Dozens of Aurora community members, leaders and public officials gathered Thursday evening at the Dayton Street Opportunity Center in Aurora as acting police chief Daniel Oates shared his vision for the police department.
The room was filled with chatter as mothers held babies on their hips, some clenched notepads, while others sat and listened closely as state Sen. Rhonda Fields spoke into a mic and introduced the new chief as an old friend.
Oates spoke to the room packed full of attendees — including Aurora NAACP leaders, representatives from the Aurora Violence and Prevention Program, the American Civil Liberties Union, Advocates for Recovery Colorado and other activists and community groups. Several officers and sergeants from Aurora police districts were also present.
Oates acknowledged that the agency is in turmoil following the controversial ousting of former police chief Vanessa Wilson and a community riddled with intense violence and dealing with the fallout from the high-profile death of Elijah McClain in 2019.
Stabilizing the department
Oates said one of the most important things he can accomplish as chief is stabilizing the police department. He told the crowd his top priorities are to reassure officers, build bridges in the community and ensure the effective hiring of a new chief.
The department is currently down 50 officers and only has 12 community officers. Aurora officers are completing fewer traffic stops these days due to low manpower, Oates said.
Oates said there is no easy answer on how to build better relationships between the police department and the community.
“I’ll do the best I can and hopefully in the next few months we won’t have people fleeing the agency,” Oates said.
He said he’s also considering the formation of a cadet program in the Aurora police department, a move that would help get young folks directly involved.
“We basically need to take our resources and put it where the crime is,” Oates said.
Last November, 16 teenagers were shot in 20 days and there were 45 homicides in Aurora, according to the police department. Violent crime in Aurora has spiked about 30 percent so far this year from the first quarter of 2021. Homicides rose from six to 13 in the first three months of this year.
Mixed reactions from the community
Reid Hettich, 66, Pastor of the Mosaic Church of Aurora, described the chief as a “cops’ cop,” which might make the community nervous, he said. The church is housed at the Dayton Opportunity Center.
“We’ve been devastated these last several months with all the violence that’s been going on,” Hettich said Thursday. “I don’t want to go back to the way things used to be, but I think we’re in a situation now where we have to take a step back, to take a step forward. Chief Oates is the kind of guy that has credibility and people listen to him. I think the police and city council will listen to him.”
Oates will serve as acting police chief for the next six months while a national search is conducted. Next week, a search firm hired by the city will begin collecting community input regarding what the community wants in the next chief. Community members will have an opportunity to speak with the firm on June 14 from 6-8 p.m. at City Hall in Aurora. Spanish interpreters will be present. A survey will also be sent out.
Not everyone in attendance at Thursday's gathering was impressed with Oates. Brandon Rayburn, 49, of Aurora, said he believes the city needs officers to actually live in the community to effectively combat violence.
“This chief coming in here has a tough job on his hands because of so much violence,” Rayburn said. “But I think [Oates] is approaching it with a New York state of mind and I don’t think that’s the right approach. I think he’s putting fire to fire and I think that’s going to backfire, like it’s been backfiring out here.”
Following the consent decree and creating a proactive crime unit
Oates entered the position at the end of May after former chief Vanessa Wilson’s departure in April. Oates ran APD from 2005 to 2014, when he left to run the police department in Miami Beach, Florida. He retired from that position in 2019 and has been consulting ever since, including for police departments in Baltimore and St. Louis.
Oates said Thursday he has been meeting with individual units in the police department since taking the position of chief. He called Aurora’s recent spike in violent crime “disturbing.”
“There are more guns on the street today than ever before in American society,” Oates said Thursday. “We’ve got a real problem. Every statistic is a real-life victim.”
In addition to a consent decree ordered by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office in 2021, plans to form a proactive crime unit are also underway in the Aurora Police Department, Oates said. The team will focus on alleviating violent crime at certain points of the day when it’s most active. The consent decree came out of an investigation into the police department behind the McClain case. It will change use of force rules, disciplinary procedures and transparency and reporting requirements around police stops.
He said he also hopes to bring de-escalation training to the department within the next month.
You want to know what is really going on these days, especially in Colorado. We can help you keep up. The Lookout is a free, daily email newsletter with news and happenings from all over Colorado. Sign up here and we will see you in the morning!