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A week after an Aurora police officer shot and killed Jor’Dell Richardson, a crowd of 200 or so protestors swelled in front of the Aurora Municipal Center. It was June 9, and chants of “Justice for Jor’Dell!” pierced the early evening air. One protestor held an upside-down American flag bearing the names of more than 100 victims of police violence from across the country jotted along the length of Old Glory’s stripes; another clutched a bundle of white sage—its smoke, in some spiritual traditions, is used as a tool to heal and purify. SWAT team officers monitored the gathering from the facility’s roof as calls for the resignation of Art Acevedo—Aurora’s interim police chief and fifth boss in four years—periodically emanated from the crowd.
Richardson, a 14-year-old Black teenager, died after an Aurora officer shot him on June 1 in an alley behind a strip mall on East Eighth Avenue and Dayton Street. Richardson and four others had robbed a convenience store, and police said Richardson threatened the store clerk with what appeared to be a semi-automatic pistol. The teens fled when the cops arrived, and Richardson refused to comply with officers’ demands when they pursued him.
On the front steps of the municipal complex, behind a lectern adorned with photos of Richardson, Siddhartha Rathod, a lawyer representing the family, addressed the protestors. “Our Black and brown children have to have the ability to make mistakes and have the same opportunities to surrender and not be shot but to breathe,” he said. Richardson’s family acknowledged that Jor’Dell had made a mistake, but one for which the adventurous teen with an infectious laugh didn’t deserve to die. He’d just finished eighth grade at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, where he was a star basketball player. Not long after Rathod’s remarks, a pastor beseeched the Lord for justice and change, and Richardson’s 19-year-old brother, Anton, crumpled into his father’s arms and wept.
The community had been through this before, most notably in August 2019, when Elijah McClain, a Black, 23-year-old massage therapist, died after having been restrained by Aurora first responders. Less than a year later, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, McClain’s killing—as well as the shooting death of Breonna Taylor by police in Louisville, Kentucky—became the impetus for a national referendum on police reform.
To the protestors gathered on that June day, Richardson’s death was just the latest example of the racist and violent tactics of a police department plagued by such abuses for years and proof that nothing had changed. “He was murdered,” said Jason McBride, a gang prevention specialist in Aurora, as he surveyed the crowd chanting Richardson’s name. “It’s the same thing by the same police force. It’s something that our community has had to deal with far too often. And at some point, you know, we’re going to erupt.”
About two hours earlier, Acevedo, 59, had held a press conference on the second floor of the Aurora Police Department Headquarters. Acevedo was sworn in on December 5, 2022, as interim chief and charged with keeping the peace in Colorado’s third most populous—and most diverse—city, which hems in Denver to the east and spans 161 square miles across three counties and vast political chasms.
In an attempt to clarify the circumstances of Richardson’s death, Acevedo played—and made public for the first time—the footage from the body cameras worn by the two responding officers that day. “What I’m going to do this afternoon, in the spirit of transparency, I’m going to provide the community an overview of where we’ve been, where we’re at, then we’ll release body-worn camera videos of the two primary officers engaged in foot pursuit of Jor’Dell,” Acevedo said as he began his 90-minute presentation. After reviewing a detailed timeline of the incident, he finally rolled the footage, which he had shown the family privately three days earlier.
At 4:22 p.m. on June 1, officers Roch Gruszeczka and James Snapp pulled up to a group of five Black teenagers gathered in front of the Dayton Dollar Mini Mart in west Aurora. Despite the mild spring weather, most of the boys wore sweatshirts with the hoods drawn tightly around their heads, medical masks, and gloves. They had arrived at the scene in a stolen Kia minivan, which was parked in the alley behind the strip mall.
Security camera footage of the teens inside the store from minutes earlier—and subsequent police interviews with the store clerk—revealed Richardson had flashed a weapon to the cashier and demanded vape cartridges, Acevedo said. The group also ordered another customer to stay inside the store while the robbery unfolded.
Body camera footage of the officers’ arrival showed the teens scattering. Snapp and Gruszeczka jumped out of their SUV and chased Richardson, which is when he ran into an alley behind the strip mall, pumping one arm like a sprinter while holding something near his waist with the other. “Stop! Get on the ground,” Gruszeczka shouted. Richardson didn’t comply.
