In The Blue is a project of the Sentinel Colorado Investigative Reporting Lab. The Lab’s mission is to engage with readers, journalists, decision makers and residents around impactful accountability reporting that serves all communities of Aurora. The series is an extended look at local police reform and related issues.
By BRIAN HOWEY, Sentinel Colorado Investigative Lab Reporter in Residence (AP Storyshare)
AURORA | In its attempts to hire more police officers, Aurora is settling for candidates who scored poorly on their entrance exams.
The Sentinel’s analysis of the police applicant review process found that, since 2019, the Aurora Civil Service Commission voted to hire at least three Aurora Police Department officers who earned Ds on their overall entrance exam scores and another 17 officers who scored either a D or a C.
The commission has also considered at least 14 prospective officers who scored as low as 57.5 percent on their entrance exams — the academic equivalent of an F — eligible to advance through the application process, city records show. Though none of those candidates were ultimately hired, the commission’s vetting practices have alarmed some experts.
“That’s really scraping the bottom of the barrel,” said Wayne Cascio, an industrial psychologist and economist at the University of Colorado Denver, who pioneered the test-scoring system used by the department today. “They’re barely qualified to be able to get approved…You’re really handcuffing the department in so many ways.”
These low-scoring recruits comprise a significant portion of the tiny percentage of police recruits who are ultimately offered jobs.
Prospective officers’ individual scores are not public record under Colorado law, and the commission only produced records showing the overall score range for applicants, making it difficult to determine the specific scores of the 17 officers who got either a D or a C on their overall exam scores.
The low test scores come to light as the city struggles to comply with a consent decree that, among other requirements, mandates the 748-officer department improve the quality and diversity of its officers.
Aurora voters established the civil service commission in 1967 to ensure fair hiring and disciplinary practices at the police and fire departments. The typically five-person board, which currently has four members, is appointed by the city council.
Since late 2021, the commission has invited police department officials to vote on whether to hire specific applicants for police positions.
Last year, Aurora entered into a consent decree after an investigation by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office found the department had engaged in racially discriminatory policing practices, used inadequate use of force policies and was overwhelmingly white and male despite policing a racially diverse city.
The consent decree requires some of the commission’s responsibilities, including the final say on who is hired, be given to or shared with the department. Police brass said the commission’s low testing standards are one of many reasons why police need more control over the hiring process.
“I find it very concerning, and I think that the good men and women of the Aurora Police Department would share that concern,” Aurora Police Chief Art Acevedo said about the Sentinel’s findings. “I’d rather do more with less. I’d rather do more with quality individuals than to scrape any barrel.”
Former Civil Service Commissioner Jim Weeks echoed other commissioners in acknowledging that overlooking low test scores could allow “minimally qualified” applicants to become officers. But those commissioners say they’re responsible for filling police academies from a shallow applicant pool provided by department recruiters.
“We don’t [recruit], but we get blamed like we do,” Commission Chair Desmond McNeal said, adding that recent excessive force cases and other controversies have likely kept some qualified and diverse candidates from applying.
“The reputation of this agency is probably what’s harming it right now,” he said.
Applicants’ overall exam scores are calculated by averaging candidates’ scores on a multiple-choice video test and a personal assessment.
The personal assessment measures applicants’ work attitudes, integrity, biases, commitment to equality and how they would use force, test creators say. The video exam tests candidates’ judgment, and aptitude for public relations and teamwork by presenting applicants with hypothetical law enforcement situations and asking how they would respond.
Several applicants who recently took the test say one question presented a scenario in which a man attempts to stab a woman in front of responding officers. Applicants had just seconds to decide whether the officers shoot the man in order to protect the woman. The exam also tests candidates’ report-writing skills.
Other large Colorado cities have higher standards for prospective officers to advance in the application process. Ft. Collins and Lakewood police departments use a different entrance exam and require a minimum score of 70% to qualify for consideration. The minimum score on Colorado Springs Police Department’s applicant exam is 69%.
Denver’s Civil Service Commission, which uses the same testing company as Aurora and calculates overall exam scores similarly, does not allow applicants who scored below 65% on their overall exam score to become officers.
