Aurora police relaunches team dedicated to targeting violent crime

AURORA, Colo. —- Outfitted with specialized training and concealed identifies, there’s a new team of Aurora police officers who will be tasked with targeting violent crime in the city.

In June, under the guidance of interim chief, Dan Oates, the Aurora Police Department relaunched its Direct Action Response Team (DART).

The team was first launched in the early 1980s but was disbanded in 2016 when the department had to restructure.

Now, DART’s relaunch comes as the city arrives at a crossroad. The former police chief, Vanessa Wilson, was fired back in April and there’s been a series of national controversies, many of which pertain to Aurora police: the death of Elijah McClain, the pistol-whipping of Kyle Vinson, and a Black family handcuffed on hot pavement, to name only a few.

The city’s violent crime rates are also steadily rising.

“Obviously, we have made some mistakes in the past, all of which we have acknowledged,” said Commander Kevin Barnes. “We’ve been very transparent and upfront about those. As a result, we have made a massive overhaul in terms of how the department operates.”

Barnes is a commander with APD’s Special Operations Bureau. He now has direct oversight of DART along with other specialized units of APD, such as the Gang Intervention Unit (G.I.U).

The “overhaul” Barnes referred to is the court-monitored reform process, otherwise known as a consent decree.

Commander Kevin Barnes

Denver7 photojournalist Drew Smith

Commander Kevin Barnes will have oversight of APD’s Direct Action Response Team. Barnes is an18-year veteran of the department.

The decree began last year for APD to address “patterns and practices” of racism and excessive force, according to a lengthy report by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser.

The reform efforts are being monitored by the outside firm, IntegrAssure.

Barnes said he’s hopeful as the consent decree continues, DART can make progress with tackling rising crime rates.

According to the city’s mid-year crime statistics, from the start of the year through June, almost all violent crime has increased compared to the same time frame, last year.

Murder has increased by 35%, aggravated assault by 27%, and robbery by 21%.

In early July, APD began accepting applications for its latest specialized unit. The department told Denver7 from a pool of 36 applicants, 12 were chosen. Money and personnel for DART were reallocated from other APD resources.

The new team will use a combination of uniformed and plainclothes officers. In addition, team members will have access to unmarked and marked patrol vehicles.

Most of DART’s work will be undercover, Barnes explained. Therefore the identities of members must remain concealed. Currently, one of the team’s supervisors identifies as Latino; one member is a woman and an alternate member is also a woman.

Official training began on July 12, and DART began working on July 27.

Denver7 was invited for an exclusive look at the team’s training for arrests and vehicle pursuits.

Pit Maneuver Exercise

Denver7 photojournalist Drew Smith

Members of APD’s Direct Action Response Team practice PIT maneuver exercises in late July.

IntegrAssure told Denver7 it’s been at much of the training to ensure updated policies are being followed. Jeff Schlanger, President of IntegrAssure, said the firm is currently working with APD to modify policies on use-of-force to “come in line with best practice”.

“Once policies get modified, then so too, does training,” said Schlanger.

Schlanger explained InegrAssure’s work could result in other changes for Aurora police, “We are [also] working with the city on pursuit policy as it relates to uses of force. Use of force really has to do with the power of the police to utilize force when needed, and when appropriate under the constitution to effect either a detention or an arrest. That really is what use of force is about — and that can happen in a vehicular situation as well, and you can imagine how a pursuit or re-pinning is related to that.”

While Aurora’s patrol officers focus on daily calls for service, DART is tended to take a targeted approach, explained Barnes.

“We had to reorganize and come up with a concept to be able to combat that type of crime or criminal elements,” said Barnes. “It’s not that patrol lacks the ability, patrol is the backbone of any police department. That’s, you know, common knowledge for anyone working in law enforcement. The fact of the matter is the resources that we have at the patrol level are limited, mainly staffing. With that being said, those individuals are essentially tied to calls for service … a call drops and they (patrol officers) have to respond to it. DART, on the other hand, is a proactive unit to go out and address the needs … in terms of the rise in violent crime within the community.”

Aurora’s interim police chief Dan Oates has indicated reducing crime is one of his top three priorities.

Members of Aurora’s Black community weigh in

During a time of nationwide calls for greater police accountability, conversations surrounding Aurora police are noticeably strained — no matter the political ideologies of those behind the discourse.

In particular, published media reports such as this one, highlight the tension between Aurora Police and members of the city’s Black community.

Pastor Thomas Mayes, founder and pastor of Living Water Christian Center in Aurora, said he is not a supporter of the “defund the police” movement, but believes the department’s reform is long overdue.

Pastor Thomas Mayes

Denver7 photojournalist Drew Smith

Pastor Thomas Mayes sits inside the chapel at Living Water Christian. Mayes founded the church in 1990.

Of previous scandals involving the department the pastor said, “I’ve not been surprised at any of them. In all actuality, those types of things have always been going on the only difference is now we have documents, we can document it that is being done.”