Within 16 seconds, Snapp tackled Richardson. “Stop, please. You got me!” Richardson said. Around the same time, in the background, Gruszeczka, who had by then caught up to them, shouted, “Gun! Gun! Let go of the fucking gun. I’m going to shoot your ass!” as they all wrestled on the ground. Gruszeczka later said he felt Richardson’s fingers on the grip of the teen’s pistol, which had slipped under Gruszeczka’s bulletproof vest. A split second later, the officer fired a single gunshot into Richardson’s abdomen. As the teen moaned, Gruszeczka tossed away what looked like a handgun, apparently the item Richardson had been holding as he ran. Only 26 seconds passed from the time the officers left their SUV to when Gruszeczka shot Richardson.
By 4:24 p.m., Richardson had lost consciousness, and Gruszeczka radioed for help. The officers began CPR. Sirens blared as EMTs arrived. Minutes later, as Gruszeczka walked away from the scene, he muttered, “God, please be with that kid.”
Acevedo’s press conference, along with the release of the body cam footage, did not help quell the community’s outrage over the killing. Richardson’s gun, Acevedo revealed that day, was not what it had seemed: It was a pellet gun, albeit one that looked identical to a semi-automatic 9 mm handgun and was capable of lethal force. Richardson’s family was made aware of the information just minutes before the press conference. They felt blindsided and misled.
Acevedo also provided information about the officers at the press conference. “Neither one of the officers has significant use-of-force issues, incidents, or significant disciplinary histories,” Acevedo said. But he failed to mention that, in February 2023, the city of Aurora had paid out $100,000 to settle a civil case against Gruszeczka and two other APD officers accused of racial profiling and the violation of constitutional rights during a 2018 arrest.
During the press conference, Acevedo stood by his officers. But for some, the body cam footage provoked more questions than it answered and that threatened to jeopardize any progress the department had made over the previous three years. The incident raised many questions: Was changing the culture and policing tactics within APD even possible, and what would it mean for Aurora’s citizens if it were? And was Acevedo, who had survived other controversies in his career, the right person for the job?
“The city of Aurora is in crisis,” said activist Maisha Fields, who runs the Dayton Street Opportunity Center, a community space that serves as a nonprofit incubator as well as ground zero for Fields’ public health advocacy efforts. It was June 1, and as we chatted about the city and the APD, the center buzzed with people prepping for a gun reform rally. Little did we know that just a few hours later, five blocks away, Jor’Dell Richardson would be shot and killed.
A lifelong Aurora resident, Fields, 45, is the daughter of Colorado state Senator Rhonda Fields, and the two share a passion for civil rights. Fields described a city in disarray, noting that since July 2022, Aurora had lost its fire chief, school superintendent, and city manager. The police department, which has 638 sworn officers, has an interim boss in Acevedo.
As a result of increasing mental health issues, economic hardship, and the instability of the city’s leadership, Fields said, there’s been a surge in violent crime in recent years, reaching record levels in 2022. “This entire year has been about interim people, a lack of leadership. And when you think about how we fortify our cities, it is with strong leadership, and we have not had that,” said Fields, who is also a member of the Community Advisory Council, or CAC, a group of 12 Aurorans who provide feedback on the city’s police reform efforts to the Office of the Independent Consent Decree Monitor.
Much of the upheaval is fallout from Elijah McClain’s death in 2019, which pushed the Aurora police into the national spotlight and spurred the subsequent examination of the department’s history and practices. In August of that year, a citizen called 911 to report that McClain—who was waving his arms, dancing, and wearing a ski mask while walking home from a convenience store at 10:43 p.m.—looked “sketchy.” McClain died after APD officers used a now-banned carotid chokehold to subdue him, Aurora paramedics injected him with a large dose of ketamine, and he suffered cardiac arrest. The public was infuriated when then police chief Nick Metz declined to fire the officers involved and prosecutors didn’t bring criminal charges against them.
McClain is one of 27 people who have died at the hands of the APD since 2013, according to Mapping Police Violence, part of a national nonprofit focused on ending police violence and reforming current law enforcement policies and practices. The situation in Aurora is emblematic of a series of troubling incidents across the United States, with Black Americans being killed by police at 2.9 times the rate of white people over the past decade, also according to Mapping Police Violence.
By June 2020, a change.org petition calling for justice for McClain had garnered three million signatures. As protestors took to the streets in Denver, Aurora, and across the country demanding police reform after George Floyd’s death, Governor Polis intervened and directed Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser to investigate the McClain case under the auspices of Senate Bill 20-217. The Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act, which Polis had just signed into law, expanded the state attorney general’s power to investigate police misconduct, among other sweeping law enforcement accountability measures.
