Miami Beach's New Police Chief Left Behind Plenty of Conflict in Colorado
Dan Oates, center, meets with President Obama after the Aurora shootings.
Photo by Pete Souza/White House
Just before noon July 20, 2012, Aurora, Colorado police chief Dan Oates stood before a microphone in the parking lot outside the suburban Century 16 movie theater where, less than 12 hours earlier, a maniac in a gas mask had thrown smoke bombs and opened fire during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises.
It was a clear summer day, and Oates, a hefty, serious man in his early 50s whose short-cropped gray hair was covered by a low blue police cap, was surrounded by a horde of reporters and distraught officials. His face somber and his tone authoritative, he gave the world the update it was waiting for. "Our suspect's name is James Eagan Holmes," he began. "Our best available counts on injuries as of right now -- is that 71 people were shot. And that 12 are deceased."
Just short of two years later, on April 30, Miami Beach commissioners unanimously approved Oates as the city's police chief. But to most of America he'll likely always be known for the role he played in Aurora. After the massacre -- which instantly went down as one of the nation's most notorious murder sprees -- Oates quickly emerged as the capable face of the tragedy's widely lauded response.
"Chief Oates has been dealing with a set of circumstances as difficult as any law enforcement official deals with," an emotional President Obama said minutes after meeting with the families of victims. "And he and his officers have done everything right."
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But what neither the president nor any other Dan Oates backer wants to talk about -- at least publicly -- are the controversies the 34-year law enforcement veteran faced out West: the 2011 police shooting of three unarmed Aurora youths; the hellish June 2012 intersection stop; the discovery last June that Oates' department had accidentally destroyed DNA evidence from dozens of potential rape cases.
For Miami Beach, a city still struggling with a public image problem after its own rash of recent scandals, the Colorado controversies raise questions about whether the law-and-order hero from Aurora is the right man to lead a turnaround.
"This new chief needs to come in here and change the entire culture," says Steve Berke, an activist and former mayoral candidate. "I would say the reputation of the police department exists for a reason."
Oates was born in Hackensack, New Jersey, in 1955. Growing up, he "never once thought about being a cop," he says. "Ever." He studied English at Bucknell University in central Pennsylvania, where he edited the college newspaper, and upon graduation began a career in journalism, eventually landing a job as a copyeditor at Popular Mechanics. But Oates didn't like the work and planned to go to law school.
Then one day in 1979, he heard a radio ad that the New York Police Department was hiring. Oates was intrigued; he talked to an uncle on the force and decided to visit a Midtown Manhattan precinct where he found an officer at an elevated desk near the entry. "Very intimidating," Oates says. "I walk in and I ask for an application. 'Here you are, kid.' he says."
A year or so later, Oates got the job. He opted out of a law program he was scheduled to begin the same evening and then spent the next 21 years rising through the ranks of the NYPD. (He would graduate from law school in 1986.) He and his wife Nancy, a graphic designer, also adopted two girls from Paraguay, now 20 and 18, and Oates took up a new sport. "I'm a hockey nut," he says.
In 2001 he became police chief of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and four years later took the job as top cop in Aurora, a leafy, ethnically diverse city of 340,000 just east of Denver. In Oates' first week, the department carried out a massive manhunt for Aarone Thompson, a 6-year-old girl who had been reported as a runaway. But when evidence wasn't stacking up, the new chief -- in a preview of his direct style -- publicly challenged the girl's uncooperative parents: "If they truly care about Aarone as they say they do," Oates told a swarm of news cameras, "they need to speak to us at this time."
Several days later, police discovered the girl had in fact been dead for months; her father was eventually sentenced to 114 years for serial child abuse. Over the next five years, Oates oversaw a 30 percent crime reduction, further burnishing his reputation as an effective enforcer.
But by 2011, Aurora PD was also cementing another reputation -- for heavy-handedness. Civil rights critics linked a spate of officer-involved shootings to the chief. "A fish rots from the head down," says David Lane, an attorney who has frequently sparred with Oates. "If he has a culture of tolerance of excessive force by police officers, that shows itself from time to time."
This culture was dramatically on display March 20, 2011, critics say. Late that evening, an owner of an auto repair shop called the cops to report a theft after he saw three young men loading one of his car doors onto the bed of a truck. Two officers showed up and confronted the men at the back of the lot. The unarmed robbers jumped into the truck and began to speed away, with 22-year-old Oleg Gidenko at the wheel. The officers fired more than a dozen shots: Gidenko was hit in the back of the head and killed, and another man, Yevgeniy Straystar, ended up paralyzed. Mourners and activists were outraged.
