Calls across America to strip funding from the nation’s police forces have been loud and persistent in the past year, but in Aurora, lawmakers appear poised to increase allocations for the burg’s beleaguered agency by several million dollars in 2022.
Funding for Aurora police is projected to rise by $8 million, or 6.2%, next year, totaling about $136.7 million, according to budget estimates discussed last month.
“I’m not unhappy with this budget,” Aurora Police Deputy Chief Darin Parker said. “There’s no criticism of it. I think this represents support for our agency and trust from city management that we’re doing what we’re being asked to do, and that they believe in us and want to support us, so I’m appreciative of this.”
At a time when reforming Aurora’s police department is the focus of much of the public and city leaders, how much all this will cost is becoming clearer.
Much of the new increases come from standard pay bumps and vehicle maintenance, though several million bucks have been set aside for 18 new employees, including half a dozen new civilian staffers who will respond to the 10,000 annual traffic accidents in the city that don’t result in an injury. The pilot program, which will cost about $872,000 in 2022, was designed to free-up the 40 some sworn officers assigned to the department’s traffic unit.
“It’s a fantastic idea,” said Police Sgt. Marc Sears, head of the department’s primary bargaining union. “We just need to be able to enhance the ability of our police officers to respond to calls that are in progress. That’s what citizens here are lacking.”
Line items such as the new civilian traffic cohort result in expanded law enforcement budgets, but they’re a nod toward cries for change within American policing, officials say, and a means to a more equitable end. Next year, the department will also add records technicians in an effort to further civilianize the police force and turn around body camera footage more quickly, enhancing transparency and moving into compliance with far-reaching reform legislation passed last summer, known as Senate Bill 217.
“I think that’s a nice step in the right direction,” said Councilperson Juan Marcano, who has been a critic of beefier police budgets and last year sponsored a failed measure seeking to bar police from using various military-style equipment. “ … And I’m hoping that we can continue to make investments elsewhere that can reduce the need for more sworn officers.”
Just like this year, the city is slated to employ 744 sworn police officials in 2022, though many of those positions are not currently fully staffed due to an unprecedented exodus of officers this year, data show. A total of 96 officers had left the organization as of the middle of September, already surpassing the number of departures in all of 2020.
Because many of the exit surveys given to departing Aurora cops are voluntary, the reasons for leaving are often vague. Still, an informal query issued to officers who left the force in 2020 showed that a quintet of former workers cited “working conditions” as a reason for leaving, and another five pointed to “overall leadership” to support their decision, according to city documents.
And according to a survey of Colorado police chiefs and sheriffs released earlier this year, a majority of respondents cited concerns about the new senate bill, worries about the future of policing and anti-police sentiment as reasons why officers are ditching their uniforms.
“We, as a council, have never defunded the police,” said Councilmember Dave Gruber, who serves as chairman of the city’s public safety committee. “What we’ve had instead is a demoralization and a demonization of our cops, and we’ve seen so many leave because of it.”
The precise terminology used to describe changes within Aurora policing is irrelevant, according to Sears. But he wants to see signals that improvement is on the way.
“Whether you want to call it defunding the police or reforming the police — whatever the heck you want to call it — we just need to get our police department better,” Sears said. “And I don’t disagree. Paying funds to a police officer to go do a civilian’s job is a waste of your money. Utilize our expertise appropriately.”
As those officers continue to leave Aurora police in record numbers — with many citing the future of the profession as the cause — the city has become awash in extra money that otherwise would have gone to salaries.
“The department is experiencing higher than average turnover in both civil and career service positions, resulting in significant personnel savings,” city budget analysts wrote. “A portion of these savings is projected to be utilized for leave payouts and an increase in overtime cost to cover the staffing shortages.”
With fewer than 700 available officers, that’s led to a weary workforce, according to Gruber.
“The problem there is the officers collecting the overtime are burning out,” he said.
More than overtime, officials are also using this year’s unexpected $1.7 million in carryover funds to finally buy department-provided weapons for new hires, who currently are required to buy their own Glock handguns, mounted lights and sights.
But prospective budgetary matrices only reflect a portion of police-related staffing and allocations on the horizon.
Money for oversight is in the mix, but not the details
Aurora City Council members last month quietly gave a preliminary initial nod of approval to a new city entity that would effectively “watch the watchers,” according to Marcano.
During early budget talks, members raised no issues with the establishment of a new police monitor’s office, including three staffers that will be paid a combined $442,779 in 2022.
The office has been some eight months in the making, after City Manager Jim Twombly called to create the new positions while briefing the press after one of several damning reports on the local department that dropped in February.
“That has been something that City Manager Twombly has felt very strongly about,” Reagan Peña, spokesperson for the city, told The Sentinel.
Peña said the city is working with other municipalities to consider various oversight models, and staffers have reached out to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement to inform what the office could look like.
Multiple requests for comment from NACOLE were not answered by press deadline.
City management has promised that existing recommendations from the city’s police community task force will be baked into whatever iteration the new monitor’s office takes. This spring, the group that was formed in the wake of Elijah McClain’s death in August 2019 issued blueprints for a watchdog with more power than independent monitors in Boulder and Denver — the only two cities in Colorado with similar ombudsmans in place. They asked to give the new office the authority to issue subpoenas, and overturn internal disciplinary findings.
But group members have seen little movement following the unveiling of their suggestions in April.
“We sent in recommendations, and we haven’t heard anything back,” said Jason McBride, who sits on the panel of community members.
He said the body may reconvene to discuss next steps this month.