In September 2021, Weiser released the findings of his 14-month investigation in a 118-page report: “Aurora Police has a pattern and practice of racially biased policing, using excessive force, and failing to record required information when it interacts with the community.” The AG’s report found that the APD unfairly targeted minorities, particularly Black individuals, in nearly every type of police contact with the community. According to the report, Aurora had paid out more than $7 million in settlements from 2008 to 2018 for excessive force and constitutional violation claims against the APD.
Weiser also convened a grand jury, which, in September 2021, charged three APD officers and two paramedics involved in McClain’s death with 32 combined counts of criminally negligent homicide, manslaughter, and various assault charges. One month after Weiser made the findings of his investigation public, Sheneen McClain, Elijah’s mother, reached an agreement with the city for a $15 million civil settlement.
The attorney general’s office not only decided to prosecute the McClain case but it also asked that the city of Aurora, under which the APD falls, enter into a consent decree, a legally binding civil agreement that outlined several areas of reform—including use of force, racial bias in policing, accountability, and transparency—that needed to be addressed within five years or the city of Aurora would risk legal action. The consent decree also highlighted more than 70 specific actions—such as de-escalation training, hiring more minority officers, and creating a transparency portal detailing police actions—that must take place, and it mandated that the city hire an outside agency, or monitor, to track its progress. Almost as soon as the city announced it would enter into the consent decree, pushback from Aurora police officers began.
On November 16, 2021, Doug Wilkinson, a patrol officer and president of the Aurora Police Association, one of two police unions in Aurora, sent an email to approximately 235 APD officers criticizing the consent decree. In particular, he denounced its attempt to diversify the force (about 25 percent of APD officers currently identify as a minority, according to Acevedo), categorizing the efforts as favoring “non-whites” and “non-males,” a practice he called sexist and racist. “We could make sure to hire 10% illegal aliens, 50% weed smokers, 10% Crackheads, and a few child molesters and murderers to round it out,” he wrote. “You know, so we can make the department to look like the ‘community.’ ’’
At the time, there was a new police chief at the helm of the APD: Vanessa Wilson, a 24-year veteran of the department and its first female chief. Wilson was promoted to the top spot in December 2019, replacing Metz, who retired shortly after McClain’s death. She was quick to put Wilkinson on administrative leave and eventually fired him in February 2022, saying in a release that his email violated “the City of Aurora’s Anti-Harassment Policy and the Aurora Police Department’s Directive regarding Discrimination, Harassment and Sexual Harassment.”
Wilkinson’s termination was one of many Wilson carried out in her efforts to reform the department. In June 2020, photos emerged of three APD officers mocking McClain’s death by re-enacting a chokehold in front of the memorial that had been erected where McClain had been detained; they texted the pictures to other officers, including Jason Rosenblatt, who was on administrative leave for his involvement in the McClain incident. Rosenblatt responded “ha ha.”
An APD officer named Justin Parker found out about the photos and reported them to a supervisor, prompting Wilson to fire three of the officers involved in the photos; another officer resigned. What was almost as disturbing as the photos themselves was how Parker was treated after outing them.
Two years after leaving the APD, Parker, who is 39 and an Air Force vet who served in Afghanistan, said that once the photo scandal broke, other officers refused to show up to help him in dangerous situations. He was called a snitch. His colleagues put sticky notes on his locker that said “rat” and stuffed a pair of cut-off patrol pants with a homophobic epithet scrawled across the front inside his locker. Fellow officers wouldn’t speak to him at the station. Leadership at the highest levels, he said, failed to intervene. “It was psychological warfare,” he said. The environment became so toxic, Parker said, that he attempted suicide.
Paul Poole, 70, a retired APD sergeant who has been outspoken about issues of race within APD, echoed some of Parker’s descriptions of the department. Tall, with a commanding presence, Poole was the fifth Black officer hired by the force when he started in 1981; during his 41-year tenure, he said, he encountered a culture of both overt and implicit racism, misogyny, and homophobia. As a Black officer in Aurora, “It was difficult,” he said. “It was go along to get along. If you speak your mind, you’ll have problems.”
