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Report says Aurora Police Department investigations into serious crimes delayed due to records backlog

Report calls delays a "high-liability matter"
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DENVER – An independent report authored last month by a police records consulting firm found the Aurora Police Department had more than 2,500 reports still backlogged for investigation — a “high-liability matter,” according to the report — including reports involving child sexual abuse, murder and carjacking.

The report from PRI Management Group, titled “Interim project update,” is dated March 14 and strongly criticizes the recordkeeping process by the police department – saying some of the misfalls could put the department in a similar position as departments that ignored warning signs that led to mass shootings at a church in Charleston, S.C., and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.

PRI Management Group was hired to audit the department after an internal audit of APD’s Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act engagement, which found processes needed “improvement to increase accessibility and transparency, and APD did not always comply with rules or regulations.”

The PRI team made an onsite visit on March 7, according to the report, and found “an issue of significant concern regarding backlogged police records.” As of March 11, there were still 2,512 police reports that needed to be processed by the department’s record section.

“While the police department is aware of this, it has not assigned the level of urgency that it should and has taken insufficient steps to correct this high-liability matter,” the report states.

It goes on to say that this delay in processing of reports could lead to delayed follow-ups for further investigation.

Of the 2,512 cases that were still being processed at the time, nearly half of them (1,054) were from last year, including crimes involving forcible fondling of a child, child abuse, child cruelty, murder and carjacking, according to the report.

“As a result of the delays in processing police reports, violent crimes reported to the Aurora Police Department may not be investigated for months, enabling suspects who might otherwise have been investigated and taken into custody, to re-offend,” the report’s author, Ed Claughton, wrote.

During interviews, according to Claughton, employees all said they believed there could be serious crimes that were still left in the queue, and the consulting firm found there was “a near certainty” that violent crimes are being reported and not investigated quickly enough. The firm said typically, there should be no more than 50 backlogged cases.

“The Aurora Police Department would face significant scrutiny and liability in the event a suspect commits a murder or other violent crime who otherwise would have been taken into custody were it not for the transcription queue,” the report states. “It is administrative errors and failures such as this that lead [sic] to cases like the Charleston, SC church mass murder and the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, both of which would not have happened had law enforcement not erred in the processing of prior cases involving the suspects.”

The report said records department employees are getting angry calls from people frustrated by the delays, and that the department hasn’t worked to stop the backlog from growing — forcing records department employees to work on overtime while the backlog grows as more cases are reported.

“Ultimately, such failures are the result of a lack of leadership and accountability,” the report says.

It goes on to say that the “agency-wide assumption” is that the backlog is due to staffing shortages, but the author says that assumption neglects other contributing factors.

“In fact, our preliminary findings indicate the organizational structure and work schedule in Records are the primary causes of all the backlogs,” the report states.

It says there are several thousand court record seals and expungements that have yet to be processed; more than 1,000 public records requests that are still outstanding; and several thousand other quality control checks outstanding.

The report says the records department was split in two over the past two years – a law enforcement and operations side and a public window side. PRI Management Group wrote that the bisecting of the department was “improper.” It also said that it believes a police lieutenant overseeing the records department could have prevented such backlogs.

But in the meantime, the report suggests that amid “astounding” risk, the police department should put all available resources toward addressing the records backlog.

“The majority of employees in the Records Section should be entirely focused on and assigned accordingly until it is resolved,” the report says. “Resolving this backlog should immediately become the primary, overarching mission. While this backlog requires immediate resolution, approval of the reports should not be rushed.”

Other measures that should be taken to address the backlog, according to PRI Management Group, include having sergeants more closely scrutinize police reports to catch mistakes so they don’t have to be fixed by the Records Section; have the municipal court use Versaterm to cut down on physical records needing to be delivered to court; train officers how to locate reports still in the backlog; and give officers the ability to run criminal histories from their mobile computers without having to contact the records department.

Aurora officials say changes already underway after preliminary report

Aurora spokesperson Ryan Luby said as of Tuesday, the backlog was down to 1,252 pending reports – 721 being general offense reports and 531 of them being supplementary reports.

Luby said the report represented the initial report after one week of work by PRI Management Group and that the firm’s assessment was still ongoing. PRI will issue a final report once that is finished.

In a lengthy statement, Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly called the preliminary report’s findings “alarming.”

“The preliminary assessment of the Police Records section was alarming to me. The issues it identified are patently unacceptable. While the consultant discusses them in terms of liability, I see them as a risk and danger to our officers and the community,” Twombly said in the written statement.

