DAWN | The changing image of Aurora’s Public Service Commission may make it the target of reform efforts by council conservatives, after years of criticism that it has hampered efforts to hold police officers accountable for their actions. faults.
On July 12, the commission voted to uphold the firing of Doug Wilkinson by former chief Vanessa Wilson – the former president of the Aurora Police Association, who last year emailed members of the association mocking the police department’s program to recruit a more diverse pool of officers. candidates.
“To match the ‘diversity’ of ‘the community’, we could make sure to hire 10% illegal aliens, 50% weed smokers, 10% crackheads, and a few child molesters and murderers to top it off. the whole thing. You know, so we can make the department look like the ‘community,’” the email read in part.
In their decision, the commissioners blasted Wilkinson over the email, which they said “disparaged and showed hostility towards women and minorities, included negative stereotypes, had the effect of creating an environment intimidating, hostile and offensive work environment, and negatively affected employment opportunities for women and black officers in the ODA.
It was the latest in a series of decisions aimed at maintaining discipline against officers, made by a list of commissioners that has completely backfired since the group’s controversial decision in the 2017 case of an officer who was rehired after losing his job for calling a group of black people gathered at the scene where a police officer shot ‘Alabama porch monkeys’.
Commissioners declined to speak about the Wilkinson ruling and changing perceptions of the group, citing a rule barring members from discussing cases until the 30-day window has passed for defendants to appeal of the group’s decision in court.
Others, however — like progressive city council member Juan Marcano, who around 2019 helped recruit commissioners interested in police reform — said the commission had begun to lose its reputation for protecting bad cops.
“It’s a relief for our community. I think it’s a positive change,” Marcano said. “My concern going forward is that we will lose the ground we have gained.”
Two days after Wilkinson’s dismissal was confirmed, at a meeting of the city council’s Public Safety, Courts and Civil Service Policy Committee, Conservative Councilman Danielle Jurinsky asked staff about the logistics of firing the clerks. commissioners or even the total elimination of the commission.
Wilkinson later said The Sentinel he has had “confidential conversations” with recently elected Conservative members of the council about changes he thinks should be made to the commission. He said he thought the commission was operating with a political bias in his case.
The fired officer endorsed Jurinsky in his application for a position in 2021. Jurinsky did not respond to requests for comment.
Part supervision, part jury, part recruiter
Aurora’s charter defines the roles of the Public Service Commission, including the selection of new police officers and firefighters, and the administration of promotion exams within these agencies.
The commission is also the arbiter for employees appealing discipline imposed by police and fire chiefs.
This latter responsibility gives the commission the power to uphold, rescind, or vary penalties for officer misconduct — a prominent instance of which emerged in 2017, when the Aurora Police Department officer , Charles DeShazer, was caught on body-worn camera calling black citizens “porch monkeys”.
This wasn’t the first time DeShazer had been disciplined for his behavior, or even the first time he’d been accused of using racist language at work. In 2006, a disabled black woman accused DeShazer of calling her “n—-r” when arresting her and her daughter. The city paid the woman $175,000 as part of a settlement, though an internal review board cleared DeShazer of wrongdoing.
Then-police chief Nick Metz fired DeShazer after the “porch monkeys” incident in 2017. But in 2018, the Public Service Commission returned DeShazer to his job, albeit in demoting him, arguing that DeShazer should not have been fired because other agents received less sentences for “comparable” offenses.
Metz told 9News at the time that veteran officers were “disappointed” with the commission’s decision. Then-Aurora Mayor Bob LeGare released a statement endorsing Metz’s firing of DeShazer and calling the decision to reinstate the troubled officer “a slap in the face.”
Aurora’s Acting Chief of Police, Dan Oates, has also come into conflict with the leadership of the Public Service Commission and the Aurora Police Association in the past when he was previously Chief, for attempting to limit the agents’ ability to appeal to group discipline. Oates declined to comment for this story.
