AURORA’S CHIEF CONCERN: City Councilman wants to have police chief report directly to council to accelerate department growth

735

AURORA | At least one city lawmaker wants Aurora’s police chief to report directly to lawmakers, and not to city administrators, in an effort to keep the department from shrinking.

Ward IV City Councilman Charlie Richardson says he’ll introduce a charter amendment at an upcoming council committee meeting calling for the chief of police to report directly to city council. Currently, the police chief reports to a deputy city manager.

Officers sit in a nearly empty District 2 briefing room, during the 3 p.m. brief Sept. 25 at APD Headquarters. Sentinel Photo by Philip B. Poston

Richardson said he wants to float the amendment — which would have to be approved first by city council and ultimately a majority of city voters  — as an effort to hold the police department more accountable.

“I’m very, very disappointed how far we have fallen behind with our police department,” Richardson said.

Richardson, who has served as chairman of the city’s public safety committee for the past year, recently requested a report from police staffers outlining the current needs of the department. The results were bleak, according to Richardson.

“How did we get in this situation?” he said. “Professionals are supposed to plan not for tomorrow, or next week, or month, but we’re supposed to be looking at years down the road.”

In the report, police pointed to changes in civil forfeiture laws, a growing population, increased body camera responsibilities and small academy classes as reasons for the department becoming depleted.

“The APD has recently been experiencing some significant issues affecting the effectiveness of the organization and safety for the community,” police wrote in the 49-page report.

A staffing study completed last year indicated the department is currently short more than 100 officers, including sergeants, patrolmen and investigators, according to the document.

As of the beginning of November, the department comprised nearly 950 commissioned and civilian employees. That number will increase to about 967 in January due to the graduation of an academy class.

Following a funding bump approved by city council, police absorbed 35 new recruits and 11 lateral recruits last year, according to the report.

But only about 75 percent of the positions council funded this year began academies in March, according to the report.

Richardson partially blamed the city’s population calculus for the reduction in police staffing.

“It doesn’t even include the people in the hospitals, people at Gaylord, people in hotels and motels, so I think we have a huge problem there — huge,” he said. “And they all need calls for service and that mandate (staffing two police officers per 1,000 city residents) has been perceived as a maximum. People have looked at that as a maximum and that is tragically wrong.”

For about 25 years, city council members have striven to maintain the ratio of having about two sworn officers per 1,000 residents in the city. But as the population has ballooned and law enforcement recruitment has dwindled, preserving that proportion has proven difficult.

Aurora police reported having 649 sworn officers patrolling a city population of 368,018 people in 2017, according to the FBI’s annual crime report. That’s a ratio of 1.76 sworn officers per 1,000 Aurorans. The number jumps over the two-per-thousand threshold when also accounting for civilian police workers.

City officials agreed to tweak the original two-per-thousand ratio in 2011 — almost two decades after the original mandate was added to the city charter. The proportion was dropped to 1.6 officers per 1,000 residents, with gradual increases over time. However, the department has struggled to hit that mark.

Richardson said that ratio could continue to plummet as older Aurora officers retire and mid-career law enforcement workers take jobs with better pay and benefits across the metro area.

In November, Denver voters approved a ballot measure granting that city greater flexibility to offer incentives to cops hired from other agencies.

About 125 lateral applicants — or people with at least some policing experience — applied to the Denver Police Department at the end of the year, according to Mary Dulacki, a records administrator in the city’s public safety department. She said 19 of those applicants were from Aurora.

Compounding staffing concerns, funding woes have also dogged APD, police wrote.

Last summer, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a contested bill restricting police access to items seized during criminal investigations.

“The department has traditionally relied upon this account for operational needs, from body armor, to vehicles, to training,” Aurora police wrote. “Tax dollars to replace these funds will be difficult to find.”

Richardson’s proposed amendment would make the chief of police, currently Nick Metz, a city council appointee, similar to  the city manager, presiding municipal judge or the city attorney.

There are currently four city positions that are directly appointed by city council, according to Nancy Rodgers, deputy city attorney.

Rodgers said she wasn’t aware of any municipalities that operate under a city-manager form of government in which the police chief falls under the discretion of city council.

“Usually the police chief falls under the city manager,” she said.

Richardson acknowledged the proposal would put police — who are supposed to remain largely non-partisan and out of city politics — in a difficult situation.

“It puts (the police) in a terrible, terrible situation,” he said. “They’ve got to stay completely neutral. I don’t even want to have to put them in that kind of tough spot.”

If the proposal does make the ballot, it wouldn’t be the first time spats between the police, council and the city manager have spilled into the public sphere.

In the mid 2000s, then-police chief Ricky Bennett was demoted after a quarrel between council members and the city manager’s office. Bennett was widely criticized for his handling of the department’s investigation into serial rapist Brent Brents, who raped and molested multiple people in the Denver metro area in 2005.

Bennett resigned from the department as a commander in 2007 after he accidentally fired a gun in a police locker room.

Representatives from the local police union did not immediately return requests for comment.

A spokesperson for the Aurora Police Department deferred to a city spokesperson. Communications personnel from the city did not return requests for comment by press deadline.

Richardson also exonerated current City Manager Jim Twombly from hindering the department.

“I don’t blame this on Jim at all,” he said. “I want to make that absolutely clear: This has taken years to get to where we’re at, and so Jim, in my opinion, has no culpability.

“We can just never let this happen again.”

Richardson requested that city attorneys begin drafting a proposed charter amendment at a public safety meeting earlier this month.

Attorneys are working on the draft, according to Rodgers.

The draft will then go to the public safety committee — which Richardson will no longer serve as chairman of in 2019 — for discussion and a vote sometime next year.

Councilwoman Allison Hiltz will be the new chairwoman of the public safety committee in 2019, according to city documents.

She said she’s open to discussing the proposed amendment at the committee level.

“My gut reaction is that I don’t want to politicize the police department,” Hiltz said. “But until I actually go and read about cities that have actually done this before, I’ll reserve judgment.”

Council members Francoise Bergan and Dave Gruber will join Hiltz on the public safety committee.

If passed out of committee, the amendment will then have to pass several votes of the full city council.