Twombly said the internal audit into the records department, whose results were released in December, started last summer “at the direction of city management and Chief [Vanessa] Wilson.”

Twombly said after the auditor found ongoing concerns, he compiled members of Aurora’s Innovation Design Team to make recommendations on improvements, though they realized they needed help, which is when PRI Management Group was hired.

Twombly acknowledged there are “ongoing system vulnerabilities” despite the department working to expedite the processing of the reports, saying, “We can and must do better.”

“These are not failures that have occurred overnight,” Twombly said. “Nevertheless, it is the city management team’s responsibility to make sure there is a plan in place that prioritizes a swift, thorough and lasting resolution to these problems.”

Twombly said the department was already working to address some of the recommendations made in the report. He said a lieutenant with records management experience is now overseeing the Records Section and that people working remotely in that section are moving back to in-person work.

Twombly said the Records Section was going to be closed each Wednesday to the public so it can focus on the backlog, and that officers assigned to light duty are being trained on the process to help out temporarily.

The records department is also working to automate some processes and hiring more technicians and another supervisor, Twombly added, and prioritizing “significant cases,” he said.

“In many ways, the Records section is the backbone of Aurora’s criminal justice system. It is crucial to me that we find a long-term solution to the problems and get it right.”

The report was delivered to Aurora City Council on Tuesday morning, sources told Denver7 Investigates.

"It's a very serious problem and there must be accountability," Aurora Mayor Pro Tem Françoise Bergan told Denver7 Investigates after reviewing the report.

On March 23, Denver7 broke that Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson was planning on leaving the department in the coming weeks over concerns regarding her performance leading the department. The following day, Wilson's attorney Paula Greisen said the chief does not plan to resign or retire, but acknowledged that the city manager did request a meeting to discuss an exit strategy with the chief earlier this week.

“As of last Friday, outside counsel said there was no intention to terminate Chief Wilson, no intention to push her out at all. And then on Monday, the city manager called Chief Wilson … and said, ‘I want to talk about an exit strategy,’” Greisen said.

Sources told Denver7 that whether Wilson resigns, retires, or is fired, she will not continue as police chief moving forward. She has led the department since December 2019.

Greisen said in an interview Tuesday that the backlog issues existed before Wilson became chief and that the department needs more resources and a better effort to address it.

“Chief Wilson did not create this problem and she cannot be blamed for it,” Greisen said. “…It’s very difficult to have negotiations when you are trying to wipe the mud off your windshield. It hinders discussions. And so far, we have not seen a good faith effort to work and have productive discussions.”

City Councilman At-Large Dustin Zvonek, who chairs the council Public Safety Committee, called the report’s findings “shocking” and “appalling” in an interview Tuesday. He said it was “just another example of the systemic failure of the leadership in our police department.”

He also said that the release of the report was not an attempt to undermine police: “This is being brought forward because this is a serious issue for our community.”

“I think the buck stops with the chief,” Zvonek said. “And again, as I said, this is, to me, another example of the systemic failures of the leadership in this department.”

Zvonek said he was deeply concerned by the report and would be pushing for answers on how the backlog grew so large and what the city was doing to address it.

“I hope that there is accountability for any and everybody who was involved with not bringing this forward sooner,” he said.

Fellow Councilman At-Large Curtis Gardner echoed similar sentiments, saying he was concerned that there were hundreds of crimes that had yet to be investigated.

“The only thing I can say is I’m sorry. The city of Aurora has apparently dropped the ball for quite a long time. And I take it seriously; I take victims’ rights very seriously,” he said. “And it’s concerning to me that those families and those victims, there hasn’t even been an attempt at justice because they haven’t been investigated. I think all we can say at this point is I’m sorry and we need to do better.”

Gardner also said he didn’t believe the report was tied to any discussions about Wilson’s job status.

“In fact, the report that came out this morning was dated for the middle of March, and so it’s been outstanding well before the conversations between our city manager and the police chief took place. I think they’re separate matters,” Gardner said.

In a joint statement, Brian Mason, district attorney for the 17th Judicial District, and John Kellner, district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, said they were alarmed by the report.

“We have read the PRI report regarding Aurora Police Records Staffing and, suffice to say, we are alarmed," the joint statement read. "Our first concern is to ensure that the public – and specifically victims of crime – are protected. Failures in processing police reports of new crimes or processing reports in ongoing investigations must be remedied immediately to both protect the public and the integrity of existing cases. Once that is done, we urge city leaders to determine how these failures occurred and ensure that they do not happen again.”