Reports on challenges facing the Aurora Police Department written last year by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office and consultant 21CP Solutions both noted the Public Service Commission’s decision in DeShazer and similar cases as a source of frustration and controversy within the community.
21CP Solutions wrote that “many” community members interviewed for its report “identified the Commission’s power to overrule the Chief’s disciplinary decisions as undermining APD’s ability to effectively manage its employees.”
The consultant said interviewees also described the commission’s decision to reinstate officers involved in “high-profile racist incidents” as “a continuing betrayal of the values and expectations of the community it serves.”
In the wake of the DeShazer affair, and as tensions over policing the city escalated, Marcano and other council members considered reforming the commission by recruiting a more diverse group of commissioners. .
Marcano said he and others disseminated information about the commission online and in person to voters at events.
Today, the current commission includes several women and people of color. The Colorado attorney general’s office wrote in September that the effort appeared to have improved community confidence in the group.
“Community members expressed optimism about the Commission’s efforts to diversify its membership,” the office said, “but shared concern that these efforts would be insufficient to create real change.”
The Commission is essential to orderly police reform efforts
The commission was also among the entities targeted for reform in the city of Aurora’s consent decree — specifically, making discipline and hiring processes more transparent.
Marcano and former Mayor LeGare said they thought the Wilkinson decision was the kind of example set by the commission that would help build confidence.
“I think the decision was good based on what I read and how it tarnishes other officers in the force,” LeGare said, adding that “in the past it was very difficult to understand why they flipped things around.”
Both commission decisions this year upheld the discipline imposed by former chief Vanessa Wilson.
But at the July 14 meeting of the city’s public safety committee, Jurinsky expressed interest in removing commissioners from the group or taking other steps that would dilute the power of existing members.
She asked if the city is required by its charter to have a public service commission. Deputy City Manager Jason Batchelor said yes. He also told Jurinsky that removing a commissioner would require an eight-vote supermajority of city council members.
The charter also specifies that the group must consist of three to five commissioners and that the council can establish the cap by ordinance. Assistant City Attorney Julie Heckman said the current five-member cap could be reduced to three by a council vote to overturn the ordinance establishing the cap after Jurinsky asked if the council could wrap the commission with new members.
While Jurinsky did not mention any of the commissioners by name or explain why she wanted to implement changes, Wilkinson said he spoke with conservative board members about his concerns about the commissioners.
“I don’t think they want me to name them specifically, but the newer, more conservative board members want (the commissioners) to be more objective,” he said.
He said some officers believe the commission’s focus has shifted from what he sees as its legitimate purpose – acting as a truth check on Internal Affairs investigators and the chief’s office – to “eliminating people who shouldn’t be cops”.
Wilkinson said he thought the commission would be improved if more of its members had a legal background or experience in police administration.
“We’re not trying to stack the commission with people who let the cops get away with crime or anything like that. We just want a fair hearing,” he said.
Former commissioner Jim Weeks, who joined the group after DeShazer and served as chairman at one point, said he viewed Wilkinson’s decision as “completely consistent with the philosophy of the commission” and took issue with the idea that the commission had previously lost the faith of the community or that it rarely supported the discipline brought by the chief.
He acknowledged the current commission to “carry the torch forward”.
“As far as the disciplinary hearings go, I think they’ve been consistent,” Weeks said.
Although Marcano said he thought the commission could still be improved, he largely welcomed the changes since DeShazer.
He said, however, he was concerned about the changes Jurinsky and the rest of the new conservative majority board might make to the group.
“The commission is kind of like a snapshot of the values of the board that appoints them,” Marcano said. “That’s why I’m very suspicious of this council’s efforts to change the number of commissioners.”
Weeks said commissioners during his tenure had at times faced intense outside pressure and even threats, particularly after the death of Elijah McClain – he recalled one public commentator in particular warning commissioners, “I know where you live.”
“But we don’t let that affect our decision-making,” Weeks said. “We try to decide based on who presents the best case.”