Search for Aurora’s next police chief marred by mistrust, lack of diversity

Aurora hasn’t hired its next police chief yet, but the position already is mired in controversy.

Six months after City Manager Jim Twombly fired the last chief, community leaders and some City Council members are raising concerns about a selection process they said felt rushed, lacked involvement outside the interviewing committee and failed to yield a wide breadth of candidates from different backgrounds.

The process yielded two finalists, but community leaders said they weren’t sure either is suited to lead the department as it struggles with chronic understaffing, a crisis in public trust, rising crime, fallout from multiple high-profile excessive-force cases, and the implementation of a consent decree following a finding that its policing is racially biased.

After hiring an outside firm to conduct a nationwide search, the city last week announced the finalists: a retired New Jersey State Patrol lieutenant colonel and the chief of staff of the Albuquerque Police Department.

Critics said the two finalists — both white men — did not seem representative of a city that is 44.2% white, 28.3% Hispanic, 16% Black and 20.6% foreign-born, according to 2020 U.S. Census data. At least one expert says that’s a hard task when it comes to executive positions in policing.

“Bless the hearts of these recruiters who probably did their best, but they don’t have the experience of what the citizens of Aurora have experienced,” said Topazz McBride, a pastor at Restoration Christian Fellowship who hosted a forum for the two finalists.

The city hired recruiting firm Public Sector Search & Consulting to conduct a nationwide search for a new police chief, and 21 applicants applied for the job, according to city officials. Of those applicants, 18 identified as men and three as women. Only five of the applicants did not identify as white.

The search firm recommended six semifinalists: four white men, a white woman and a Black man. The woman withdrew her application and the Black candidate did not advance to the finalist round, city spokesman Michael Brannen said. The city originally announced three finalists, but one — another of the white male candidates — dropped out of the process the day of the announcement.

Interviews included the city manager, deputy city managers and interim police chief.

Twombly declined a phone interview about the process, instead referring to a written statement that said he has “listened to the concerns from the community about the hiring process for Aurora’s next chief of police, and I want the community to understand I have an absolute, unwavering commitment to ensure that our police value, respect and serve every member of the community.”

“Whoever is hired, the next Aurora chief of police must address crime and lead the department to be a racially equitable, bias-free and culturally competent agency that is responsive to the residents, and I will hold them accountable to meeting that expectation,” he said.

Twombly said he will follow up with community leaders and others who interviewed the finalists and will have more information to share after a City Council meeting on Monday to discuss the recruitment process.

Aurora state Sen. Rhonda Fields, a Democrat, called the process a missed opportunity to include the community’s voices in such an important decision for the city.

“Once the consultants get paid and leave, the community remains here and we have to deal with the aftermath of their work,” she said.

The finalists

The search for a new police chief comes after a tumultuous three years for the Aurora Police Department, including the firing of the previous chief Vanessa Wilson in April after choosing her to take over the department following numerous high-profile controversies under the former chief, including the death of Elijah McClain after a violent arrest by Aurora officers.

Wilson worked to restore community trust, particularly among communities of color, and implement police reforms, but Twombly cited a failure to manage operations within the department and build morale among officers as the reason for her dismissal.

Supporters of Wilson decried the move as a political stunt to appease conservative members on the City Council. Her detractors said it was time for a change amid rising crime rates in Aurora.

The two finalists each have decades of experience in policing and rose through the ranks at their respective agencies. City staff did not make the finalists available this week for interviews by The Denver Post.

Scott Ebner spent his entire career rising through the ranks of the New Jersey State Police. He retired in March as the lieutenant colonel overseeing the administration branch, which manages the agency’s budget, promotions, training, recruitment and community outreach. He previously led the investigations branch and served as chief of staff to the agency’s top cop.

As one of the top officials in the agency, Ebner is named as a defendant in three lawsuits alleging unfair and discriminatory promotional practices at the New Jersey State Police. Two of the lawsuits were filed in 2021 and remain ongoing. A judge dismissed one 2017 lawsuit, New Jersey court records show.

One of the 2021 lawsuits was filed by four longtime female employees of the state police who alleged they were subject to sexist discrimination.

“Plaintiffs have been discriminated against because of their gender and related protected classes in employment with respect to promotions, assignments, selective enforcement of discipline and the manner in which they are treated, which has been hostile and retaliatory,” the lawsuit states.

Aurora officials did not respond to questions regarding the lawsuits.

Ebner has applied to be chief of multiple city police departments this year and was named a finalist in three cities: Honolulu, Hawaii; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Prescott Valley, Arizona.

In an interview recorded by the city, he said he would stay in Aurora for at least seven years if hired.

The other finalist, David Franklin, is the chief of staff for the Albuquerque Police Department, where he oversees special projects, building and planning, fiscal, human resources, staffing and relationships with the City Council.

Before joining that department in November 2021, he worked as the assistant chief of the University of Texas at Arlington Police Department after spending 25 years at the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Franklin said in his recorded interview that he could implement cultural change at the Aurora Police Department, even if it required firing people.

“I want to come to the community at some point and say, ‘Every police officer we have is awesome, they’re great, they’re good,’” he said. “But we know we have some apples in there that either need to get on board with change or they need to leave.”

