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IN THE BLUE: Aurora commission says rehiring controversial canine officer justified

Green resigned from the Aurora Police Department and joined the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in July 2021 after his role in McClain’s death was made public.
This screen grab from body cam footage shows the moment that Officer Green threatened Elijah McClain with getting his K9 unit from his patrol vehicle to "dog bite" McClain. APD Bodycam Screengrab

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 citizens around impactful accountability reporting that serves all communities of Aurora. The series is an extended look at local police reform and related issues.

AURORA | Members of Aurora’s Civil Service Commission say they were aware of Matt Green’s involvement in the 2019 incident that caused the death of Elijah McClain and stand by their choice to reinstate the officer in December.

Green resigned from the Aurora Police Department and joined the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in July 2021 after his role in McClain’s death was made public. While McClain was restrained on the ground by Aurora police, Green threatened the 23-year-old by saying he would have his police dog bite McClain.
Harold Johnson, who chaired the commission when it approved Green’s re-hire late last year, said his first thought when he heard about Green’s threat toward McClain was of the use of police dogs to terrorize civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s.

“When they said that he brought the dog, my mind went directly to that police officer’s snarling German shepherd, where he’s holding it up, and it’s on his hind legs, looking like a wolf, and getting ready to bite a person,” Johnson said. “When we initially started, I said, ‘No, he can’t come back.’”

But because Green did not follow through on his threat, and because Aurora police say the threat of unleashing a dog is an acceptable way of discouraging resistance by detainees, Johnson and other commissioners said, the commission ultimately supported allowing Green to return.

“The dog was never deployed. It never came out of the car. Officer Green … was not screaming and hollering, or cussing, or beating up and putting knees on people,” Johnson said. “(The media) sensationalized things. If he deserves to not come back or be fired, then everyone who was on scene has to be fired.”

An independent panel tasked by the city with analyzing McClain’s fatal encounter with police wrote in a 2021 report that Green was disciplined and removed from APD’s K-9 unit following the incident.

Community leaders and activists slammed the decision to reinstate Green last month, warning that it would undermine efforts to reform the city’s troubled police department. McClain’s mother said in response to the news that “everyone that was there that night and did nothing to help my son stay alive are all accessories to my son’s murder.”

Green was not among the officers and Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics indicted in 2021 for criminally-negligent homicide, manslaughter and other crimes in connection with McClain’s death.

Through a records request, The Sentinel learned that the commission voted unanimously on Dec. 13 to reinstate Green. Desmond McNeal, who replaced Johnson as chairperson at the end of December, said the decision to reinstate Green “was not taken lightly.”

“I can tell you that I voted ‘yes,’” McNeal said. “First of all, we have a problem finding police officers. But there was also nothing in the paperwork to tell me that I shouldn’t reinstate this guy. … That (threat) was common practice at the time that he did it. So he didn’t operate outside of the rules and regulations of the police department.”

He and city staffers said reinstatements, as well as entry-level police hires and lateral hires, go through a multi-stage process involving an evaluation of candidates’ employment history, driving record, criminal background and other documents.

Once a candidate applies to become a first-time cop in Aurora, the city’s corps of nine civil service investigators — all former metro-area police officers, according to city spokesman Matthew Brown — begin looking into the individual’s background.

Investigators consider records from the Department of Motor Vehicles, U.S. military and courts, along with a candidate’s credit history and presence on social media, Brown said. The candidate’s birth certificate, high school and college transcripts, and vehicle insurance and registration are also verified.

Investigators also review job suitability reports and the results of polygraph tests as well as interview character references and past supervisors.

As for applicants for civilian jobs and applicants who work currently as officers at another agency, Brown said the Aurora Police Department conducts background investigations in a manner similar to the civil service investigators, which he described as a “complete and thorough background investigation process.”

The commission is less involved in processing these applications, tasked only with verifying qualifications related to state Peace Officer Standards and Training Board certification and checking whether or not the candidate has accumulated three years of related experience in the past four years, as required by the City Charter.

Prospective reinstatements, including Green, go through an investigation by the police department where records related to a person’s personal and professional background are examined, including:

•  National Crime Information Center / Colorado Crime Information Center criminal and civil histories.

•  Colorado Courts criminal and civil histories.

•  Police decertification database information.

•  Past Aurora police internal affairs files.

• Local, state and national police databases and records.

• Financial information, including open and closed bank accounts, history and statuses; payment histories; bankruptcies; past and present debts assigned to collection agencies.

• Social media and internet information.

• Fingerprint records.

• Employee evaluations from the two years prior to the candidate’s reinstatement request.

• Driving records.

• Information included in the department’s records management system.

Brown said police also interview the candidate’s current law enforcement agency or employer supervisor as well as their past APD supervisor, along with current and former coworkers listed as references.

Once the background investigation process is complete, the results of the investigation are presented to the city’s Civil Service Commission. For entry-level hires, if a candidate is approved to progress in the process, they would next be interviewed by commissioners and police.

For reinstatements, the results of a background check are also presented to the commission, which along with the police chief and deputy city manager has the discretion to require further screening or request an interview. Commissioners said no interview was conducted in Green’s case. 

