A year after the state imposed reform mandates on the beleaguered Aurora Police Department, the tumult continues.
Since the city entered into a consent decree with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office in 2021, three Aurora police chiefs have promised change. One, Vanessa Wilson, visibly pursued reform efforts and was fired. Another, Dan Oates, disbanded or diminished two internal oversight entities charged with monitoring police conduct and discipline. A third, Art Acevedo, was chosen to take the reins just a few months ago, even though he sued the last police department he was hired to fix.
To date, the consent decree — containing dozens of reforms to hiring, training and policies that city leaders advertised as the birth of a new era of equity and accountability — has played out amid rising crime rates and a dependable stream of complaints of officer misconduct.
Without question, the challenge of at once tackling crime and reforming a department under fire for its disproportionate brutality against people of color is daunting and mirrors the reality facing urban police forces across the country. Police officials, including Acevedo, say the balancing act is at least possible.
The consent decree is meant to ensure oversight of the department as well as the kind of good-faith participation in reform efforts required to lower crime through more equitable policing.
But one year in, the activists whose protests precipitated promised change say they’re skeptical that the consent decree will yield meaningful reform.
“I don’t think it’s had the impact that was believed at all,” said Candice Bailey, a local activist and former member of the Community Police Task Force, which was disbanded in 2021 after the Aurora City Council declined to extend its term. “It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors and performative action. What’s been done in the dark is the problem, and the lights are out.”
Some state lawmakers have become skeptical, too.
State Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, said that while police had continued working to drop the crime rate during the first year of the decree, they had made few new inroads with the communities most affected by police violence.
“We do have crime issues, and they’re addressing those,” she said. “But community engagement and involvement is something (police) say they value, but they haven’t really put steps or effort into showing they welcome that.”
In recent weeks, new controversies — over the promotion of one cop who escaped a drunk driving charge in 2019 and the arrest of another for allegedly attacking a disabled woman — have only fueled community concerns about police accountability.
The consent decree, and the current turmoil inside the department, can be traced back to a stunning episode of police brutality in August 2019.
Several months before the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked a global movement against police violence, Aurora police choked a 23-year-old Black man, Elijah McClain, until he passed out. When paramedics arrived, they injected him with what was deemed a fatal overdose of ketamine.
McClain was accosted by Aurora police while walking home from a nearby convenience store, where he’d gone for a can of iced tea.
In the weeks and months that followed, information about the killing trickled out of the police department. Officers justified their actions, saying McClain had been agitated and became aggressive. Then-police chief Nick Metz backed them up.
“I think overall the officers did a good job trying to calm Elijah down,” he said.
Before retiring in 2019, Metz rejected calls for reform in media interviews.
“This is not a department that needs to be fixed,” he told the Denver Post. He stepped down from the department just a few months later amid a scandal where Metz protected the job of a drunken police officer who had passed out in his squad car and had to be rescued.
Metz’s comments about McClain set the stage for a series of findings and pronouncements that favored the department’s version of his death. Union leaders insisted that the officers did nothing wrong.
An internal review board signed off on the officers’ decision to forcibly restrain and choke McClain, even as he cried and vomited on himself, stating that their actions were “within policy and consistent with training.”
In November 2019, former 17th Judicial District Attorney Dave Young said his office did not believe police had behaved criminally during the encounter with McClain.
Young’s decision not to treat McClain’s death as a crime inflamed tensions between activists and police, and stoked public outrage that coincided with unrest caused by the murder of Floyd.
As the summer heated up, state and local officials were bombarded with tens of thousands of calls and messages asking that the circumstances of McClain’s death be re-examined. More than a million people signed a Change.org petition demanding justice for McClain.
Ultimately, the killing of McClain was a pivotal moment for the city, despite the push against reform by Aurora police and factions within city leadership.