While police department leaders have expressed a willingness to work with city management on the various top-down changes, union leaders have consistently made known their displeasure with plans for a monitor.
“I don’t have any idea what the police department budget is next year,” Doug Wilkinson, head of the Aurora Police Association labor union, wrote in an email this week. “I’m not a fan of a police monitor unless they are going to focus on dishonest and incompetent leadership.”
Wilkinson added that he would like access to leaders’ body cameras, as well as emails sent between chiefs.
Sears with the local branch of the FOP declined to comment on the new monitor until additional details are hammered out.
The forthcoming watchdog office — which will be bolted to the city manager’s office, not the police department — is the latest and perhaps most tangible effort to spin out of ongoing police reform efforts in Aurora, many of which were propelled to the forefront of the zeitgeist last summer.
“We were hearing terms like ‘reform,’ ‘reallocation,’ and ‘defunding’ the police and a lot of those are kind of on similar spectrums — it’s just a matter of how you see public safety,” said Apryl Alexander, associate professor at the University of Denver’s the graduate school of professional psychology.
She said the nuance of those ubiquitous directives has grown muddied, but the thesis has become more solidified in the past 18 months: increase spending on social services across the board.
“A majority of Americans agree we should be allocating resources to social services at a higher rate, and then maybe we wouldn’t have such a need for a militarized police force,” Alexander said. “I think what a lot of people are thinking about at this time is: Where’s the investment in the social services that are known to reduce crime?”
Adding up the return on investment
In Aurora, that tab related to police reform is adding up — and fast — though calculating the exact cost is thorny.
“I don’t know how you would calculate the opportunity cost of having the negative reputation and negative outcomes in our community that might have had folks otherwise moving here or becoming business people here, Marcano said. “That’s something to consider.”
Indeed, the receipt for efforts either directly or tangentially related to Aurora police has run long in recent years.
Next year, insurance premiums for the city are expected to increase by about 35% due to a combination of market trends and an increase in use-of-force lawsuits filed against the city, budget analysts told city council members earlier this year. This year, the city’s public liability coverage premium rose about $1.3 million, or 328%, largely because of the city’s current claims, according to city documents.
Last month, the city launched yet another pilot program in the city’s northwest pocket intended to reduce police responses to certain mental health calls. Council members last year unanimously dog-eared $160,000 for that effort.
Last summer, the same city council approved $1 million for some 800 new body cameras in the department to preemptively comply with SB-217 and assuage critiques that officer’s former cameras easily came off during hand-to-hand encounters. Then there was the nearly quarter of a million dollars in overtime the agency paid to dozens of officers who staffed a pair of contentious protests in the city about a week apart in June and July 2020. Those funds dovetailed with the approximately $160,000 the city paid last year to further fortify the Aurora Municipal Center with boards and fencing after protesters damaged windows and ad hoc barriers during various demonstrations. At the end of the year, management added an auditor that has already launched probes into the police department’s use of body cameras and dogs.
Earlier in 2020, Aurora managers agreed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to multiple consulting firms — including a Connecticut attorney charging $225 an hour who was eventually ousted from his contract due to his ties to law enforcement — asked to examine where the department had gone wrong and how it could improve. The latest such probe, which ran $350,000 and was released in August, included 47 recommendations for local police, ranging from increased diversity among staffers to an overhaul of the internal discipline process.
And there’s the some $6.5 million the city — not technically the police department — has paid in settlement agreements with people and families whose relatives were injured or killed by police in roughly the past decade.
A settlement in a civil suit filed against the department on behalf of the parents and estate of McClain remains pending. To date, the largest payout tied to an incident involving Aurora police was the $2.6 million given to the family of Naeschylus Carter-Vinzant, who in March 2015 was shot and killed while walking down an Aurora street as police attempted to confront him.
Political change is coming, too
The forecast related to Aurora police budgeting in the next decade could hinge on the outcome of the polls on Nov. 2, when half of the seats that regularly cast council votes are up for election. The organ has been deadlocked on even the most mundane issues for months following the unexpected resignation of Nicole Johnston earlier this year.
“I think we’re taking the steps that we can take with the council that we have today,” Marcano said on the current state of justice reform in the city. “ … My biggest concern is that we either continue with the status quo, which I do not think is tenable, or we backslide into a more reactionary council that will continue to foster some of the negative things that our community is asking us to change.”
The council is guaranteed to gain four new members due to term limits, Johnston’s vacancy and two at-large members declining to defend their posts.
The impending turnover on the dais is underpinned by reported tumult among the rank and file of Aurora police as evidenced by an overwhelming vote of no confidence cast by union members last week. Members voted 442 to 16 against the department’s leader, with the majority responding “no” to the question: “Do you feel confident in the leadership of Chief Vanessa Wilson?,” according to Wilkinson. The APA has called for Wilson to resign.
The no-confidence vote came about a month after Attorney General Phil Weiser announced that a state grand jury had indicted several officers and paramedics on homicide charges related to the arrest of 23-year-old McClain, who died days after first responders restrained and sedated him on his way home from a convenience store. Wesier also recently published a scathing report on the agency that outlined repeated patterns and practices of racially-biased policing in Aurora, which will likely cause the department to be overseen by the state for years to come.
An investigation led by the FBI and Department of Justice into McClain’s death is still pending.
“I really do think we are at that crossroads,” Marcano said. “The issue with policing is not something any one chief can change. It’s the fact that we basically use policing in the United States to manage the externalities produced by a grossly inequitable society.” Current council members will vote on the final budget before new members are sworn into their posts in December.