Mayes, an outspoken critique of the department, also has an extensive history of trying to help APD improve its interactions with Aurora’s Black community.

He’s a member of two city-sponsored programs: Aurora Community of Faith and Key Community Response team.

“I want the police to be there to serve and protect me, but I want them to respect me as well,” he said.

Mayes said he believed the DART team could make improvements to areas in the city struggling with violence, but he hoped the individual “character” of each officer on the team, was scrutinized.

“I want the crime to stop, I want to see a decrease and I want to get it back to where it was eight years ago, but at the same time, I want to make sure that we feel safe when on the street,” he said. “That our community, our people, our young men don’t have to watch out for the gang-banger and the police.”

When questioned about the qualifications and disciplinary history of DART officers, Barnes said, “We checked their evaluations for the last, you know, several years to ensure that everything was above board, in terms of the ability for these officers to interact with members of the community. That is the hope and the expectation, in addition to the directive, in which we are providing members of the new DART team.”

Shana Shaw, a community organizer and founder of the nonprofit, Compound of Compassion, said she hoped the new team would be “community informed”.

Shana Shaw

Denver7 photojournalist Drew Smith

Shana Shaw, a community organizer and founder of the nonprofit, Compound of Compassion, wears her son’s picture on a necklace.

“That’s where the breakdown is, there’s no relationship with police and community,” she said. “You respond to these young Black men out of fear, because you don’t know how they’re going to react or who they are, but when you have a relationship with a person, you can have a conversation which is always a de-escalation to any situation.”

Shaw’s son, Abel, is currently incarcerated in Arapahoe County and awaiting further court proceedings for his role in a 2018 aggravated robbery.

Now, she wears a small necklace with her son’s photo and speaks unabashedly about her son’s circumstances.

“He is one of four violators of the law, in his case, and he is basically laying in the bed that he created, you know, at the time,” she said.

Shaw said her son’s case gave her new perspectives on how to improve relations between the police and the Black community.

After the 2018 crime, and before his incarceration, Abel Shaw began volunteering in the community, according to his mother.

“The involvement in the community that he did and the relationship that he built with officers. It gave me a little bit of peace,” she said. “I knew [officers] knew him by name. So if they were to encounter him, it would be a conversation that they could have, because they had a relationship with him.”

Policing aside, Shaw said she felt the City of Aurora would benefit from assessing available resources in high-crime areas.

“If you’re coming into a community and you want to address violent crime, you have to first find out why people are committing the crimes [and] you’re going to find out that it’s because of a lack of resources,” she said.

DART Team’s Early Results

Commander Barnes told Denver7 the Colfax and Mississippi corridors had become crime “hot spots” in the city.

Both areas are within the boundaries of District 1 and District 2 for APD.

Barnes predicted some of the DART team’s future arrests would be in both of these areas, but he emphasized low-level crime offenses wouldn’t be a priority.

“We’re not just going out and randomly seeking the person involved in some of the more, lesser crimes, you know, shoplifting, things of that nature, but [we’re] identifying individuals who are wreaking havoc and terror within the neighborhoods themselves,” he said.

Within the first two weeks of its official launch, DART made 22 arrests, six of them being felony offenses. The team has recovered 12 stolen vehicles and seized three guns and a little more than 20 grams of fentanyl.

“We’re going after those guys and taking them off the streets,” said Barnes.

While auto theft is classified as a property crime, Barnes said DART can make strides to address it.

Aurora’s mid-year crime stats indicate auto theft has risen by nearly 36% in the city.

“It’s our duty to go out and try and rectify that situation,” he said.

On July 28, DART members arrested two juveniles who committed armed robbery and a carjacking.

Calls for Open Dialogue

Increased crime in Aurora is in no way a phenomenon, much less, an isolated one.

According to an exhaustive report by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, “Despite politi­cized claims that this rise was the result of crim­inal justice reform in liberal-lean­ing juris­dic­tions, murders rose roughly equally in cities run by Repub­lic­ans and cities run by Demo­crats.”

Shaw, Mayes and Barnes all said “open dialogue” would be a key factor in addressing violent crime and improving relations between the community and police.

“It goes back to, you know, making yourself available, and being present to the community and building that line of trust,” said Shaw. “So when there are things happening that actually need the law, then people feel comfortable coming to [police] and reporting that.

“The only way to be able to combat the current crime trends in which we’re facing is to have a collaborative effort with the police department, specifically the DART team, along with the community members — we can’t do the job alone,” said Barnes.

Mayes said moving the city “forward,” wouldn’t be easy, but could be done.

“There’s going to be some friction with the all the changes, [such as] the DART team and the consent decree, but we can’t be afraid of that friction because that friction is what makes us move forward,” he said.

Before her interview concluded, Shaw took a deep breath and paused, “You have to hold on to that, the hope that, you know, we can commune and be in a space together.” she said.

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