,” he said.
Once selected, the officers were sent back to a police academy for two weeks to receive refresher training in areas such as Constitutional law, de-escalation and working with vulnerable populations, as well as high-risk stops, rolling surveillance and the use of less-lethal weapons.
Oates said de-escalation training was specifically set as a priority for the officers who would be assigned to DART. He said he was “aware that we’ve had challenges in this community around trying to do proactive policing” and that the department was “being very carefully watched to make sure we do that in an ethical and constitutional way.”
The team made its first arrest July 27, and has since effected dozens of arrests for everything from drug and weapons crimes to car theft and robbery, according to Lanigan and information shared by the department on social media.
“Nobody wants drugs in their neighborhood. Nobody wants prostitution or stolen cars,” Lanigan said. “If we can take away the problems in society, then the bad people won’t go to those areas to create havoc in our community.”
Juveniles arrested, too
Lanigan said at an Aug. 11 city council policy committee meeting that “many” DART arrestees were juveniles. Goodrich later shared data on the team’s arrests made through Aug. 20 — close to 50 in total, plus around 10 criminal summonses.
The data indicates that four or five of those arrested were juveniles, between 8.2% and 10% of all DART arrestees, including one 12-year-old boy. That’s compared to 197 children out of the 3,354 people arrested by APD this year through mid-August, or 5.9% of all arrestees.
Given the frequency of juvenile arrests effected by DART officers, Goodrich said police and the city “recognize the importance of connecting with the youth in our community” and included a link to a webpage for city-run youth programs.
“The increase in crime and juveniles committing crimes is not solely an Aurora issue, it is being experienced in many of the Metro Areas,” Goodrich wrote in an email. “It is a multi-faceted problem. As such, it would be irresponsible to speculate as to the reasons why.”
As for the racial makeup of DART arrestees, 21 were white, representing between 42% and 42.9% of the group; 22 or 23 were Black, or between 44.9% and 46%; and six were Hispanic, or between 12% and 12.2%.
Census data from 2020 indicates that about 42% of the city’s population is white, 15% is Black and 30% is Hispanic or Latino. In the 80010 ZIP Code, where more than half of the arrests through Aug. 20 took place, about 23% of residents were reportedly white, 16% were Black and 50% were Hispanic or Latino.
In 2021, the police department reported that about 30% of its arrestees were white, 39% were Black, 29% were Hispanic and the remaining 3% were some other race.
While initial data in the first weeks of operation does not indicate that people of color are being arrested disproportionately, at least one prominent civil rights organization says it’s still opposed to proactive policing programs such as DART.
Taylor Pendergrass, director of advocacy for the ACLU of Colorado, said cities impact crime more effectively through violence interruption (the city agreed to invest $40,000 in one such program run by the University of Colorado earlier this year), neighborhood meetings, foot patrols by uniformed officers and other strategies focusing on community engagement.
“The ACLU would advocate for Aurora as a city to invest in those community-based solutions rather than looking to policing as the solution for rising violence,” Pendergrass said.
Lanigan said DART was a reallocation of officers currently employed by the department and that the creation of the program didn’t involve budgeting for more officers.
Pendergrass said the push by New York and Aurora police to reintroduce street crime units such as DART is unique at a time when many departments are moving away from that model, calling New York’s decision to disband its teams in 2020 “appropriate.”
“These types of units have proven to be so woefully ineffective at actually addressing the root causes of violence and crime, while just creating massive constitutional violations and racial profiling,” he said. “If we could have arrested our way out of violence with aggressive policing, we would have solved the programs a long time ago.”
Pendergrass also cited successful litigation against New York’s Police Department for its stop-and-frisk policy, as legality of enforcement practices have been criticized for targeting minority neighborhoods. North Aurora, where police say they have been pointed by crime data, is also home to a large share of Aurora’s residents of color.
However, Pendergrass said departments should be equally deterred by the fact that programs such as DART have been “a failure across the board” at mitigating crime, according to the ACLU.
Lanigan said the department is still in a “staffing crisis,” but that they hope to make a significant dent in crime with the DART model.
“Now, the chief again wants a proactive team to go out and address violent crime through statistics,” he said.
“Everyone in this community in Aurora deserves to be able to walk the street, and go out in public, and go to a park, and enjoy dinner. So if there’s crime in the community, that’s where we want our officers to go.”