By Brian Maass and Kati Weis

AURORA, Colo. (CBS4) – A special investigator says Aurora Police leadership had “failures of judgement” in its handling of the case of Aurora Police Officer Nate Meier, who was found drunk and unconscious while on-duty in his patrol car one year ago. As a result, the special investigator made several recommendations for department policy changes in how it handles future investigations of its own officers.

Although Meier was found parked, the car running and in-gear, with his foot on the brake, but unconscious, and officers smelled alcohol in his vehicle, Deputy Chief Paul O’Keefe decided to not pursue a criminal DUI investigation.

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Meier was also allowed to keep his job, but he was demoted.

nate nathan meier aurora police

Officer Nate Meier drunk and unconscious in his police car. (credit: Aurora)

The City of Aurora paid nearly $200,000 for former US Attorney John Walsh and his team to conduct an independent review of how the Aurora Police Department handled the case.

Walsh said high-ranking officials in the department at the time made “significant errors of judgement” by not pursuing a criminal investigation, and by allowing Meier to keep his job.

“There were mistakes made in not pursuing a criminal investigation fully on the day of the incident, there was a mistake, or error in judgement, in limiting the scope of an internal affairs review of the response itself, and finally the disciplinary decision failed to take into account the broader impact on public safety, by keeping the officer on the force,” Walsh said.

However, the special investigator said there was not sufficient evidence to prove there was malicious intent to obstruct justice in leadership’s choice not to pursue a criminal DUI investigation against Meier.

Walsh explained he does not believe leadership had bad motives in their mistakes, because there was some confusion on the scene that Meier may have been suffering from a medical problem rather than being drunk. He said that Meier was so incapacitated, that it almost seemed as if Meier had a stroke that day, and some officers on the scene thought there was an officer in distress.

“There was a genuine concern for an officer that was in distress, that’s the starting place,” Walsh said. “There was a confused situation on the ground. Those two things I think led the top leadership to make a decision prematurely to call off the criminal investigation.”

However, Walsh said even if that had been the case, O’Keefe still could have conducted a DUI investigation, just to be sure.

Other officers suggested an internal affairs investigation be launched against O’Keefe, but the chief at the time, Nick Metz, declined for that to move forward, which Walsh said was also a mistake.

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When the new Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson took over, she initiated an internal affairs investigation into O’Keefe. But shortly after, O’Keefe retired.

Asked about how that retirement decision weighed in Walsh’s findings that there was no bad intent, Walsh said, “we were certainly aware of that decision, but O’Keefe had served for a very long time in the Aurora Police Department and we did not interpret that as an indication of bad motive, but as a desire to move on from the situation.”

O’Keefe also declined to be interview by Walsh and his team for the independent review.

Walsh also said his review found evidence that Meier had a years-long alcohol problem, and this was probably not the first time he was drunk while on duty.

As a result of his findings, Walsh made six recommendations for the Aurora Police Department:

  1. Require criminal investigations when there is reasonable suspicion of officer misconduct.
  2. In cases in which there is a reason to believe that an APD officer might be intoxicated, the responding officer should always contact the DA’s office on how to proceed.
  3. As best practice, Aurora Police should consider referring the case to a third-party law enforcement agency to conduct the criminal investigation, to ensure full neutrality.
  4. There should be increased use of independent review boards when there is potential for misconduct in any case.
  5. A clear distinction should be made between the officers responding to assist the officer in distress, and the officers responding to conduct the criminal investigation of the scene.
  6. There should be a clarification of the policy regarding the disciplinary actions officers should face when they drive drunk.

Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly said the city has already begun to make some changes.

“One recommendation has already been implemented, the other recommendations will be considered and we have every reason to believe they will be implemented,” Twombly said.

If you’d like to read Walsh’s full report on the case, click here.

“The combination of facts presents a serious problem,” Walsh said. “A citizen would not have been given this treatment.”

 

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CBS4 reporters Brian Maass and Kati Weis serve on the CBS4 Investigates team, uncovering fraud, waste, and corruption. Send them a news tip or follow them on Twitter @Briancbs4 and @KatiWeis.