In August 2020, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced his office’s investigation into police misconduct in Aurora and ultimately revealed a 32-count grand jury indictment against the officers and paramedics most closely involved in McClain’s death. He said the investigation revealed that Aurora police routinely used excessive force, particularly against people of color.
He also accused Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics of illegally administering ketamine.
“The recent incidents involving Aurora Police have impacted not only community trust, but also officer retention and morale,” the report from Weiser’s office stated. “Many in the community perceive that Aurora Police does not hold accountable officers who use excessive force or otherwise engage in racially biased actions.”
Weiser’s investigation culminated in the city tacitly acknowledging the need for outside oversight of its police department by agreeing in November 2021 to operate under a consent decree.
Consent decrees: promises without admissions
A consent decree is a legal agreement, enforceable by a judge, in which none of the parties involved admits wrongdoing. The Aurora decree includes 70 reform mandates meant to break a pattern of excessive force and racial bias by police officers. They include:
- Reducing racial disparities in arrest rates.
- Reducing incidents of use of force.
- Monitoring and updating use-of-force policies.
- Increasing the number of minority candidates hired as police officers.
- Reducing actual and perceived bias in policing.
- Developing a new system for collecting data about police interactions with community members.
Once the department has adjusted its policies and training to meet the demands of the decree — which the decree says should take no more than two years from the day it began — a three-year monitoring period will commence.
To monitor the department’s compliance with the decree, the city hired IntegrAssure, a Florida-based risk-management firm led by former Manhattan prosecutor Jeff Schlanger. At a forum in early 2022, Schlanger promised impartiality, despite the fact that his firm’s work is being funded by $4.7 million from the city it’s charged with monitoring.
“There will be a contract … which essentially guarantees our independence,” he said. “But independence does not mean that we will not collaborate with the city and the city agencies.”
In a report published Jan. 15, IntegrAssure warned about missed deadlines, ongoing problems with the police entity tasked with reviewing use-of-force incidents and significant flaws in the department’s system for collecting information about stops of civilians, which IntegrAssure said prevents the city from complying with state law.
Of the 58 mandates scrutinized by IntegrAssure between August and November, half were said to be on a “cautionary track,” meaning the monitor questioned whether the city would be able to meet expectations.
“Both the Monitor and the City have gotten a better understanding of the capability, or lack thereof, for the APD to simultaneously deal with the substantial number of Mandates calling for significant change,” the report says.
“The Department, under the leadership of the new interim Chief has prioritized meeting these deadlines and has assigned additional resources to help make it happen.”
Much of the monitor’s concern stemmed from APD’s failure to meet deadlines for adopting policies having to do with stops, documenting contacts, uses of force and other topics. Some of the deadlines are several months past due, though the monitor said the delays were “understandable” and expressed optimism about the city coming into compliance in the near future.
On the other hand, the monitor praised the department for being close to rolling out a new “constitutional policing” policy, which is designed to help officers understand when they can legally stop, detain and arrest people. They said a final draft of the policy had been approved and would likely be rolled out in the coming months.
As it had in past reports, the monitor admonished the internal Force Review Board for its alleged reluctance to critically evaluate officers’ use of force, writing that “there is currently no critical analysis of officers and the number of use of force incidents in which they have been previously engaged.”
Part of measuring the department’s compliance with the consent decree will be a computerized system allowing officers to record information, including demographic data, about contacts with citizens. While Aurora police reportedly have set up a contacts form, the monitor said neither they nor the department had been able to pull aggregate data from the system.
The problem impacts the monitor’s ability to gauge how well the city is complying with the consent decree’s mandates designed to fight racist policing.
IntegrAssure also warned that the city was not able to submit information to the state to comply with the statewide law enforcement reform bill that laid the groundwork for the attorney general’s investigation of APD.
The monitor questioned whether an information technology unit should be set up within APD to facilitate the rollout of that system as well as changes to computer-aided dispatch, recordkeeping and other projects.
Both mandates having to do with accountability and transparency were deemed to be no more than 25% complete and on a cautionary track.
