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Special investigator recommends changes to Aurora PD in wake of drunk officer controversy

Posted at 11:32 AM, Mar 12, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-12 20:34:50-04

AURORA, Colo. — In an independent review of an Aurora case involving a drunk, on-duty officer found at the wheel of his patrol car, a special investigator recommended that the Aurora Police Department make multiple changes to its policies.

The 329-page independent review by former U.S. Attorney John Walsh was released Thursday morning in connection to the Aurora Police Department’s (APD) handling of a case involving an officer found incapacitated in a department vehicle in March 2019.

The document includes a review of APD’s response at the scene and hospital, plus the subsequent investigation and disciplinary actions.

Aurora officer Nate Meier was found passed out drunk at the wheel of his patrol car in March 2019. He was on duty at the time. The car was in gear, but his foot was on the brake, according to police reports. Deputy Chief Paul O'Keefe, who was the first APD member to get to the scene, noted that Meier’s head was slumped to the side and the car doors were locked.

In early February, 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler said he could not press charges because prosecutors didn’t think they had enough evidence to prosecute Meier. An internal affairs report showed that Meier had apparently consented to a blood test — which was returned showing he had a BAC of .430 — and he admitted that he had gone home and drank vodka that day while he was on duty. But Brauchler said his office couldn't use this as evidence because Meier only shared this information with the department's internal affairs investigators. Summed up, prosecutors cannot use compelled evidence given up by the subject of an internal affairs investigation in a criminal investigation. Read more about this decision here.

City Manager Jim Twombly commissioned Walsh’s independent review after learning about the incident in December 2019.

Walsh said he concluded that the high-ranking members of the APD made “significant errors of judgment” in the way they handled this case. While APD members made “critical missteps,” Walsh did not find enough evidence to conclude that the failures were the result of improper motives.

READ MORE: ‘He’s a little intoxicated’: Body camera shows response to Aurora officer found passed out drunk

“Rather, they reflect failures of judgment and decision-making that APD members interviewed considered to be a failure of leadership, which altered the course of the response to the incident and have had the effect of undermining the public’s confidence in APD,” Walsh wrote in the report. “Notably, at each stage of APD’s response, APD members themselves raised concerns about the appropriateness and adequacy of APD’s response."

In his review, Walsh summarized his findings, starting at the time officers responded to the incident.

He said APD’s response was appropriate for a call regarding an officer in distress, but was “materially incomplete” as a response to a traffic incident and potential officer misconduct. Deputy Chief O’Keefe was in charge of the response and should have let the officers at the scene conduct the investigation instead of acting as both a leader for the incident and an investigator, Walsh said.

Meier’s medical situation wasn’t clear at the scene or the hospital.

During this time, O’Keefe made decisions against APD taking steps to pursue a criminal investigation and an Internal Affairs Bureau investigation. Walsh said if that hadn’t happened, police would have collected enough evidence to pursue a criminal investigation and criminal charges against Meier. But O’Keefe had called off the investigation prematurely, he said.

In the wake of the incident and amid public outcry, O’Keefe withdrew his consideration for the role of interim chief with the department in December 2019.

Walsh said two officers told Aurora Police Chief Metz that the way O’Keefe had handled the situation should be investigated by the Internal Affairs Bureau. Metz did not take action to address those concerns, which Walsh said was “inappropriate.”

Metz did, however, demote Meier, which was in his legal discretion and was approved by the city manager’s office. Still, Metz’s decision “failed to take into account the totality of the circumstances surrounding the incident, and failed to consider fully the impact on the community and public safety,” Walsh said. This had a negative impact not only on the department internally, but in the public’s perception of APD.

The evidence shown throughout the case didn’t appear to be an intention to obstruct justice, but rather failures of judgment, decision-making and, as some APD members described it, leadership, Walsh said.

Based on his findings, he made multiple recommendations:

  1. Requiring criminal investigations if an APD officer is suspected of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol, is driving on or off duty at the time or had recently, and is in possession of a firearm. After the incident, APD revised its policies to include this.
  2. Consulting with the district attorney’s office if evidence appears to show an APD member is or was under the influence while operating a vehicle or in possession of a firearm. The district attorney’s office will advise on investigative steps.
  3. Referral to outside law enforcement agencies in cases where APD members are suspected of serious criminal misconduct.
  4. Separating APD members with roles in the Wellness Unit or Peer Support Program from members in investigative roles while responding to an incident involving an APD member. They should recuse themselves from one of those roles.
  5. Increasing the use of independent review boards. The chief should always consider an Independent Review Board as part of the disciplinary process to foster transparency in cases of serious misconduct. This also applies to cases that have a significant community impact.
  6. Clarifying APD policy regarding the consequences of an officer DUI. Language in the department's Directive Manual should clarify that an arrest is not required to sustain a finding of a DUI.

Vanessa Wilson, who was selected to be Aurora’s interim police chief in December, pledged to show transparency in her new position. She said she recognized that she was stepping into the role during a turbulent time but would work “tirelessly” to regain the community’s trust. She became interim chief on Jan. 1.

Mayor's reaction

Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman said the city will follow up on the recommendations.

He agreed there was "incredibly bad judgment" on the part of the previous police department command staff.

"It was obviously a very unfortunate incident," the Mayor said. "It was a system of justice not afforded to the average citizen and an embarrassment to our city, but today I feel confident that we have a path forward to make sure that this never happens again."

This is a developing story. Denver7 is working on reading through the rest of the document and will update this story.