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Aurora police Chief Art Acevedo to resign after 13 months on the job

AURORA — Interim Chief Art Acevedo is resigning from his position after 13 months leading the Aurora Police Department, setting the city up for its fifth new police chief in as many years.

Acevedo joined the Aurora Police Department in December 2022 and will leave Monday. He said during a news conference Tuesday that he had hoped to stay in Aurora for two to three years and had been in discussions with city leaders over the past few weeks about “losing the interim title,” but that he wants to return to Texas to be with his family.

Every time he received a video of his son wrestling without him there, he knew where his heart was and that he wanted to get back home, he said, tearing up as he addressed reporters at the Aurora Municipal Center.

“Family has to come first,” he said. “It’s hard to leave because this is a special city.”

Acevedo led the department during a tumultuous time as the police agency reeled in the wake of Elijah McClain’s killing, worked to comply with court-mandated reforms under a consent decree, and saw significant turnover in its chiefs. He was also at the department’s helm when Aurora officers fatally shot 14-year-old Jor’Dell Richardson as they attempted to arrest him on June 1.

The Aurora Police Department has seen four different leaders in the last five years. Chief Nick Metz, who retired in 2019, was followed by Chief Vanessa Wilson, who was controversially fired in April 2022. Former Chief Dan Oates then briefly came out of retirement to head the department until Acevedo was hired as interim in December 2022 after a failed hiring process to find a permanent replacement.

Aurora interim Deputy Chief of Police Heather Morris (Provided by Aurora Police Department)
Aurora interim Deputy Chief of Police Heather Morris (Provided by Aurora Police Department)

City Manager Jason Batchelor on Tuesday named interim Deputy Chief Heather Morris as the next interim chief. Acevedo brought Morris into the Aurora Police Department in April after the pair previously worked together in Houston and Miami. Morris spent 22 years as a police officer in Houston, retiring in 2021 as an assistant chief. She briefly served as Acevedo’s second-in-command in the Miami Police Department.

“She’s been here. So I think she understands the challenges ahead of us and she can hit the ground running in that role,” Batchelor said.

Acevedo’s decision came about suddenly over the past few days, so the city plans to take a few weeks to figure out what’s next for its search for a permanent chief, Batchelor added.

Acevedo said he struggled to travel back and forth between his family in Texas and his job in Colorado during his tenure as interim chief, noting that he felt he would have needed to be more present in Aurora if he were to have taken on the role permanently.

“You cannot be a part-time chief,” he said. “…I don’t want to be a part-time chief.”

“Ferocious” battle with police unions

Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman on Tuesday praised Acevedo’s work as interim chief and said he “set us up on a positive trajectory in terms of the leadership in the department, effective strategies and bringing down the crime rate and extraordinary progress under the consent decree.”

He added in an interview that Acevedo’s “tough on crime approach” and youth intervention programs benefited the city. His Cuban immigrant family background helped him relate to Aurora’s large Latino population, Coffman added.

Acevedo said his resignation is “100% his decision,” and told reporters that he’s not leaving because of pressure from police unions or any other leaders.

Aurora City Councilwoman Danielle Jurinsky noted that it’s no secret that Acevedo and the agency’s two police unions have been involved in a “ferocious battle.” She said she hopes his departure will be a positive for Acevedo and the Aurora Police Department, though she worries that the unions’ respect for Morris is even worse than for Acevedo.

Marc Sears, president of the Aurora FOP Lodge 49, did not return a request for comment Tuesday.

Acevedo said he’s pro-labor but that police unions don’t speak for the whole force. Coffman told The Denver Post that there’s always a “healthy tension” between police chiefs and unions.

Acevedo’s tenure has been largely praised by city officials, but he did face criticism. Jurinsky cited Acevedo’s “big-city police department mentality” as both a positive — introducing good ideas for expansion and growth — and a negative — wanting changes that were not possible with a budget like that of Aurora’s.

There was also some strife between Acevedo and community members following the June 1 shooting of 14-year-old Jor’Dell Richardson.

Jor’Dell was carrying a pellet gun, not a real gun, when police officers shot him. Acevedo initially told reporters that Jor’Dell had access to a “semiautomatic firearm pistol,” then waited more than a week to publicly share that the object in question was instead a pellet gun, even though investigators at the shooting scene immediately realized the gun was fake.

“The Richardson family has been calling for Art Acevedo’s resignation after he misled the family and the community,” said Qusair Mohamedbhai, an attorney representing Jor’Dell’s family. “We hope that Aurora learns from its many previous mistakes in its hiring of police chiefs and finds the necessary leader the community deserves.”

When hired, Acevedo was expected to lead the department for six to 12 months. He came to Aurora after a six-month stint as Miami’s police chief. He was fired from that role after butting heads with city leadership, and had gone into the private sector. Acevedo spent decades as a police officer and years in leadership as police chief in Austin and Houston.

He was hired after Aurora struggled to find applicants for the permanent police chief position after Wilson’s firing — a process that was marred by mistrust and community backlash over the city’s process and finalist selections. At the time, city officials said they were taking a pause from the police search and removed the job posting for a new chief.

Thirteen months later, the job remains unposted and unfilled.

Aurora Interim Police Chief Art Acevedo answers questions during a press conference at the Aurora Municipal Center in Aurora on Jan. 16, 2024. Interim Police Chief Art Acevedo announced his resignation from the Aurora Police Department on Tuesday after leading the department for just over a year. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
Aurora interim police Chief Art Acevedo answers questions during a press conference at the Aurora Municipal Center on Jan. 16, 2024. He announced his resignation Tuesday after leading the department for just over a year. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

New search process to begin

Coffman said the process was delayed after the former city manager’s retirement, but after Batchelor was appointed as permanent city manager, he approached Acevedo about taking on the permanent chief’s role. Over the holidays, Acevedo came to the decision that he would leave.

The City Council has not yet launched a new search process, but Coffman said he likes the idea of a chief being selected to serve as an interim before the city decides whether it should keep that person in the role permanently, similar to how Acevedo was hired.

But for Candice Bailey, an activist in Aurora who previously served on the city’s Community Police Task Force, the rapid turnover in leadership has damaged the community’s trust in the police department.

“We’ve watched this cycle over the last few years, where someone comes in as the interim and there was no community voice or choice, and then we’ve watched the last two interims come in and literally undo every piece of (reform) work that has been done,” she said.

Despite the turnover and Aurora’s struggling reputation, Jurinsky said she thinks the city’s police “are so committed to their service to the city of Aurora and they have adapted to rolling with the punches.”

She opposes another hiring process that involves community forums and instead wants to see it handled similarly to how Acevedo was hired after the last failed public process, and chosen by the 11 members of the City Council who “were elected to be the voice of the people.”

“I don’t think that there’s anything positive that comes from letting the community activists help select our police chief. I think it is counterproductive,” Jurinsky said. “For these professionals that are applying to be with Aurora, I simply don’t think it’s fair to them, because it’s no secret some of (the activists) were absolutely on the front lines of defunding the police.”

But a search process without community input is not fair to Aurora’s residents, Councilwoman Crystal Murillo said.

Based on what Acevedo has told her, Murillo said, the work he did restructuring the police department and its leadership has been in support of the consent-decree reforms, and if that’s the case, that will be apparent in the coming months. Now, she said, the city has an opportunity to hire someone who wants to continue moving the department forward to maintain those cultural changes.

Morris will be sworn in as interim chief on Monday.