The monitor is responsible for signing off on new policies in APD, which is one of the ways they gauge the department’s compliance with the decree, along with participating in meetings like those of the Force Review Board, and evaluating enforcement data and other metrics.
Notwithstanding the city’s struggles with hitting the deadlines in the decree, the monitor again stressed that the city was cooperating with the reform process.
“The third reporting period of monitoring activity has been marked by cooperation and apparent good will of all parties and stakeholders in the process,” IntegrAssure wrote.
“While there are a few areas of significant concern, including concerns arising from missed deadlines, the Monitor believes there is genuine interest among the parties to achieve the goals of the Consent Decree and effectuate its provisions as quickly as possible so the resulting reforms are seen and felt on the streets of Aurora.”
Some community leaders, including Pastor Thomas Mayes, president of the Denver Ministerial Alliance, said they did not believe IntegrAssure is doing enough to challenge the police department on its compliance with the consent decree, and that too much of the work is happening out of public view.
“The community feels like that monitor is in the back pocket of the city,” Mayes said. Mayes announced this week he’s seeking a seat on the Aurora City Council during the November election. “I’m not that pleased with the work the monitor has done.”
After Wilson’s firing, which led activists to question the city’s commitment to reform, Schlanger, praised the city’s “exemplary cooperation” in the reform process at a news conference, saying that, “while we know that there are changes coming to the leadership of the police department, we fully expect, and in fact have been assured, that that degree of cooperation will continue.”
Schlanger wrote in an email to The Sentinel responding to community concerns that the implementation of the consent decree was envisioned as a “marathon,” with the city taking around five years to update and fully implement policies, and retrain officers.
“It is not until the new policies are implemented on the street after appropriate training, that the full effect of reform will be able to be felt by the residents of Aurora,” he wrote.
“It is natural that there is frustration with the pace of change and we are working hard to explain the process and the progress that APD and AFR are making toward substantial compliance. We continue to seek out instances when residents of Aurora feel that members of their public safety agencies have acted inappropriately.”
Schlanger mentioned that the monitor’s website allows members of the community to communicate with them directly, and that they welcome feedback.
“Notwithstanding the fact that the full effect of the reforms has not yet been felt, I am confident that with the continued leadership and commitment of APD, AFR, and the City, both APD and AFR will be all that they can and must be for the residents of Aurora,” he wrote. “The process is designed and committed to making sure that happens.”
The attorney general’s office plays a nominal role in the enforcement of the decree, leaving IntegrAssure as the only eyes on the ground in Aurora.
Weiser said in statements that his office has been meeting regularly with the monitoring team and that they are “committed to ensuring that Aurora keeps the promises it made to improve and comply with state and federal law.”
Erin Plinyak, a deputy monitor with IntegrAssure, wrote in an email to The Sentinel that 11 people were working on the monitoring team for Aurora, with most of the work being done remotely.
“While there is not any team member who is physically in Aurora full time, the Monitor and members of the team are present in Aurora at least monthly for three to four days,” she wrote.
“That being said, there is full-time communication with the City through the various meetings, which the Monitor and team members attend virtually and scheduled and unscheduled check in calls with various members of both APD, AFR and (the Civil Service Commission), as well as with the Deputy City Manager, the City Attorney’s Public Safety Manager, as well as the Attorney General’s Office.”
Department spokeswoman Faith Goodrich wrote in a December email that members of the monitor team attend meetings with the police chief twice a week as well as weekly Force Review Board meetings, weekly discussions about the Force Review Board, weekly policy meetings and ongoing meetings about police recruiting and hiring.
Goodrich also said that, while the department was striving to meet the deadlines established by the decree, the goal of police was to successfully implement the reforms therein.
“The objective of all parties involved is to have the best end product, which means that while we strive to meet the deadlines, we are not going to substitute expediency for getting it right,” she wrote.
