Miami Beach's New Police Chief Left Behind Plenty of Conflict in Colorado
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.
Photo by Pete Souza/White House Dan Oates, center, meets with President Obama after the Aurora shootings.
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."
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."