Frustration and mistrust

Twombly will make the decision on which candidate to hire, but he needs the support of a majority of the council to confirm his decision.

Before meeting the candidates, Councilman Juan Marcano said he was disappointed at the lack of diversity among the choices, but that he was keeping an open mind. After he interviewed the candidates and attended the community meeting, he said from a policy standpoint, both candidates seemed to be well-meaning, “but I don’t think they have the understanding of the mistrust that our community has, the history of racialized policing in Aurora, and the history of why certain segments of our community feel that way.” In 2020, the four candidates for police chief understood how history affects perception in different communities, he said.

Ebner, according to Marcano, had an “East Coast kind of understanding of the history of policing” that doesn’t work for Aurora, and Franklin tried to “both sides” Aurora’s issues.

“There’s not really both sides to that history. It’s pretty cut and dry,” he said.

Councilwoman Danielle Jurinsky refused to participate in any of the interviews or meetings with the candidates, calling for a full restart of the recruitment process. She said she thinks the recruiting firm did an “absolutely abysmal job” and that city management did “an awful job vetting candidates and bringing candidates forward,” both of whom she believes are wrong for Colorado.

“I feel that the city and that council, especially council, has been cheated out of being able to make an honest decision, which therefore will impact the people of Aurora,” Jurinsky said.

Jurinsky said council members met with the firm and management at the beginning but were then left in the dark until the finalists were announced.

The city may not necessarily get a different result if it starts the search over, Marcano said, but he does want to involve the community more before deciding how to move forward and go beyond these two finalists.

However, not all council members feel the process was flawed. Councilman Curtis Gardner said he defers to the city manager — that’s how the search process is outlined in the city charter and how past searches have been conducted.

While Gardner said he wishes there were more finalists to choose from, he believes from what he’s heard from the finalists that they both seem well qualified.

“I only want to restart the process if we felt like one of these two candidates couldn’t do the job,” Gardner said, but he wouldn’t support it if it’s because of how the process played out.

As of Thursday afternoon, six people responded to the city’s survey asking for community feedback on the two candidates, records obtained by The Post show. Of those six, two said they preferred Ebner and two said they preferred Franklin — though many of the responses expressed doubt about both candidates. Two respondents didn’t state a preference and said the city should hire locally or recruit a more diverse candidate pool.

“Maybe look again for other more qualified candidates,” said one respondent, who identified as an Aurora Police Department employee. “These two may not be able to handle this particular job.”

Some community leaders also want city leaders to start the process over and integrate community feedback into the process before finalists are selected.

“The city should stop the rush,” said Lindsey Minter, a member of the now-disbanded Community Police Task Force.

Community members who spoke to The Post and who submitted questions to the candidates through the city expressed concern about racist policing, use of force, rising crime and recruiting good officers.

Minter wants a candidate with a proven track record of solving complex and high-profile problems like the Aurora Police Department faces and has faced in recent years. That person doesn’t necessarily need to be a minority or a woman, but it would be nice, she said.

“If you are a white candidate coming to police in Aurora, where we are majority-minority, you need to have experience working in a similar community,” she said.

Although the demographics have shifted — slowly — among police departments since the 1990s, increasing the number of female officers and Latino officers, the numbers have not changed much since then for Black officers, said David Pyrooz, sociology professor and researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“At the executive level, there’s certainly a divide, and this is cut by race as well as by gender, so the numbers (of applicants for Aurora chief) are pretty consistent,” Pyrooz said.

Pyrooz said not much research exists about executive-level police, their demographics and how that impacts communities, but the research that does exist is “really mixed.” Pyrooz believes community input is critical, especially in a time of crisis for a department, especially in the aftermath of cases like the death of Elijah McClain.

“The community wants to see themselves represented in those administrative positions,” he said. “I do think it’s really important to recognize that policing is a very male and white-dominated profession.”

That doesn’t mean there’s not a pool of candidates out there, though. Pyrooz said cities have to be intentional to reach out to diverse candidates and attract that talent.

McBride hosted a forum for the candidates on Tuesday morning and said she found their responses to questions to be very surface-level. She wants a strong leader with experience as a chief who will stand up to city management when necessary, will heal divisions in the department and who has sensitivity to the trauma Black people in Aurora have experienced at the hands of police.

She asked the candidates why they applied to this job with all the complexities it brings: an understaffed department dealing with rising crime, a lack of community trust, a consent decree and divisions internally and externally. Their responses were disappointing, she said.

“I don’t know that they have a full handle of what’s really going on,” McBride said.

Kirk Manzanares, owner of City Donuts, attended the meet-and-greet with the candidates that was hosted by the city Tuesday. He said the city needs a chief who can balance equitable policing and also effectively combat crime that has made Aurora the “wild, wild West of the Wild West.” He told both candidates to go to the bus stop at East Sixth Avenue and Dayton Street to see the drug use and petty crime he said is becoming more common in the city.

“I just want a decent, fair police chief who is going to come in and work hard at it and not give up — really give it all they got for three or four years,” Manzanares said. “Maybe that’s asking a lot.”

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