Aurora’s commission does not have a minimum overall exam score, McNeal said.
Using the testing company’s formula for determining overall exam scores, the Sentinel found that Aurora officers have been allowed to advance in the application process with scores as low as 57.5% — nearly 10% lower than Denver’s overall minimum score.
McNeal confirmed the Sentinel’s calculation.
In October 2021, the commission lowered the minimum score for the video exam from 65% to 63% after the National Testing Network, the company that developed the test, recommended the commission do so. Company representatives did not respond to requests for comment about the test.
With the department under scrutiny because of the consent decree, experts said, the city is putting itself at risk of hiring sub-par officers by allowing such low-scoring candidates to patrol the city’s streets.
“It doesn’t make any sense at all,” said Rick Myers, a retired police chief who has worked at departments in Colorado and other states, and former president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. “Given the history of conflict and inappropriate conduct with arrestees or members of the public that some of the officers in Aurora have been held accountable for, why would you accept people with a low performance in those critical areas?”
All 20 Aurora officers who may have scored poorly on their exams since 2019 currently interact directly with the public on patrol, department records show. Department officials and outside experts agreed candidates who score a C or better are not a concern.
>>>>>Minimally qualified officers
Entrance exams aren’t a catch-all filter for unqualified candidates, policing experts said. Chris Magnus, a former police chief and senior advisor at New York University’s Policing Project, stressed the importance of psychological exams, background checks and oral interviews in determining whether an officer is qualified. Aurora’s Civil Service Commission uses all of these vetting processes for police candidates. Still, Magnus said, the entrance exams are an important early indicator of basic competence.
“I would not feel comfortable as a chief being expected to bring candidates on board, even for further evaluation, that had clearly failed an initial test,” Magnus said. “You’ve gotta have a cutoff.”
City records show only three applicants from 2017 and 2018 whose names match officers on the department roster and scored between a D and a C on their final exam scores. But in 2019 and 2020, Aurora’s recruiting pool began to shrink and the commission began considering lower-scoring applicants for department positions in order to fill Aurora’s police academies, current and former commissioners said.
While commissioners said they were generally aware the commission had begun allowing lower-scoring candidates to advance, they said they never reviewed test scores when voting whether to hire officers. This is because commissioners use a blinded application review process that anonymizes applications to reduce bias in the hiring process, McNeal said, and seeing test scores could negatively influence commissioners’ decisions.
“We don’t know anything about their score at this point,” McNeal said, adding that commission administrators conducted test score reviews, not commissioners. “I have no idea who that person is until I interview them.”
The commission’s administrators compile prospective employment lists of candidates who scored high enough on the exam to continue the application process, McNeal said, adding that, until now, he thought he and his fellow commissioners only reviewed applicants from the “top-tiers” of exam scores.
“Why are we using a test if basically you can fail it and we still move forward?,” he asked. “It seems weird.”
Commission administrators said they are barred from speaking on behalf of the commission and declined to comment for this story.
Aurora’s 2022 consent decree followed a long history of scandalous incidents between the department and the public that made national headlines after the fatal stop of Elijah McClain by Aurora police officers in 2019.
Jeff Schlanger, founder of IntegrAssure, the company contracted by the city to monitor compliance with the consent decree, said his company is reviewing the city’s police hiring process, including the entrance exam.
“I have concerns about the test itself, and whether or not the testing is appropriate,” Schlanger said. “We need to make sure that, in fact, the exam is predictive of how one will do on the job as a police officer.”
Schlanger said he’s interested in analyzing the correlation between exam scores and candidate performance.
Requirements of the consent decree include improvements to the department’s transparency and accountability measures, revamping the city’s police recruitment and hiring processes, and increasing the number of non-white and women officers on the force.
Recent studies have found that Black, Hispanic and women officers are less likely to use force on civilians while on patrol — especially in predominantly non-white neighborhoods — with only minor reductions in violent crime arrests.
