After a gunman donned protective gear and unleashed heavy artillery, killing 12 and severely injuring dozens more at a Colorado movie theater two years ago, no one received more acclaim than Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates.
Within minutes, about 200 officers swarmed the theater, and an alert cop picked out the gunman, James Eagan Holmes, as he watched the mayhem of his carnage from a nearby parking lot. Police would later disarm Holmes’ booby-trapped apartment.
President Barack Obama visited Aurora a few days later, and singled out Oates for dealing with a difficult set of circumstances “by the book, with great courage and great determination.”
Now, Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales and Mayor Philip Levine want Oates to lead Miami Beach’s 373 sworn officers. It is a department that has come under fire for questionable shootings and embarrassing incidents that have drawn national attention in recent years — and one that has been searching for a strong dose of positive publicity.
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During a brief discussion with Beach city commissioners Wednesday, Morales made it very clear that he is looking for Oates to change the culture of the department.
“That was a major factor, having someone who’s going to come in as a change agent, not here to win, necessarily, a popularity contest, but to try and make this the best department it can be,” said Morales.
The hiring of Oates, 59, is not a done deal. He still must go through a vetting by commissioners and the mayor, who must approve the city manager’s choice. That is expected to take about a month.
Morales chose Oates from about a dozen candidates, including second-in-command John Buhrmaster, former Miami command officer Thomas Cannon and Miami-Dade Maj. Charles Nanney. Current Police Chief Ray Martinez has accepted a job as chief of security for the Ultra Music Festival, but will not officially step down until May 16.
Oates would be Miami Beach’s fourth police chief since 2011, as the city has struggled to overcome embarrassing flaps. On Memorial Day 2011, a group of Beach cops and officers from other agencies unleashed 116 bullets on Collins Avenue, killing a drunk motorist and injuring four bystanders. A month later, a joyride on an ATV by an on-duty officer and a young woman almost turned tragic when they ran over and seriously injured a couple lying on the beach.
The department’s use of force has also been questioned, especially over the death of 18-year-old graffiti artist Israel Hernandez-Llach. Last month the Miami-Dade medical examiner said Hernandez-Llach’s heart stopped after he was struck by “an energy device discharge,” or a Taser.
Oates’ nine years in Aurora were not entirely rosy. He acknowledged a large number of police-involved shootings last year, and that evidence related to dozens of sexual-assault cases was destroyed by Aurora police.
Oates — who worked briefly with New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton in the mid-1990s but got to know him better through a Washington, D.C., group that helps law enforcement — declined to comment until a formal decision is made.
Bratton said that if Morales wants to hire Oates to shake up the department, he found the right man.
“Dan, I think you can describe as a change agent,” said Bratton. “Dan has the ability to handle the issue and deal with the media. He’s a cop’s cop.”
Oates is a 1977 graduate of Bucknell College who later received a law degree from the New York Law School. For a time, he was a newspaper reporter, on the courts beat for the Atlantic City Press. Then he spent 21 years with the New York Police Department, running its intelligence division and rising to second-in-command in Brooklyn.
Oates left New York and was named police chief of Ann Arbor, Mich., in the summer before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. There, he was credited by the city’s mayor for mitigating attacks on Muslims. He caused a stir after the attacks by criticizing federal law enforcement, calling 9/11 “a colossal failure of the U.S. government’s intelligence services, including the FBI.”
Still, Oates was named police chief in Aurora in 2005, overseeing its 670 sworn officers in the city of 345,000. While there, he was credited with diversifying the department, and was instrumental in getting cameras into patrol cars, arguing it would create better transparency.
But there were issues.
In 2011, he ordered new training methods for his officers after a streak of eight police-involved shootings. The same year, the city agreed to a $215,000 settlement with someone shot by police as he approached an officer in a car.
And last June, Oates acknowledged a “grievous mistake” when it was uncovered that evidence in 48 sexual-assault cases was destroyed by Aurora police. He promised to fix the problems, and called it “obviously not a good day for the department,” the Denver Post reported.
In brief statements, Oates was praised by Aurora leaders, especially for his handling of the mass shooting last July. City Manager Skip Noe called Oates one of the top law-enforcement leaders in the country, and said Miami Beach would be fortunate to get him.
Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan said Aurora residents would miss his service, and that Oates “was certainly the right guy to be where he was on July 20, 2012.”