5 chiefs in 3 years
Leadership changes, perhaps more than any other factor, have complicated the department’s ability or willingness to reform itself since the introduction of the consent decree.
In response to a question about the impact that unstable leadership had on APD’s ability to implement the goals of the decree, Goodrich wrote that “stability is critical to any organization, however, despite recent changes, the department continues to strive to meet the monitor’s goals.”
Upon being chosen to run the department by city management, Wilson said police treatment of non-white people was a “systemic problem” warranting change, but it would take time to fully address. During her tenure as chief, she fired police who had damaged the image of the department, including three officers who took photos imitating the death of McClain and a former union leader who sent an email to officers mocking the department’s program to recruit a more diverse pool of officer candidates.
Wilson’s firing in April fueled backlash and suspicion among some political leaders and activists, who accused the city of backing away from the goals of the agreement. City Manager Jim Twombly made the decision to oust Wilson after months of criticism of police leadership by new conservative council members.
While Twombly claimed Wilson’s firing was merit-based, Wilson said in a news conference she was fired for getting rid of problem cops and trying to reform the department. She has since pressed for a wrongful firing lawsuit against the city.
An attorney for the McClain family, Qusair Mohamedbhai, called Wilson’s firing “suspicious” and said the city was “already regressing soon after the ink has dried on the consent decree.”
Several Democratic state lawmakers in a joint statement warned that the action would “set back the critical and long overdue efforts currently underway in Aurora to ensure accountability and integrity in our police department.”
To replace Wilson, Twombly brought in retired Aurora police chief Dan Oates on an interim basis, and, despite assurances to the contrary, he immediately began big changes. He dismantled an internal police chief review board and reduced the staffing of the Internal Affairs Bureau, only informing IntegrAssure of the decision after it was made.
“The dissolution (of the Chief’s Review Board) was clearly within the purview of the Consent Decree and the Monitor should have been consulted before dissolution,” IntegrAssure wrote in its quarterly report, saying it had discussed the problem with the city and that they had “received assurances from the City that such a failure will not occur again.”
“While Chief Oates’s dissolution of the Chief’s Review Board removed formal input from his staff in the process, Chief Oates indicated that he would confer with various members of his executive staff before rendering disciplinary decisions,” they wrote.
Oates managed all of this against the backdrop of an unfolding departmental scandal in which an Aurora police commander helped another officer violate a restraining order by illegally going to the home of the officer’s estranged wife.
The Sentinel and other outlets reported last year that Oates not only turned down a recommendation to discipline the commander involved but also promoted her to chief of the department’s patrol division. He also fired a new-hire police officer who was arrested out of state on alcohol and disorderly conduct charges, then reversed the firing, despite the officer being on, and having violated, probation.
Regardless, city management celebrated Oates and his six-month interim tenure when he left in December. City officials pointed to his efforts to reduce crime in the city, although analyzed data supporting those claims was not available.
The city’s first attempt to find a replacement for Wilson was a public failure. Two of the three finalists for the job dropped out amid criticism that the recruitment process was rushed and not transparent. Aurora’s City Council rejected the last remaining candidate.
In November, as the end of Oates’ contract neared, the city named Art Acevedo as Oates’ replacement, making him the third person to serve as police chief or interim chief in 2022. Oates described Acevedo as a personal friend and said he’d encouraged Acevedo to take the job.
During the summer of 2020, Acevedo was chief of the Houston Police Department. With the Black Lives Matter movement in full swing, he garnered national attention as a police leader open to calls for reform. In 2021, he left Houston to lead Miami’s police department, but the job was short-lived. He clashed with local elected officials over what he described as their meddling in cases of police discipline. Acevedo was fired from his job in Miami in October 2021 and filed a lawsuit against the city.
Acevedo has so far declined to say whether he will seek the permanent chief’s job in Aurora. His contract doesn’t bar him from applying.
During conversations with The Sentinel, Acevedo said he did not “look at the consent decree as a challenge” but that he wanted to educate Aurora police and the public about what the decree requires of the department.