"The cop who shot at Oleg should be charged for murder," Oleg's friend Yelena wrote on the website of Westword, a Denver newspaper (and New Times' sister publication). "I attended Oleg Gidenko's funeral today," wrote another, with the username Suzh1. "Since when do officers open fire on a car (from the rear) when no other weapons are involved?"
The next year, on June 2, 2012 -- a hot Saturday afternoon -- a man wearing a beekeeper's mask robbed a Wells Fargo branch. Aurora police, using new GPS technology from a signaling device hidden in a money bag, tracked the suspect to a nearby intersection. But they didn't have the technology to pinpoint a specific car, so while waiting for help from the FBI, the officers detained all 29 passengers from the 19 cars at the intersection. They didn't let anyone leave for two hours.
"Suddenly there was a police officer straight ahead," Tim Olson, a mechanic on his way to pick up a gallon of milk, told local media at the time. "[The officer] takes a shotgun and or rifle and aims in my direction." Then the cop twisted Olson's arm so hard it did long-term damage to his shoulder.
"I was telling the officer, 'You're hurting me. Let go,'" Olson said. "They said, 'Quit resisting.'"
One photograph from the day shows a cop aiming a rifle at a woman wearing a sweater. Another depicts officers surrounding a man as he exits his car with his hands up. In a third, more than a half-dozen people sit on the ground, their hands cuffed behind their backs. A 3- or 4-year-old girl sits in one woman's lap.
"There are a million different civil rights issues that arise," says Lane, who is representing 14 of the detained citizens. If the cops knew the suspect was an adult male, he says, "Why are they searching women? Why are they handcuffing women? Why are they pointing automatic weapons at children?"
A year later, in June 2013, an Aurora policeman went to an evidence facility to fetch a DNA sample from a 2009 sexual assault case. He was told the rape kit had been mistakenly destroyed. The department quickly determined that dozens of other kits had been thrown away. Oates himself met with the victim from the initial case to explain that her near slam-drunk prosecution was now irrevocably lost.
After the revelations, Oates ordered a comprehensive review, which was released just this month. Between late 2011 and mid-2013, evidence from more than 100 cases was improperly destroyed, the audit determined. In six sexual assault cases, the report concluded, "it is possible that charges cannot be brought because of the destruction of evidence."
Oates is quick to downplay the controversy. "There was only one identifiable case that had an actual impact on a criminal prosecution," he says, emphasizing he also issued a moratorium on evidence destruction. "You run an organization with 800 fallible human beings," he says. "It is human nature to make mistakes. And this was an unfortunate mistake."
He also defends the intersection stop. In his telling, after 15 minutes the lieutenant holding the cars directed passengers to step out of their vehicles because the situation was unsafe. He says his officers didn't have even a basic description of the suspect -- a fact disputed by Lane -- and had no choice but to treat everyone as a suspect. "So yeah, they held some people at gunpoint." he says. "Yes, they handcuffed some people." But Oates stresses that the operation indeed nabbed the robber and that afterward he put in place new training and procedures. He also says he called every adult caught in the dragnet and apologized. "I got a lot of feedback that was very understanding," he says.
But the chief does not defend the auto shop shooting. The district attorney's office eventually concluded that during the getaway, Gidenko had aimed the truck at officers and therefore the use of lethal force was justified. But the City of Aurora still paid settlements of $365,000, and Oates tried to fire one of the two officers involved for misconduct. (The officer appealed his termination, and Oates says he will return to Colorado this month to testify against him.) He also strongly rejects any suggestion that the shooting was evidence of a larger pattern of excessive force. "That's totally wrong," he says.
Oates' first couple of weeks in Miami Beach have been predictably chaotic, he says, with much of his time occupied by administrative tasks like state weapons certifications and skills tests. But the chief promises he's dedicated to transparency and says he wants to learn the nuances of his organization before announcing policy initiatives. "I think the most important thing is getting to know the people," he says.
Last Wednesday a Miami Beach audit report -- commissioned last year after the high-profile fatal tasering of Israel Hernandez -- recommended stronger policies regulating officer use of force. Oates pledged to look closely at the recommendations and has already committed to adopting one, that all officers be equipped with body cameras.
In a move that upset the police union, he also appointed another outsider, former Arlington, Texas deputy chief Lauretta Hill, as his number two. But for some Miami Beach residents, the decision is proof that Oates is capable of delivering real change to a department whose officers they believe have long been out of control.
"With the history around here," activist Marian Del Vecchio says, "people feel very comfortable with someone coming from elsewhere."
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