An Aurora Police officer in riot gear June 27, 2020, at the Aurora Municipal Center. Thousands gathered to protest and pay tribute to Elijah McClain, who died last year after an encounter with three officers from the Aurora Police Department. (Philip B. Poston, Sentinel Colorado)

By Quincy Snowdon, Sentinel Colorado

The number of officers who left the Aurora Police Department last year rose by more than 60% from 2019, according to Human Resources data slated to be presented to a city council panel Thursday.

A total of 87 police personnel left or were jettisoned from the department in 2020 — more departures than in 2015 and 2016 combined — bumping the organization’s turnover rate to nearly 20% for the year.

That rate, which is calculated by dividing the number of departed workers by the average number of employees on payroll throughout the year, approached a three-fold increase over the same calculation from two years ago.

Aurora police averaged a turnover rate just north of 6.5% in the six years prior to 2020, according to departmental data.

The department currently employs just shy of 1,000 people, about 750 of whom are sworn civil servants. The current reported staffing levels still keep the city in compliance with its longstanding charter mandate to maintain two uniformed police personnel per 1,000 residents, though the ratio was reduced following union negotiations in the early 2010s. The city population currently hovers around 370,000.

The city council policy committee meeting at which the turnover data was set to be presented was postponed one week due to a lack of a quorum, according to Deputy City Manager Jason Batchelor. Council members Marsha Berzins and Curtis Gardner were unable to attend the planned meeting because of unspecified excused absences, Batchelor said.

The turnover figures are now planned to be publicly discussed on Feb. 25.
Snapshots of data captured by the city staffers during the off-boarding process provide glimpses into why officers parted ways last year, though because much of the distributed surveys are voluntary, the records are incomplete.

Still, a slightly more stringent separation survey indicates 31 officers retired in 2020 — more than double the number in 2019 — and 32 voluntarily resigned, with half of those declining to specify exactly why. A smattering of workers cited imminent moves, new jobs and medical reasons in their decisions to leave.

A slightly more informal exit query posed to departing officers showed that a quintet of former workers cited “working conditions” as a reason for leaving, and another five pointed to “overall leadership” to support their decision, according to city documents.

Less than a quarter of officers who left in the first 10 months of last year filled out that voluntary survey.

Murmurs of staff shortages among Aurora police ranks began percolating early last year following leadership changes largely precipitated by the a bungled internal investigation of an officer found drunk and passed out in his cruiser while on duty.

Local police were the continued subject of furor throughout the summer as protests repeatedly swept through the city and the death of Elijah McClain gained international attention nearly a year after Aurora police detained him in August 2019.

Police were condemned for using heavy-handed tactics to disrupt a violin vigil held to commemorate McClain in June, and again chastised a month later when they did not prevent demonstrators from causing hundreds of thousands of damage to the municipal courthouse.

In August, the department was again embroiled in an international scandal when officers erroneously detained a Black family, including two young girls, after incorrectly accusing a woman in the group of stealing an out-of-state vehicle.

At least eight officers were discharged from the department in 2020, several of whom endured high-profile scrutiny for various improprieties that led to their firings. A trio of officers were fired for taking and texting a derisive photo of themselves at a memorial commemorating McClain’s death, another was terminated after pleading guilty to driving drunk while off-duty in 2019, and another was let go for fudging overtime reports, to name a few.

Police Chief Vanessa Wilson on Wednesday fired yet another officer found to have lied about repeatedly leaving work early last year.

Police also tabulated one death in their departure figures last year after a 25-year-old officer was struck and killed while riding her motorcycle off-duty in September.

Marc Sears, president of the local department’s primary bargaining union, lamented the mass exodus of Aurora cops in 2020.

“We’ve been drastically affected by the officers that are leaving,” he said, citing the recent disbandment of a neighborhood bicycle unit he had been a member of for the past several years. “It’s just unprecedented. It’s really — gut-wrenching is a really good word for it. I’m very, very concerned for the citizens of Aurora, and I’m concerned for my police department.”

The recent civil service emigration marked an ongoing exacerbation of lingering concerns that local municipalities had been siphoning Aurora police for better pay and better benefits in recent years. Dozens of cops and firefighters jumped ship, many for better salaries in neighboring Denver, at the twilight of former Chief Nick Metz’s tenure in 2019, data showed.

“Frankly, I’m not interested in building a farm team for the Denver Police Department,” Metz said two summers ago.

Departures among the ranks of Aurora Fire Rescue were in fact down in 2020, with the department reporting its lowest turnover rate in the past six years. Nine of the 23 fire workers who left cited “another job” as their reason for stepping away, according to city documents.

A total of 20 Aurora police employees have left the department already in the first five weeks of 2021, data show. That’s 60% of the total number of annual departures from the department six years ago.

Two Aurora Fire employees left between Jan. 1 and Feb. 9.