Upon his retirement in December 2022, Poole sent an email to the entire APD as well as select city officials, calling out an “ ‘underbelly’ of behavior” that had plagued the APD—and law enforcement in general—for years, including: “ ‘good old boy’ networking systems; the undermining/diminishing of others; acceptable inefficiency, and prejudice.” He cited unnamed officers in the APD who targeted minorities for “sport” and others who were “virtually and literally dangerous on a variety of levels to the community and to the profession.”
During her 27-month tenure, Wilson tried to clean up the APD’s culture. She rolled out de-escalation and DEI training. A 2021 report found that 35 of 744 APD officers accounted for 40 percent of misconduct investigations. And during her time as chief, at least 213 officers resigned, retired, or were fired, 26 over misconduct claims. But Wilson’s efforts to reform the department and regain the community’s trust, combined with her leadership style, made her unpopular with APD officers.
On September 30, 2021, union members voted 442 to 16 against Wilson in a no-confidence vote. Six months later, under intense political pressure from conservative City Council members, then city manager Jim Twombly fired Wilson. (Wilson filed a notice of intent to sue the city for wrongful termination late last year.) A 2022 Denver Post editorial cautioned that Wilson’s firing sent a “chilling” message to future APD chiefs: “Don’t rock the boat, don’t clean house, and maintain the status quo if you want to keep your job.”
On a Friday night in late May, Acevedo sped down Montview Boulevard to help apprehend a man suspected of first-degree murder. He was the only Spanish speaker available and, following weeks of investigative work by the APD’s Major Crime/Homicide Unit, was called in to interpret a warrant for a suspect who’d allegedly shot and killed a 26-year-old man in a fit of road rage.
I’d wanted to observe APD policing up close, so weeks earlier, Acevedo had invited me to join him on a seven-hour ride-along. “Transparency breeds trust,” Acevedo told me at one point during our 10 hours of interviews over a five-month span.
Around 8 p.m., we pulled up to a small, single-story ranch house about a mile east of the Stanley Marketplace. On-site were a half-dozen officers from the gang unit and Direct Action Response Team (DART), a recently relaunched group that actively targets violent crime. Acevedo hopped out to chat with two of his men, while I stayed in the department-issued Chevy Tahoe.
It can be unusual for a chief, or any command staff, to be out on patrol, but it’s a trademark of what Acevedo called a “lead from the front” approach. Four days after being sworn in, he went out on his first patrol. “They need to see us, feel us out there with them,” he said of the value it brings to staff morale. It also gives him an opportunity to observe his officers’ work.
A few minutes after exiting the vehicle, Acevedo returned to my window. “He confessed,” he said. “He said the gun’s here.” After debriefing with some of the officers, Acevedo got back into the Tahoe. “That was good police work,” he said. “That’s our second murder suspect picked up today.” Then he shouted like a satisfied uncle out the window to his officers: “Proud of you guys.”
Over our seven hours together, Acevedo assisted in a drunken dispute between two cousins and then explained—in Spanish—to several Hondurans, who’d been pulled over for driving suspiciously and were living in the United States without documentation, how to get an ID at the consulate. Acevedo also responded to a robbery at a liquor store on Peoria Street (a false alarm) and helped with a car crash on East Colfax Avenue, where an elderly woman rubbernecking recognized Acevedo from a community meeting.
“All we’re ever exposed to is when a police officer screws up, betrays the oath of office,” Acevedo told me. “What we don’t see, between those horrific incidents across the country, is the hundreds of thousands of times they do the right thing.” He lamented the binary way in which many people view policing. “The issues that we deal with are complicated,” he said. “It’s not black and white.”
At one point, we stopped by his office at APD Headquarters. It featured a Darth Vader figurine, some pictures of his family, and a photo of Acevedo with his pal Shaquille O’Neal, one of several celebrity friends he’s collected over the years. We walked the halls of HQ, and Acevedo pounded fists and joked with his troops. “I love cops. I love cop humor,” he said as we pulled away, the bluish tint of his mobile dispatch computer washing across his face.
Over the course of the evening, I met about a dozen officers, nearly all white men. There was a former long-haul trucker, an ex-farmer, and the son of a cop. Most of them felt called to the profession by a genuine sense of duty, and that responsibility had been tested during the 2012 mass shooting at Aurora’s Century 16 theater in which 12 people died and 82 were injured. One of the officers told me he “always wanted to put bad people in jail.” Another said that over the years his motivation had changed from the thrill of the chase to making sure his fellow officers “are doing their jobs right.”