“I want our cops to understand that no one is saying they’re broken. The majority of people know that, 99 times out of 100, you’re doing great work,” he said.
“But just because you’re doing great work doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been instances where we can do better, and we want them to understand that this means that we’re going to be investing and provide them with the tools and the training and policies.”
APD can perform and change, chief says
On Jan. 17, Acevedo told The Sentinel that the department share’s the community’s desire to see the reforms in the consent decree enacted quickly.
“I’m thinking our greatest critic would agree that the majority of our officers are committed, thoughtful, professional, caring members of our public safety agency,” he said, adding that the problems identified by the attorney general’s office were “a failure, ultimately, of the people responsible for oversight of the department.”
The chief said changes in the chief’s office and tackling an increase in violent crime in particular have split the department’s attention between those priorities and implementing the decree.
He argued that it was more important for the department to enact reforms completely rather than implement them all on time.
“I’d rather be criticized for maybe taking more time than was desired by the monitor and the community than be criticized for not really implementing the best reforms and the best practices that are available to us,” Acevedo said. “There’s no science behind those deadlines.”
When asked whether he thought it was reasonable for members of the public to expect to see the decree having an impact in its first year, he said it would depend on which changes they were watching for.
As an example, he said it wouldn’t be enough to look at the frequency of officer-involved shootings and other use-of-force incidents, and that each incident needed to be evaluated individually to determine whether they were justified.
He added that the department is committed to reducing the use of force so that police use only minimal and lawful amounts of force during encounters with the public.
“To me, success looks like no arbitrary number in terms of deadly force encounters, because at the end of the day, if we have one deadly force encounter between police and an individual out in the public space, whether it’s one or 20, each one is a separate, standalone incident,” he said. “What success looks like to me is that when we have these incidents, that they are actually justified legally and morally.”
But community leaders remain concerned that the department’s institutional approach to dropping crime is simply more racially biased policing.
Reflecting on the last year, state Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, said she had seen mostly “more of the same” from the department, not the kind of change that comes from police working with communities.
“The city leadership really, in my view, is not interested in community engagement,” Fields said. “It was demonstrated in the way they fired Chief Wilson and the way they went through that process.”
City spokesman Ryan Luby pushed back on accusations that the city is not interested in community engagement, saying the department’s seven-person Community Relations Section participated in and hosted more than 200 community events since last May, in addition to offering educational programming to people who want to learn more about Aurora police.
Luby stressed that the section was created in 2021, and that “providing perspective on the section’s growth since its launch helps to underscore the time and commitment the department has invested in supporting the community it serves while rebuilding trust.”
“From the beginning of the process, we have consistently emphasized the importance of community voice and involvement,” city spokesman Ryan Luby said in a statement.
“Like former Interim Chief Oates and Chief Wilson, Chief Acevedo strongly advocates for productive community engagement opportunities and relational policing as he has in all his previous leadership roles around the country. As he continues to get his bearings in Aurora and build relationships internally and externally, he intends to increase the frequency of feedback sessions.”
The section was relocated from APD headquarters to the District 1 station in November, moving it away from the chief’s office but closer to patrol officers and where much of the section’s work is done geographically, according to IntegrAssure.
Information about progress on the decree is published on the monitor’s website in regular reports and has also been shared during town halls and in Aurora City Council policy committee meetings. The monitor also assembled an advisory group consisting of community members such as Mayes and Aurora NAACP president Omar Montgomery in 2022 to facilitate the exchange of information between the monitor and the public.
Fields expressed concern that police will continue to focus their efforts disproportionately on people of color. Driving along the Colfax Avenue corridor, she said, “there’s not a day that goes by when I don’t see a person of color sitting on the curb with their hands zip tied.
“They need to start addressing the issues in the consent decree that address racial bias in policing,” she added. “And as long as they lag behind, we’re going to see the same behavior demonstrated over and over again.”