Thursday, 20 Jan 2022

Aurora to pay $8,000 retention bonuses to police officers using $6 million in federal funds

The Aurora City Council voted Monday night to spend $6 million on $8,000 retention bonuses for each of the city’s police officers from the approximately $65 million the city received from the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

Officers will receive $4,000 apiece in April and another $4,000 in October in addition to the $2,000 bonus already planned for all city employees.

“This isn’t a comprehensive strategy, this is a first step toward a comprehensive strategy,” said Councilman Dustin Zvonek, who voted in support of the bonuses.

The Aurora Police Department lost more than 100 officers in 2021 and more than 80 in 2020, though it has refilled many of those positions. The department on Monday had 720 officers, just 24 short of its budgeted 744 positions, spokesman Francisco Saucedo said. Thirty-one of the 720 officers were still completing field training.

The police bonuses passed with a vote of 6-4 after council members argued whether the cash payments would address the underlying conditions causing officers to leave and whether the bonuses would have any effect on the city’s rising violent crime.

Those in support of the bonuses said they would provide an immediate morale boost to the department, which has been thrust into the national spotlight repeatedly in the last few years due to police brutality and the 2019 death of Elijah McClain after a violent arrest. Councilmembers in support also said they hoped any increased retention would help deter crime.

“A lack of police presence is emboldening people to drive fast and do crimes and do stupid things,” Councilman Steve Sundberg said.

Several councilmembers pointed out that there was nothing stopping officers from leaving after accepting the second payment and that there were no accountability measures tied to the money. Councilwoman Alison Coombs said the councilmembers who supported the bonuses were using the federal money as “piggy banks for their own political gains.”

Councilman Juan Marcano urged the city to create a strategic retention plan beyond one-time bonuses that will keep officers in the long term. He also said paying the bonuses will likely do little to prevent crime.

“What keeps us safe is keeping peoples’ needs met,” he said. “Until we address the root causes, we’re just setting money on fire.”

The department’s staff shortage forced Aurora police Chief Vanessa Wilson to shift officers from specialized teams, like bicycle patrol, to fill patrol shifts as the city experienced a spike in violent crime and motor vehicle thefts.

The number of violent crimes reported in the city has risen every year in the past five years, from 2,552 reported violent crimes in 2017 to 3,972 in the first 10 months of 2021 — a 55% increase.

The number of property crimes also increased in that time period, driven primarily by a 127% surge in motor vehicle thefts.

Coombs and Councilman Ruben Medina also pointed out that while the American Rescue Plan Act money can be used to pay emergency responders who are working through the pandemic, the bonus plan awards police officers a bonus five times larger than that to be received by firefighters and paramedics with Aurora Fire-Rescue.

“What happens when (firefighters) stop showing up?” Medina asked.

Other city departments have been struggling to recruit and retain staff but are not receiving larger bonuses, Coombs said.

“I think this is harmful to city staff overall when we say one department deserves five times the bonus that everyone else is getting,” Coombs said.

Councilmembers Zvonek, Sundberg, Francoise Bergan, Curtis Gardner, Danielle Jurinsky and Angela Lawson voted in favor of the bonuses. Councilmembers Coombs, Marcano, Medina and Crystal Murillo voted against them.

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