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Aurora commission lowered standard for new police hires, emails show

“It’s a flawed system,” said Aurora City Councilwoman Danielle Jurinsky.
Posted: 7:12 PM, Apr 10, 2023
Updated: 2023-04-11 00:36:07-04
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AURORA — The commission responsible for hiring police officers in Aurora lowered its standards for part of new candidate psychological evaluations, according to emails obtained by Denver7 Investigates.

The Aurora’s Civil Service Commission is an independent board made up of citizens and appointed by the Aurora City Council. It is tasked in part with shepherding new police and fire applicants through the hiring process and making a final determination on who is hired.

For police officers, part of that process includes a Job Suitability Assessment, which includes a written test and a meeting with a psychologist. Prospective officers are given a grade ranging from 1A to 5F. Grades 1A to 3C are typically deemed acceptable to move forward with the process, while 4D and 5F are usually disqualified.

In between 3C and 4D, however, is a 3C- grade, which typically indicates that a candidate has some red flags, according to an expert. That grade can result in a candidate being disqualified, but a 2020 email from a civil service analyst shows that the commission thought otherwise.

“Brower Psychological originally advised the commission that most agencies consider a 3C- to be unsuitable however the commission chose to keep it as a suitable rating,” the email stated.

Brower Psychological is the firm that provided the evaluations for the commission between 2018 and 2022.

Aurora City Councilwoman Danielle Jurinsky, who also chairs the city’s Public Safety Committee, said the emails showcase a system that she believes is “shattered,” and said changes are needed.

“I think the emails prove it, that the Civil Service Commission allowed the standards to be lowered,” Jurinsky said.

Civil Service Commission Chair Desmond McNeal was not serving on the commission when the email was sent in November 2020, but he disagrees with Jurinsky’s assessment, saying he thinks the process works while adding that there is room for improvement.

“We’re a group of citizens trying to do the best we can with the information we get,” he said. “I don’t feel like we’ve lowered the standards. I think we’ve changed the standards to get a wider view of our candidates… No agency is perfect. What I will say is that we’re constantly vetting, changing and adjusting our process.”

The exam is also just one part of a lengthy hiring process. New recruits go through another psychological exam outside of the JSA, as well as a background check and several other steps before the commission makes a hiring determination.

McNeal feels there is room for some leeway with the JSA exam.

“Sometimes people have a bad day, and we don’t want to rule out good candidates for that bad day,” he said.

The Civil Service Commission has undergone scrutiny in the past. In 2021, an Aurora Police Department officer was seen on body camera pistol-whipping and choking a suspect. The officer, John Haubert, was hired by the commission in 2018 despite having a criminal record.

“One of the most important processes”

A company called Psychological Dimensions now handles the evaluations for both new hires and those transferring from other departments. Public Safety Psychologist Heather McElroy says a 3C- score means there are some potential issues and more information is needed, but it’s not an automatic disqualifier.

“I think the psychological evaluation is one of the most important processes,” McElroy said.

McElroy said that because of current Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) certification standards, she is able to make recommendations, but not a final decision on if an officer is fit to serve or not. POST states that a prospective officer must take a psychological evaluation but doesn’t require them to pass or meet a certain rating, leaving it up to each individual police agency to determine what is allowed.

“There is nothing that prevents an agency from hiring candidates that have been given a rating of a D or F,” McElroy said.

Denver7 Investigates asked a city spokesperson if it knew why the commission decided not to disqualify candidates who scored a 3C- on the exam and was told that there were no records of a formal discussion or vote by the commission.

“It is absolutely unacceptable that there’s no records,” Jurinsky said.

Questions about diversity 

Jurinsky said she believes the testing standards are tied to an effort to diversify the Aurora Police Department.

“I think that this push for diversity, equity and inclusion has taken over the hiring process, and we’re no longer hiring the best candidates in Aurora,” Jurinsky said. “People need to understand these officers, these bad actors, they’re not hired by the police department.”

McNeal adamantly disagrees with that belief.

“No, I don’t believe that we’ve lowered the test scores to get more diversity,” he said.

Jurinsky pointed to the city’s creation of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in 2020, the same year the internal emails regarding test scores were sent.

But McNeal said there are other reasons for the lack of diversity in the department.

“There is a distrust between communities of color in the city and the police department right now,” he said. “I think it hurts the amount of applicants we get that are diverse.”

Denver7 Investigates also obtained a spreadsheet through an open records request that listed candidates' first and last names, ethnicities and JSA ratings. Out of hundreds of applicants, analysis found that the city hired 11 officers off that particular list with a 3C- JSA rating.

Of those 11, four identified as people of color with the remaining seven identifying as white.

The latest figures from Aurora Police show white officers account for 76% of the department. Nearly 12% identify as Hispanic and roughly 5% identify as Black.

Those figures are mismatched from the demographics of the city, as just 44% of Aurora identifies as white (not Hispanic or Latino), nearly 30% identify as Hispanic and 17% identify as Black, according to census figures.

For comparison, 63% of Denver Police Department officers identify as white while demographics show that 55% of Denver residents identify as white (not Hispanic or Latino).

Changes on the way

Interim Aurora Police Chief Art Acevedo has run departments in other major cities in the U.S., including in Houston and Miami. But he says his current job is the first where he didn’t have the final say on new hires.

“Other agencies where I worked as police chief, I got to make that final decision, the final hiring decision,” he said.

In Aurora, Acevedo doesn’t meet new recruits until their first day at the academy, which he says creates difficulties for the department. He said he does not feel this current model is a good one.

“If the department is going to be held accountable, we need a bigger voice and a bigger say in who gets hired,” Acevedo said.

Starting next year, Acevedo will get his way. The commission chair said they are changing the rules to give both Aurora’s police and fire chiefs the final sign off on new hires.

The Civil Service Commission will continue to certify a list of qualified candidates, but under the rule changes, will work in partnership with the police department and human resources in determining new hires, according to a city spokesperson.

“The interim chief is going to get more say,” McNeal said. “That is going to happen.”

McNeal said the commission was created to avoid nepotism and is concerned that could be an issue moving forward.

“The civil service will remain as an oversight kind of group to try and prevent that type of thing from happening,” McNeal said.

An email from the city also states that the commission will remain active in disciplinary hearings for officers and will maintain a vital role within the city.

McNeal said the commission does not necessarily agree with all of the changes, but will continue to work hard for the city.

“I think the Civil Service Commission and both departments (police and fire) are working hard to regain the public’s trust,” McNeal said. “I think it’s a process."

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