They said the consent decree and SB-217 had initially worried officers, but once they understood the reform efforts and their implications, it really hadn’t changed the way good officers were policing. It was the bad cops and some veteran cops, who’d come up in a different time, they said, who were most resistant to change.
Late in the evening, an officer who recently became the father of premature twins texted a photo of the preemies, still in the NICU, to Acevedo. “Right on. Twenty days old. Wow. That’s so sweet,” he said with a smile. With all the high-fives, backslapping, and endorsements of him from officers during our patrol together, it wouldn’t be difficult to think that Acevedo is among the most popular police chiefs in the country. But that’s not the case, and indeed, Acevedo has been dogged for years by controversies.
Acevedo was sworn in as chief of the Miami Police Department (MPD) in April 2021. Billed as a reformer, he’d come from Houston, and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez went so far as to call Acevedo the “Tom Brady or Michael Jordan of police chiefs.”
Upon his arrival, Acevedo made changes to MPD leadership and implemented various reforms, including to the internal affairs unit, which investigates police misconduct. But according to media reports, the department and city officials didn’t take a liking to his actions and outsize persona, and by October 2021 the Miami city commission fired him.
Acevedo argued that he was terminated for being a reformer and a whistleblower. During his time in Miami, Acevedo uncovered “a pattern of unlawful use of force by officers” that was, at times, covered up by the chain of command, he wrote in a September 2021 memo to the Miami mayor and city manager. He also accused city officials of thwarting his reform efforts and of corruption.
In January 2022, Acevedo took his grievances to a federal court, where he filed a whistleblower lawsuit, which is currently being litigated, against members of Miami’s city government. (In September, one of Miami’s city commissioners was arrested on corruption charges unrelated to Acevedo’s case.) The imbroglio wrought a toll on Acevedo—and his reputation. “Speaking truth to power can be very complicated, and quite honestly, it can be very painful for the person doing that,” he said. “But that’s what you’ve got to do to be an effective leader.”
Acevedo’s worldview can be traced to his experience as a Cuban immigrant. Born in Havana in 1964, Acevedo and his family moved to the United States when he was four-and-a-half and settled in Los Angeles. Life in Castro’s Cuba, Acevedo said, taught him about tyranny and injustice and made a fighter out of him. “Having lived in a country where everything was taken from us,” he said, “my parents raised us to stand up for ourselves, stand up for others, and stand up for what’s right.”
He took those pugilistic tendencies with him to the California Highway Patrol, where he started his career in 1986 and stayed until 2007. In 2004, it was reported that explicit photos of Acevedo and a female fellow officer, with whom he allegedly had an affair nearly 10 years earlier, were found in his patrol car.
The woman filed a $5 million sexual harassment lawsuit against Acevedo that claimed he had shown the photos to fellow California Highway Patrol officers, according to a 2004 AP article. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit. Acevedo denied he kept any explicit photos or ever showed such photos to others. In 2008, another judge awarded Acevedo nearly $1 million after he filed a lawsuit against the California Highway Patrol related to the photos. But the episode was a stain on his reputation, one that has persisted.
In 2007, Acevedo left California for Austin, Texas, where he became the city’s first Latino police chief and was tasked with instituting 160 reforms mandated by the Department of Justice related to police misconduct and racially biased policing, which he’d inherited from his predecessor. According to Ken Casaday, former head of the Austin Police Association, Acevedo achieved nearly all of them. But in 2016, an Austin police officer shot and killed a Black teenager, potentially undermining Acevedo’s legacy of change, which had garnered him national attention.
Acevedo met with then President Barack Obama in 2016 to discuss police reform and sat on a racial justice panel with Joe Biden at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. Acevedo preached the gospel of community policing, the importance of transparency, and the power of accountability. After George Floyd’s death in May 2020, he marched in the streets with protestors and penned a Washington Post opinion column. “Moving our profession forward,” he wrote, “begins with a sustained commitment to accountability.” He brought his signature maxim, “You lie, you die,” to all of his departments. Although his critics panned him as a media-obsessed narcissist, he became one of the most recognized police chiefs in America—one who now has more than 93,000 followers on X, previously known as Twitter.
