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Colorado police chief at embattled department officially out

City manager ‘seeks new leadership’
Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson
Posted at 9:21 AM, Apr 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-06 15:10:32-04

AURORA, Colo. — Aurora Police Department Chief Vanessa Wilson is officially out after weeks of speculation she would no longer be the chief of the embattled department.

Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly sent Wilson a termination letter Wednesday and confirmed the decision to “search for new leadership” for the department is effective immediately. Division Chief Chris Juul has been tapped to oversee operations at APD temporarily.

“It is clear that Chief Wilson has prioritized community involvement. However, the police chief also needs to effectively manage the department's operations, effectively engage with staff, build morale, and validate employee feedback. To provide the level of public safety that our community deserves, a change in leadership must occur,” said City Manager Jim Twombly.

During a press conference in response to the firing, Twombly said the decision came down to two main concerns overall management and leadership of the department. When asked to provide specific examples, Twombly would not elaborate any further beyond saying attrition at the department was also a factor. He had talked with other Aurora officers and reviewed Wilson’s record on his own.

The city management team will immediately work to name an interim chief in the next two to three weeks. The city will also begin a nationwide search for a permanent chief of police for Aurora with the hope of naming a new chief in the next six months.

Twombly confirmed Wilson is entitled to the severance package agreed upon when she was hired, which is 12 months’ pay of $207,358.42 and benefits.

Wilson and her attorneys respond

Wilson’s legal counsel, King and Greisen, said her firing is “without cause” as part of an effort for conservative city council members to diminish Wilson’s credibility.

“These council members have made it clear that they did not support Chief Wilson’s efforts to implement the Court order to reform the police department and eradicate the systemic racism found by the Colorado Attorney General in the wake of the death of Elijah McClain,” a statement from Wilson’s attorneys said.

Her counsel also claimed the City of Aurora and city council have “engaged in a conspiracy to leak misinformation to the media” and responsibility for the department’s “long-standing” problems is falsely being placed on Wilson.

"In reality, Chief Wilson made numerous attempts to have good faith discussions with the City leadership about these issues and repeatedly sought the resources necessary to resolve them from the City Council. City leadership refused these efforts, preferring instead to smear the reputation of a dedicated police officer who has served the Aurora Police Department for over two decades, and courageously agreed to take the helm in one of the City’s most difficult times to bring needed reforms.”

In a statement provided by her attorneys, Wilson said she was thankful for the opportunity and plans to continue working in law enforcement.

“We must all remain dedicated to practices that ensure the safety and well-being of our communities and the fair treatment of all citizens,” the statement from Wilson says. “I am proud of the progress this department has made during the myriad of challenges that we have faced. I hope that the Aurora community understands that the amazing women and men of the Aurora police department care about them and will continue to protect and serve regardless of who leads this agency.”

How Wilson’s firing came about

Wilson’s ouster has been anticipated for two weeks.

On March 23, Denver7 broke that Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson was planning on leaving the department in the coming weeks over concerns regarding her performance leading the department. The following day, Wilson’s attorney Paula Greisen said the chief does not plan to resign or retire, but acknowledged that the city manager did request a meeting to discuss an exit strategy with the chief last week.

And it comes a day after an independent report was released that criticized a backlog of more than 2,500 criminal investigations still awaiting processing by the records department, which a consulting firm hired by the city called a “high-liability matter.”

Among those crimes still awaiting further investigation, according to the report, were allegations involving child sexual abuse, murder and carjacking.Twombly said in a lengthy statement Tuesday the city was already working to address some of the issues but called the preliminary report’s findings “alarming.”

Several members of city council said they had concerns over Wilson’s leadership, and the mayor pro tem said the report revealed “a very serious problem and there must be accountability.”

With respect to the backlog, Aurora spokesperson Ryan Luby said as of Tuesday, it was down to 1,252 pending reports – 721 general offense reports and 531 supplementary reports. The firm is still expected to issue a final report.

Twombly said Wednesday that Wilson had requested 10 new positions for the embattled Records Section, but he spoke with other city officials about possibly trying to add somewhere between 0 and 10 new positions. After putting together a team to determine what might be needed to address the backlog, they decided to put out a request for proposal and hired PRI to consult on addressing the backlog.

