Law Enforcement

Independent Report Sharply Critical of Aurora Police Handling of Drunk Cop

Nathan Meier was found passed out drunk behind the wheel of his police vehicle in March 2019.
Nathan Meier was found passed out drunk behind the wheel of his police vehicle in March 2019. CBS Denver
Top leadership at the Aurora Police Department totally mishandled both responding to and investigating an incident involving a drunk officer found passed out at the wheel of his running police vehicle, according to an outside investigator hired by the city.

"Our report concludes that high-ranking Aurora police members made significant errors of judgment in the handling of the Officer [Nathan] Meier incident," John Walsh, the former U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado, told an audience of city council members, the interim police chief, the city manager and Mayor Mike Coffman on March 12.

In particular, Walsh pointed to former deputy chief Paul O'Keefe, the first officer to find the unconscious Meier, and then-chief Nick Metz as the leaders who botched things.

"A small part of me was hoping maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. [But] it is," Aurora City Councilwoman Allison Hiltz said after Walsh's presentation.

But while Walsh's report is scathing in its discussion of the actions (or lack thereoff) of Metz and particularly O'Keefe, it stops short of finding that O'Keefe, who decided against investigating Meier for a possible DUI charge, did so because of an improper motive or intent to obstruct justice.

"We did not find evidence of an intention to take misconduct and sweep it under the rug," Walsh said when questioned by Aurora City Council members.

Even so, the Meier case, combined with a controversial use-of-force incident and the subsequent death of Aurora resident Elijah McClain, has dropped the Aurora Police Department's reputation to a low point in recent months, and another possible DUI case involving an officer last December didn't help. CBS4 first reported that incident, as it did the Meier mess...albeit months after it started.

On the last Friday of March 2019, Meier was found passed out at the wheel of his vehicle, wearing his full uniform, with his gun holstered at his side and the engine running. O'Keefe was the first Aurora police officer at the scene. Paramedics eventually had to break the window of Meier's vehicle to get him out of the car, since he was unresponsive.

O'Keefe and two other officers who soon arrived at the scene smelled alcohol on Meier. Paramedics, on the other hand, did not; they thought he was having some sort of medical episode. "Several of the responding paramedics and firefighters later stated that because they could not smell the odor of alcohol on Officer Meier's breath or person, they were shocked to learn after the fact that Officer Meier had been intoxicated," the report notes.

Once Meier was transported to the hospital, medical staff there refused to share information with police officers, according to the report. Chief Metz was out of the office at the time, recovering from recent surgery, and was communicating with O'Keefe by telephone.

While at the hospital, O'Keefe spoke with a fellow high-ranking officer and said he was "on the fence about alcohol" and "weighing all the options," the report reads. But O'Keefe ultimately decided not to pursue a criminal or internal investigation regarding a possible DUI.

This was the biggest misstep, according to Walsh, who believes that there was reasonable suspicion to pursue a criminal DUI investigation.

The week after the incident, the Aurora Police Department launched an internal affairs investigation into Meier's situation. It focused on Meier and not O'Keefe's handling of the incident, a direction decided by Metz. That was another mistake, Walsh says.

Meier told investigators that he "remembered going into his basement and drinking Smirnoff vodka." The next thing he recalled was being at the hospital.

The internal affairs investigator found that Meier had violated multiple departmental policies, including neglect of duty and alcohol impairment.

Two high-ranking Aurora police officers, Commander Marcus Dudley and Division Chief Ernie Ortiz, "concluded the aggravating factors in Officer Meier's investigation were insurmountable and the only appropriate discipline was termination," and shared that opinion with Metz.

But after speaking with Meier, who was apologetic and candid with Metz about his alcohol issue, the chief instead opted for a demotion, temporary suspension and random urinalysis tests for the next five years, rather than termination.

The decision was within Metz's authority, Walsh notes.

All of that action happened behind the scenes. But late in 2019, media outlets began to report on the Meier incident and the department's subsequent actions.

A few days after the scrutiny started, Metz emailed the whole department, saying, "I unequivocally stand by my decision regarding the involved officer because I care about the human being who stepped up and owned his incredibly poor decision...and continues to courageously own it."

Prior to the Meier case becoming public, Metz had been planning to retire as chief at the end of the year, and the city had selected O'Keefe as interim chief. But the day before Christmas, O'Keefe announced that he'd be declining the offer to serve as interim chief and would retire himself in March 2020.

Since then, Vanessa Wilson has been serving as interim police chief. On February 6, she ordered an internal investigation into O'Keefe's handling of the incident. The next day, O'Keefe announced that he'd be resigning immediately. The investigation has continued despite O'Keefe's resignation; at the March 12 gathering, Walsh confirmed that O'Keefe was contacted for an interview but declined the request, through his lawyer.

George Brauchler, the district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, also had his office look into the Meier incident, and although he concluded that Meier had committed a chargeable criminal offense, he said his office didn't have the necessary evidence to move ahead with charges.

During his presentation, Walsh noted that both rank-and-file officers and other officers in leadership position questioned how the Meier issue was being handled. At every turn, "there were Aurora police officers who were concerned about the adequacy of the police department's response and were advocating a different approach," Walsh said.

"A civilian simply would not have been given this same lenient treatment. And shouldn’t be. Neither should a police officer," Walsh said.

In the final section of his report, Walsh included recommendations for police department policy changes. "I don’t think that this incident reflects a cultural issue," he said after the presentation. "I do think that culture is something that’s evolving in every organization."

One such recommendation, which would make investigating possible DUIs involving officers more automatic, has already been implemented in the department. Walsh also recommended that the department implement policies creating a lower evidence threshold for consulting the district attorney's office regarding a possible officer DUI.

Additionally, Walsh is suggesting that the department refer future criminal investigations involving members to outside agencies.

Other recommendations involve limiting potential conflicts of interest, how to handle independent reviews, and making language changes with regard to consequences for officers suspected of driving under the influence.

After Walsh finished, City Manager Jim Twombly, the person who ordered the independent investigation, placed blame squarely on Metz and O'Keefe. The report reflects "what Mr. Walsh said about officers on the scene carrying out their duty as they should have," Twombly said, adding that the report "points to decisions and judgments basically of two leaders of the department."

Following the report's release, interim chief Wilson issued a statement: "Our community deserves accountability and transparency from the Aurora Police Department and its leadership. The conclusion of this review brings us all one step closer to healing and earning back the public trust. We had already made one of the recommended changes in this report prior to it being completed. Moving forward, I will be working with my executive staff on how the rest of the recommendations may be implemented.”
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.