While the controversy around the shooting was unfolding in Austin, Acevedo left to become the chief of the Houston Police Department, one of the largest departments in the United States, with more than 6,500 officers. (Acevedo was Houston’s first Latino police chief as well.) But adversity followed him to Houston, this time in the form of a no-knock raid gone wrong in 2019. Four officers were shot, and the two homeowners were killed in the raid, which had been executed based on false information allegedly provided by a Houston police officer. Critics blasted Acevedo, saying his positions on police brutality, accountability, and transparency were at odds with his handling of the case.
Two years after his departure from Houston, Acevedo detractors in Texas still speak of him with reproach. According to Christopher Rivera of the Texas Civil Rights Project, Acevedo “has done nothing to hold police accountable for the violence they impose on our overpoliced communities.” Doug Griffith, the president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, said, “I’m glad he’s not our problem anymore.”
Reforming a police department is a balancing act. Do too much and you risk estranging your officers; do too little and you risk alienating the community. Acevedo faced a tall task as he worked to set APD on track to meet its consent-decree mandates. Most notably, he had to implement better training as it pertains to use of force, create clearer expectations of appropriate police behavior, and improve leadership. In other words, he had to rebuild the place from the ground up.
Upon arriving in December 2022, Acevedo conducted a survey that assessed his officers’ opinions of their leaders. Forty-seven percent indicated they “did not trust the intentions, motives, and integrity of the department’s executive staff.” This concerned Acevedo, who said he believes a department’s culture starts at the top and trickles down to the rank and file. “I don’t think the cops are the problem,” he said. “I think it’s leadership. It all comes back to leadership.” In his eyes, the lack of captaincy and training has been responsible for many of the episodes that have sullied the APD’s reputation in recent years.
So Acevedo began revamping the department’s command staff, demoting one division chief, an APD veteran who was “stuck in the old way of policing,” Acevedo said. He also installed as deputy chief Heather Morris, who followed him from Houston to Miami and then to Aurora. Morris was critical to revamping the internal affairs unit that investigates misconduct in Houston, and Acevedo wants her to do the same in Aurora. He nearly doubled the size of the Internal Affairs Bureau and launched investigations into problematic officers, including Douglas Harroun, who allegedly punched a disabled woman in the face last January. Harroun resigned before he could be fired and now faces felony assault charges for the incident.
As of July, the Internal Affairs Bureau had reviewed 17 cases, resulting in one suspension, six written reprimands, and 10 resignations (officers often resign before they’re fired to avoid blemishes on their resumés). In total, 64 APD officers have resigned, retired, transferred, or been fired in 2023, according to a September 2023 staffing report. In April, the Civil Service Commission, the group that has had final say over all APD hiring, firing, and disciplinary decisions, ceded hiring power to the chief.
Citizens at a July town hall bemoaned the lack of police presence, and some city officials were troubled by the attrition. Aurora Councilwoman Danielle Jurinsky, a Republican who chairs the public safety committee and was instrumental in Wilson’s ousting, said Acevedo is “overpolicing the police.” Marc Sears, a sergeant at the department and the president of the Aurora chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, the city’s other law enforcement union, is upset about what he perceives as Acevedo’s excessive disciplinary approach and said, “The punishments don’t fit the crimes.”
Staffing changes aren’t the only reforms Acevedo has implemented. He’s ramped up accountability tools—a service called Truleo, for instance, analyzes video footage from officers’ body cameras to determine compliance with proper police conduct—as well as recruitment efforts of female and minority officers. This summer, the APD launched a youth violence intervention program. By July, all of his officers had completed the use-of-force training mandated by the consent decree. More important, said Jeff Schlanger, the independent consent-decree monitor for the city of Aurora since February 2022, Acevedo has “created a culture where use of force is questioned.” He added, “I think he has done a generally very good job at embracing the consent decree and moving it forward toward substantial compliance.”
Acevedo’s actions have not been so well received inside the department. “This guy is a freaking cancer,” said Sears, who added that the allegations that the APD is racist “are insane” and that he doesn’t believe the consent decree was necessary. Tony Cancino, a detective at the department and the president of the Aurora Police Association, the other union, also criticizes Acevedo’s leadership. “It’s not what this city needed,” he said. “It’s not what these officers needed, and it’s becoming quite a hindrance for us to be able to do our job out of fear for being punished.”
The fact that officers are resisting reform may be a good thing. “When officers are held accountable, there is pushback,” Poole, the retired sergeant, said. “If both unions are saying what’s going on is going on, and they aren’t happy with him because he is holding people’s feet to the fire, then maybe he is doing things that are necessary to do reform.”