A study published in Science found that Black officers used force 32% less frequently and stopped 39% fewer Black civilians than their white counterparts. Most of those differences, the study found, related to discretionary stops and responses to minor violations.
While there are notable exceptions to these findings, including the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by five Black Memphis police officers earlier this year, experts and reform advocates have long stressed the importance of diversifying police departments as a way to help establish and maintain trust between non-white communities and police.
After a U.S. Department of Justice investigation in 2009 found the Aurora Civil Service Commission’s hiring practices discriminated against Black and women police and fire applicants, the commission adopted a video-based entrance exam paired with a system of grouping test scores, called banding. Video exams imitate the visual learning style officers experience on the job, while banding treats statistically similar exam scores as equal.
In the early 1990s, the San Francisco Fire Department contracted Wayne Cascio, the industrial psychologist, and his colleagues to implement a new testing system for its candidates after Black and women applicants sued the department for its racially biased and sexist hiring practices.
By using the video test and banding, the fire department significantly increased its share of Black and women firefighters, Cascio said. Subsequent studies have found banding reduces racial and gender disparities historically found in standardized testing outcomes, especially among Black and women applicants.
Despite its use of this system, Aurora’s attempts to diversify its police force continue to lag. The proportion of Black officers on the force has barely changed since 2009, when the U.S. Department of Justice reported that Black officers made up just 4.1 percent of the department’s sworn staff.
According to a September demographic report, 4.2 percent of sworn department employees are Black, despite Black residents comprising 16.6 percent of the city’s population. Less than 11% of sworn officers are women.
A recent IntegrAssure report on the city’s civil service commission hiring practices found poor communication between the department and the commission about recruitment and hiring outcomes. According to the report, neither agency collects enough data on recruitment results or why candidates drop out of the application process or quit the police academy.
The report recommended numerous changes to the city’s civil service hiring practices, including consistent follow-up with police applicants, data collection on candidate drop-outs, and reassessment of minimum requirements for police and fire recruits.
On March 13, the Aurora City Council voted 9-1 to give responsibility for overseeing background checks of police and firefighter candidates to the city’s Department of Human Resources, cutting some of the commission’s oversight over the hiring process.
In December, the civil service commission relaxed some of the automatic disqualifiers in its officer hiring process, including allowing applicants who report recent drug use, certain honesty and integrity issues and deferred DUI judgments on their applications.
Policing experts and local stakeholders believe addressing inherent biases in previous disqualifiers could make jobs more accessible to people of color, who have historically experienced disproportionate exposure to the criminal justice system.
>>>>>>A history of recruitment woes
Aurora’s recruitment struggles date back nearly 20 years.
In 2007, former Chief Dan Oates appointed Sgt. Paul Poole to head the department’s recruitment efforts. Poole, who is Black, said he was reluctant to take the position because he had been unimpressed with the department’s ability to recruit people of color and women.
“There just didn’t appear to be the financial commitment to improve the recruiting at that time,” Poole said in an interview.
But under his direction, Poole said, the team began implementing more aggressive recruitment strategies, visiting church groups with predominantly non-white congregations and LGBTQ+ events, competing with corporations at career fairs and announcing at out-of-state recruitment events that the department wanted people of color and women to apply.
Meanwhile, Poole said, he persuaded his supervisors to fund his new initiatives, even as the 2008 recession forced many departments to scale back recruitment efforts.
Poole said he was transferred to patrol in 2009 after his recruiting tactics irked a supervisor. That year, the department cut recruitment funding in half, the U.S. Department of Justice investigation found. Poole said many of his team’s recruiting initiatives were scuttled after he left.
Even when the department is flush with applicants, only a tiny fraction of police candidates pass the application process. Last year, less than three percent of applicants were offered jobs, civil service commission hiring data show. More than 72 percent of candidates were disqualified for issues that included recent drug use, DUI convictions and failing background checks. Another quarter of applicants left partway through the process.
Due to the lack of follow-up and data collection related to applicant attrition, neither the commission nor the department knows why so many candidates drop out of the application process, and the department’s applicant pools have continued to shrink.
