Aurora Police Department consent decree reform “paper change” so far, but leaders say substantial payoff will come

State-mandated reform in the Aurora Police Department is coming — albeit slowly — more than a year after the city entered into a consent decree with the Colorado attorney general.

In the first year, the department changed its policies surrounding the use of force, biased policing and hiring. But police, community leaders and the monitor hired to oversee the five-year deal cautioned that it will take years before significant change is felt by the community as a whole.

“It’s paper change more than anything at the moment,” said Reid Hettich, lead pastor of Mosaic Church of Aurora and a co-chair of the consent-decree monitor’s Community Advisory Council. “You don’t get that payoff for a couple more years.”

The consent decree implemented by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser mandates reform in policy, training, hiring, use of force, accountability and transparency for Aurora’s police and fire departments.

The city entered into the agreement with the attorney general in November 2021 after his office conducted an investigation that found the police department had a pattern and practice of racially biased policing, using force excessively and failing to document stops as required, and concluded the fire department administered ketamine illegally.

The consent decree followed national attention on the city over the 2019 in-custody killing of Elijah McClain as well as a years-long series of scandals, controversial disciplinary decisions and excessive force incidents. Between 2018 and 2022, Aurora and its insurance providers paid out more than $18 million to settle lawsuits over excessive force, wrongful death and civil rights violations by the department.

The Aurora consent decree is the first in the state under a 2020 law that gave the attorney general the power to investigate police departments and mandate change, similar to the powers held by the U.S. Department of Justice. Implementation of the decree began in February 2022 after the city selected the company InegrAssure to monitor the process.

A year in, some remain skeptical the consent decree will effect lasting change — especially as the Aurora Police Department is once again under intense scrutiny, this time in the wake of last week’s fatal shooting of 14-year-old Jor’Dell Richardson by an officer.

The teen, who was armed with a pellet gun that looked like a handgun, fled police investigating suspected shoplifting and was shot while being held on the ground by two officers. The killing has prompted calls for interim police Chief Art Acevedo’s resignation by the boy’s father and some in the community.

“There are some community members who are very proud of the work and feel optimistic that things are going to improve and the city of Aurora may have a model public safety system in the future,” said Omar Montgomery, president of the Aurora Branch of the NAACP and co-chair of the advisory council. “Then, I have residents who are still in disbelief. They’re asking, ‘When all that goes away, will (police) continue to move forward and improve or will they go back to the traditions that have made it difficult for some community members?’

“I’m in the middle of the road, personally,” he said.

Changes so far

The consent decree mandates 79 changes and, so far, the Aurora police and fire departments have completed 19. Of the remaining 60 mandates, 25 are on track and 24 were on a cautionary track, according to the monitor. Progress on the remaining mandates has yet to be evaluated.

So far, the department has:

  • Updated a policy banning biased policing and implemented annual training to prevent bias
  • Created a constitutional policing policy that outlines what actions officers can take depending on the amount of evidence they have at the time of contact
  • Developed a new use-of-force policy with the help of an outside contractor
  • Made progress toward a data collection system to collect information about stops, arrests and use of force
  • Implemented changes in police and fire department hiring practices that give more power to department leaders

Jeff Schlanger, the lead monitor with IntegrAssure, said Aurora’s changes in policy were significant.

“I think with our interim Chief Acevedo, the department is definitely headed in the right direction,” Schlanger said. “Ultimately, the goal is to change the philosophy of the department and ensure it is a philosophy that embraces continuous improvement.”

Neither Acevedo nor any other member of the department leadership was available during the last two weeks for an interview with The Denver Post to discuss the consent decree.

The police department has missed several deadlines, but the monitor wrote in his most recent report that since the December hiring of Acevedo, the department is “back on track” to meet the requirements of the consent decree within the five years allotted. Challenges with technology slowed progress and made it difficult to meet deadlines, some of which were “overly optimistic,” he said.

The turnover of department chiefs has also hindered progress. The department has had three chiefs since Schlanger began his work — a far higher turnover rate than normal, he said.

“All of the chiefs have been open with us,” Schlanger said. “They have not all been equally open to reforms, but we are now in a position where we have a chief who is pushing reform and understands best practices in the areas we are concerned with.”

One of the challenges in implementing the consent decree is helping officers understand that the focus is on leadership and policy, not individual officers, Schlanger said.

“It really was a failure of leadership,” Schlanger said. “The failure is in not having the right policies, not having the right training, not having methods by which the operational integrity of the men and women of the department are checked appropriately, a lack of appropriate supervision. Those aren’t really the fault of those being supervised, those are the fault of those in charge of the department.”

Although the Aurora consent decree is the first under the Colorado attorney general, the federal government since the 1990s has used similar agreements to mandate change in troubled and dangerous police departments.

Consent decrees can be effective tools to reform departments, but they shouldn’t be seen as the single solution, said Alex del Carmen, a criminology professor at Tarleton State University who has overseen the implementation of multiple consent decrees as a monitor.

More than a dozen cities are currently under federal consent decrees, including Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Ferguson, Missouri. Academics are beginning to study the long-term impacts of consent decrees after the agreed-upon reforms are complete and the monitors leave.

“It will not fix all problems, but it is a remedy that the community can build upon,” del Carmen said.

Community response

Some Aurora residents remain skeptical that the decree will lead to significant changes in policing.

“I still get phone calls as NAACP president where people still feel like their rights are being trampled on and there are abuses of power by people in these positions and they are still, in some cases, losing hope,” Montgomery said.

Data from the department shows that the number of community complaints increased to 543 in 2022 from 416 in 2021.

Both Montgomery and Hettich urged Aurora residents to be patient with the process and to continue participating.

“The process and the people are in place – there are still a hundred ways we could screw it up,” Hettich said. “But I would hope people will see the early progress and not be satisfied and look away, but know that good work is being done. If we do our part I think we have a chance to do some meaningful reform.”

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