The Aurora Sentinel reported Tuesday that the author of the PRI Management Group, Ed Claughton, has previously been questioned over his objectivity and his social media posts in which he criticized the Black Lives Matter movement.

Twombly said Wednesday the city “didn’t know about those.”

“We don’t ever check political backgrounds of consultants we hired or what they’ve posted. There’s not a litmus test on whether they are conservative, or Democrats, or whatever,” Twombly said.

Mayor Mike Coffman said Wednesday he supported Twombly’s decision.

“I had some concerns as the situation changed in Aurora, and crime became an increasing issue, about her leadership. But my concerns never arose to a level of saying that we ought to replace the police chief,” Coffman said. “However, this report [about the backlogged cases] and the lack of leadership and making sure that process worked effectively, I think, compromised the public safety of our city. I think that was, and is, a monumental failure of leadership.”

But Twombly said Wilson was “not fired because of the records problem.”

“It really comes down to a lack of confidence on my part for her to be able to lead the department,” he said, when pressed by reporters.

Twombly said he was made aware of the March 14 report from PRI Management Group regarding the records backlog, which was obtained by Denver7 on Tuesday and issued to the city council on the same day, on March 18, and not sooner as Wilson’s attorney had claimed Tuesday.

He said the first discussion regarding Wilson’s performance happened “approximately a month ago.” He felt Wilson was given enough time to turn around the litany of problems the department had faced for years.

Twombly also said while he had “heard rumors” that some city council members wanted to fire him if he did not fire Wilson, he had “never been told that” directly. When pressed if any part of his decision to fire Wilson came to save his own job, Twombly said: “That’s never been a consideration, no.”

The new chief will have to continue reform work

The firing comes as the city has been working to make improvements department-wide.

In September 2021, Attorney General Phil Weiser released a report based on a 14-month investigation saying the Aurora Police Department uses excessive force and racially biased police practices and violates state and federal laws as part of its patterns and practices.

Based on the report, Aurora City Council voted to enter into a consent decree to fix issues involving policies, training, record-keeping, and hiring practices.

IntegrAssure, a Florida-based risk management consultancy, was selected in February as the consent decree monitor to provide independent oversight over the department.

However, Twombly said the decision to find a new police chief will have an impact on the city's ability to fulfill the terms of the consent decree, though he said the city has already begun implementing changes as part of their "New Way" plan.

Weiser, in a statement, said the consent decree to improve policing and build trust in Aurora is with the city and “not any one person or agency” and thanked Wilson for her service to the community.

Colorado Democrats issued a statement Wednesday saying the firing of Wilson will "set back critical and long overdue efforts" that are currently underway at the department.

"Chief Wilson has been working hard to build a police force that reflects the diversity of our community and holds officers accountable for racially biased actions. Her firing in the middle of these efforts sends a terrible message to the police force and to the community about Aurora's commitment to reforming these practices," the statement says. "We commend Chief Wilson for her steadfast commitment to making our communities safer and rebuilding our community’s trust in our city’s police department."

Wilson has been with the Aurora Police Department for 25 years, starting as a patrol officer, then a recruiter before becoming a detective. She was promoted to sergeant in 2006 and to lieutenant in 2009, and in 2012, was appointed the Executive Officer of the Major Investigations Bureau. She was also the first woman to be named division chief within the department in April 2015.

She was selected as interim chief in December 2019 and assumed the role on Jan. 1, 2020, after Chief Nick Metz retired. Wilson acknowledged at the time that she was taking over the department “at a very turbulent time” when the community was "angry” following the in-custody death of Elijah McClain and the handling of Agent Nate Meier’s on-duty intoxicated driving incident.

After a months-long nationwide search, Wilson was officially named the chief of the department in August 2020 as the department was facing even more scrutiny over McClain's death, and on the same day, it was revealed Aurora officers detained a Black family after mistaking their SUV for a stolen motorcycle from another state.

Blair Miller and Blayke Roznowski at KMGH first reported this story.