And the reforms don’t appear to be negatively impacting policing in Aurora. Aggravated assault, murder, motor vehicle theft, and sexual assault in Aurora were all down through July, compared with the same time frame in 2022. Reid Hettich, co-chair of the CAC, attributed this, in part, to Acevedo, of whom he said, “[He’s] not perfect, but I think it’s the best job, best fit, we’ve seen.”
On a rainy Friday, a white hearse waited outside of the Aurora Municipal Building as a swarm of people gathered behind it. It was shortly after 5 p.m. on June 16, an hour or so after the conclusion of Jor’Dell Richardson’s funeral, and his body—dressed in a blue paisley shirt—lay inside the vehicle.
Richardson’s shooting had abruptly ended Acevedo’s honeymoon in Aurora. Some community members, who’d been cautiously optimistic about him, were upset by his handling of the incident. In the weeks after Richardson’s death, two investigations into the killing were launched: one by the state’s 18th Judicial District and another by the APD’s Internal Affairs Bureau. There was an emergency CAC meeting, two press conferences held by Richardson’s attorneys, and two citizen town halls, including one in which a young man stood up and said to Acevedo, “Resign. Go home. Get the fuck out of here.”
Acevedo’s supervision of the Richardson case had not been without missteps, most notably alerting the family of the pellet gun just minutes before his June 9 press conference and not being forthcoming about Gruzceczka’s involvement in the previous civil case. Further, Acevedo offended the Richardson family when, in offering them condolences, he said, “Your boy didn’t suffer.” To which Richardson’s father responded at the rally before the procession: “My son died in a dirty alley. Scared. Alone.”
Acevedo said he felt pressure to be transparent with the community before he had all of the information about the case. He also said he found out about the pellet gun the evening before his press conference and didn’t want the information to be leaked before he had the opportunity to share it, which is why he waited to tell the Richardsons. The family doesn’t buy it. “He was being reckless or deceptive,” said Edward C. Hopkins Jr., one of the lawyers for the family. “Both are bad.”
Even some of Acevedo’s former supporters, such as Thomas Mayes, a community leader and CAC member, have started to doubt him. “It takes a long time to build trust, but it only takes a moment to destroy it,” Mayes said. “I think it’s going to be very difficult for him to get the confidence of the community.”
In August, a city official, who requested anonymity, said they weren’t sure if Acevedo would survive the Richardson case or the mounting frustrations among APD cops. His fate will likely depend on who wins the mayoral and City Council races this month. If there’s a Democratic majority, Acevedo stays; if not, much like Wilson, he’s out, this official said.
For his part, Acevedo said the City Council has offered him the permanent job as chief, but he isn’t sure yet if he’ll take it. Why is he going through so much trouble for a job he’s unsure of? “I didn’t come here to collect a check,” he said. “I came here to make a difference.” Poole had a different take. “Acevedo’s at a seminal moment in his career,” he said. “If you’re trying to resurrect yourself, this is the perfect time to do it.” If Acevedo is successful in Aurora, it could quell questions from the past and cement his legacy as a reformer.
On September 6, District Attorney John Kellner, from the 18th Judicial District, announced he would not bring charges against officers Snapp and Gruszeczka. His decision read, “The evidence shows that Officer Snapp was legally justified in using physical force during this incident, and that Officer Gruszeczka was legally justified in using deadly physical force.”
“We disagree with the DA’s assessment of the evidence,” said Rathod, one of the Richardsons’ lawyers, who added the family felt the decision was “another slap in the face” in a long series of injustices. In October, Acevedo announced the findings of the APD’s own Internal Affairs Bureau investigation, which found that there was no sufficient evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to prove criminal wrongdoing.
The trials against the officers involved in Elijah McClain’s death began in mid-September and have reopened old wounds. The officers maintain their innocence, and many community activists expect them to be acquitted, an outcome that could prove disastrous for the city. Should that happen, the APD is prepared for riots such as the ones that swept through Aurora in June 2020, when protestors chained shut the doors of a police station and tried to burn down the building.
Back at the municipal complex, as the hearse led the procession west down East Alameda Avenue, the protestors crooned “Amazing Grace.” Its low, plaintive notes took to the cloudy sky above Aurora. Then an activist leading the march began a call-and-response chant with the crowd.
“What do we want?” she shouted.
“When do we want it?”
“Say his name!” she yelled.
“Say his name!” she repeated.