Aurora has tapped Vanessa Wilson as the permanent chief of the Aurora Police Department, which has been plagued by controversy that has brought unwanted national attention to the city. "She has performed so well as interim chief," said Jim Twombly, the city manager who chose Wilson to be the permanent chief, during the August 3 Aurora City Council meeting.
Wilson had been serving as interim police chief since the beginning of the year, when Chief Nick Metz retired and Deputy Chief Paul O'Keefe, who was supposed to serve as interim chief, decided to also retire. Wilson, a 25-year APD veteran and the first woman to become chief, bested another internal candidate, Commander Marcus Dudley Jr., and two external candidates: Alexander D. Jones, a police colonel and bureau chief in Baltimore, and Avery L. Moore, an assistant police chief in Dallas.
Aurora City Council approved Wilson's appointment by a 9-1 vote.
"She has shown that she truly cares about the City of Aurora and the residents that reside here," Councilwoman Francoise Bergan said.
The lone 'no' vote came from Councilwoman Angela Lawson, who said that she preferred Dudley; she also raised the prospect of changing the system that gives the city manager the power to appoint the chief. Still, Lawson said that she would support Wilson as she works to bridge the gap between the department and the community.
Over the past year, the almost 1,000-employee department has grappled with one disaster after another, some embarrassing and others tragic. But it was the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain that ultimately grabbed the nation's attention.
In August 2019, the 23-year-old was stopped by three Aurora police officers after a 911 call reported that he was behaving suspiciously. McClain had done nothing wrong, but he was brutally restrained and medics administered ketamine. McClain ended up going into cardiac arrest, and died a few days later in the hospital.
Last fall, Dave Young, the District Attorney for the 17th Judicial District, declined to charge the officers involved, saying there wasn't enough evidence to obtain a conviction. Metz was the chief at the time, and the officers were not punished internally, either.
But as the George Floyd protests swept through the country, McClain's death came back into the spotlight. After significant pressure from the national media, celebrities and the public, Governor Jared Polis asked Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser to investigate McClain's death; the feds revealed that they have been investigating the case since last year. And after Aurora City Council cut ties with a longtime Connecticut cop-turned-police liability expert hired by Twombly to conduct a probe, Jonathan Smith, a Washington, D.C.-based civil-rights attorney, has been hired to investigate how the department can prevent a similar situation going forward.
Since she became interim chief, Wilson has shown a desire to move swiftly in disciplining officers for misconduct.
In April, Wilson fired a rookie cop for allegedly drinking and driving the month prior, a marked contrast to how Metz had handled a more egregious situation that involved a cop drinking on the job and passing out in his police car, in traffic. O'Keefe had given the officer, Nate Meier, a pass; after news of the incident broke, Metz ended up suspending and demoting Meier.
In early July, Wilson fired three officers connected to controversial photos taken at the scene of McClain's death in October 2019. In the selfies, two officers reenacted a carotid chokehold, which had been used to subdue McClain, while a third smiled next to them. The three officers sent that photo to Jason Rosenblatt, one of the officers who'd stopped McClain; Rosenblatt texted back "Haha." One of the officers in the photos resigned after finding out that Wilson planned on firing him; the other two in the photos, as well as Rosenblatt, were all fired. The three have filed appeals.
Even before she learned of the selfies, Wilson had decided to ban carotid chokeholds; the state banned them weeks after Wilson made that move.
Wilson has also been challenged by the protests outside the Aurora Municipal Center and on the streets and highways of the city.
The APD came in for major criticism after it dispersed protesters during a June 27 violin vigil for McClain. Wilson argues that a small contingent of protesters had gotten violent around the municipal center, and told Aurora City Council that officers had to forcibly disperse some of them. The city is now facing a class-action lawsuit over how police handled that situation.
A month later, on July 25, protesters again gathered outside the Aurora Municipal Center to call for justice for McClain, and to demonstrate against the deployment of federal troops in Portland. While the protest was mostly peaceful, a driver headed into protesters who'd blocked Interstate 225. A man in the crowd took out a gun and fired shots in the direction of the car, injuring two individuals nearby. Samuel Young has been charged with multiple counts of first-degree attempted murder in that case; the driver of the car has not been charged. Later, a handful of protesters who remained smashed the windows of the Aurora courthouse and set off fireworks inside. Mayor Mike Coffman took to Twitter the next day to call those responsible for the vandalism "domestic terrorists," a label that he later walked back.
And, like clockwork, Wilson had to put out another fire just a week later. On the morning of August 2, Aurora officers stopped a car that they believed was one that had recently been reported stolen. In an incident captured on video, the officers ordered those in the car, including children, to get on the ground; some were handcuffed. The officers had the right license plate numbers — but the license was from the wrong state. Once they realized this, they took the cuffs off those they had detained.
"An internal investigation has been opened, and an examination of training and procedures is under way," Wilson tweeted on August 3, the day she was named permanent chief.
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