The commission received more than 1,500 applications for entry-level police officer positions in 2017, commission records show. Though its applicant pool briefly ballooned in 2021, the department drew only 1,018 applicants last year. Commissioners said this made it difficult to fill police academies at all, much less with a diverse candidate pool.
“That’s a recruitment problem,” McNeal said. “When you bring that to the commission, you’re blaming us for something that we don’t do.”
The commission did not hire any Black officers in 2019, city data shows, compared to three multi-racial officers, eight Hispanic officers and 20 white officers. In 2021, the commission hired four Black officers, five Hispanic officers,10 multiracial officers and 41 white officers. The city does not report what races multi-racial officers identify as.
Of the three current and upcoming police academy classes, seven cadets are Black, one is Asian, one is multiracial and eight are white, a department representative said. Five officers chose not to share their demographic information. About 18 percent of cadets are women, and one cadet did not disclose their gender.
In its January report, IntegrAssure found that Aurora had fallen behind on two mandates of the consent decree related to recruitment and hiring, including that the city transform its hiring practices to create a more diverse workforce at the police and fire departments.
IntegrAssure also noted shortcomings regarding mandates that were on-track to meet the deadlines of the consent decree. One requires the department develop a written outreach plan for contacting community leaders and stakeholders in order to diversify recruitment and find qualified new officers that are “committed to community-oriented policing.”
“There has not been significant progress” on this mandate, the monitor found, because the department was focused on a national recruitment campaign and out-of-state recruiting trips. The monitor expects a completed recruitment plan in time for the next report in April, the report said.
If the monitor or the court determine the department hasn’t complied with the requirements of the decree, the decree could be extended. Other cities under similar consent decrees, such as Oakland, Calif., have spent decades struggling to comply with requirements.
The department has also begun funneling more resources into luring officers from other departments, Acevedo said, a strategy that has become increasingly popular as police agencies struggle to hire civilians. Last year, the city spent at least $56,000 to send recruiters to New York City, Albuquerque and Atlanta to coax officers at those police departments to leave for Aurora.
Fifteen NYPD officers have applied for police jobs in Aurora, a department spokesperson said. Three of those officers were hired, and four more are in the background check process for an upcoming academy class.
The department received one application from an Atlanta officer. It has not received any applications from its trip to Albuquerque. A department representative said recruitment is a “long game,” and recruiters don’t expect immediate results from these trips.
“The whole country struggles with recruiting,” Cmdr. Sam McGhee of the department’s professional standards bureau said. “You gotta be competitive today.”
The pandemic and shifting attitudes toward policing have added extra challenges for recruiters, experts and department representatives said. Recruiters were unable to host in-person events for much of the the pandemic, and increased scrutiny of policing nationwide has made becoming a police officer a less desirable career path for some.
The department is at a competitive disadvantage compared to other police agencies, Acevedeo said, because Aurora doesn’t have defined retirement benefits for officers. These conditions have created a “perfect storm” of recruiting challenges, he said.
Aurora PD’s reputation is also a factor.
Multiple high-profile incidents, including racist comments made by officers toward Black residents, controversial detainments and uses of force against Black children and fatal police shootings have dominated headlines in recent years. Recruiters sometimes have to grapple with this notoriety when speaking to potential recruits, McGhee said.
“We want to be very pragmatic about that and own up to and cop to the issues that we’re facing,” McGhee said. “It serves nobody to water that down or sidestep those issues.”
McGhee’s team is reinventing its recruitment strategies, he said, by visiting military bases and colleges and planning more out-of-state recruitment trips. The department has also committed to hiring more women, with the goal of achieving a 30% female workforce by 2030, joining a national “30X30” initiative.
According to a recent press release, the department plans to include more women in recruiting ads and at public events, highlight the achievements of women officers, and recruit at events geared toward women.
After listing his plans to revamp the department’s recruiting strategy, Acevedo pushed back against assertions by commissioners and experts that the commission’s lowered standards are related to the department’s recruitment efforts.
“You can’t criticize us for who we put in the assessment stream,” he said. “We don’t have a magic eight ball to say, ‘Hi, are you gonna be a D?’”