Aurora police could not immediately confirm whether the department’s internal canine policies had changed since the McClain incident.

Other recent changes mean that the Civil Service Commission’s role in the hiring process will soon be scaled back, with more power vested in the police department itself, but at least for now, the commission has the final say in hiring newly-certified and returning cops.

Reinstatements currently require candidates to receive a letter of recommendation from the deputy city manager and Aurora’s police chief — in Green’s case, Jason Batchelor and Dan Oates.

McNeal and commissioner Barb Cleland both said Councilmember Danielle Jurinsky, who was elected in November 2021, was also among those who recommended Green.

“There were just a lot of people that had sent letters in saying that he had done a great job,” Cleland said. “And his background, when we did the background check, it was fine.”

While the commission’s rules don’t bar city council members from submitting recommendations on behalf of candidates, McNeal said the intervention of Jurinsky in Green’s hiring made him uncomfortable. 

“I was the first one to say in the group, when I saw the packet, that it seems inappropriate that a city council member’s name is on here,” McNeal said of the materials presented to the commission regarding Green.

Commissioners are appointed by a majority vote of the City Council and may be removed by a supermajority of eight. One of the purposes of civil service commissions such as Aurora’s is to ensure that the hiring of police and firefighters is a merit-based process that takes place without meddling from elected officials.

“You could make the argument that some of the people in the room might say, ‘Oh, there’s a council member’s name on here. They want this to happen.’ … The question becomes, if we don’t do it, what happens?,” McNeal said.

Providing context for McNeal’s concerns was Jurinsky’s reaction to the firing of police officer and then-Aurora Police Association president Doug Wilkinson in 2022, after Wilkinson mocked the department’s diversity policies in an email to other officers.

Former police chief Vanessa Wilson has alleged in a lawsuit that Jurinsky asked her to reverse the firing of Wilkinson, which Wilson declined to do, and that Jurinsky retaliated against Wilson for this and Wilson’s other efforts to promote police reform by orchestrating Wilson’s firing.

A few days after the commission upheld Wilkinson’s firing, writing in its decision that the former APA president had “denigrated and showed hostility toward women and minorities,” Jurinsky asked about the logistics of dismissing commissioners in a council committee meeting.

Jurinsky did not respond to multiple attempts by The Sentinel to set up an interview.

The Sentinel has formally asked the Aurora Police Department for all application information submitted by and on behalf of Green. Currently, the agency estimates that requests submitted under the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act will take 24 weeks or longer to process.

Green applied for reinstatement during the administration of former interim police chief Dan Oates. Aurora’s current interim police chief, Art Acevedo, said he did not learn of the hiring of Green until after it would have been possible for him to get involved in the process.

Acevedo said the decision to threaten McClain with a police dog was an example of a common though controversial tactic used by police across the country to stop individuals from fighting officers. However, the chief also questioned whether McClain was actually resisting police at the time Green made his threat.

“I can’t tell 100 percent, but it doesn’t appear to me that Elijah McClain is doing much in terms of resistance,” he said. “I really didn’t see it at that point. It almost appears like he was already pretty much under control. … If he’s completely restrained and under control, that would not be a circumstance in which you would use that tactic.”

The independent panel behind the 2021 report on the McClain incident wrote that the conduct of nearby officers indicated McClain was not resisting at the time Green made his threat.

One of the officers restraining McClain had only his left hand on the 23-year-old as Green spoke, while adjusting his badge with his right hand. Another one of the officers who initially responded was cleaning his hands with a wipe.

“Neither officer’s conduct suggested any movement or resistance from Mr. McClain during this time,” the panel wrote. “The body worn camera audio did not reflect any sounds suggesting movement or vocalizations by Mr. McClain.”

Acevedo said he understood why community members were angry, but that the department didn’t want to “hide” Green by assigning him to a non-public-facing role. He said Green was resuming the duties of a normal patrol officer.

The chief said he hoped the public would not judge the majority of Aurora police for the controversial personnel decisions made last month, which also included the promotion of Nate Meier, who in 2019 escaped DUI charges after passing out drunk behind the wheel of his police vehicle.

“We should not paint them with a broad brush based on the decisions of the leaders. I don’t think it’s fair to those men and women,” Acevedo said.
Most if not all commissioners, however, stand by their choice to allow Green to return to the force.

Cleland said that if Green had demonstrated a pattern of problematic behavior while serving as an Aurora police officer or later as a Douglas County deputy, they likely would not have allowed him to return.

“If we had seen in his background that he’d been written up, he probably would have not been allowed to come back,” Cleland said. “But he had a very good record with APD. And he had a good record in Douglas County. And those are the things we look at. It was even a comment that, in Douglas County, he asked questions about situations. To us, that was like, ‘Well, you know, maybe he learned something.’”

The Sentinel last week submitted requests for available internal affairs records involving Green to APD and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. As of press time, those requests were still pending.

In The Blue series is produced by Sentinel staff journalists Max Levy, Philip Poston, Carina Julig and Kara Mason with investigative journalists in residence Brian Howey and Trey Bundy.