Amid pressure from council conservatives, union leaders, Aurora fires Chief Wilson

AURORA | After days of foreshadowing, Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly fired Police Chief Vanessa Wilson  Wednesday, saying it was time for a “change in leadership” of the city’s police department.

The termination brought Wilson’s two-year tenure as chief to an abrupt end, eliciting complaints from local activists and elected officials alike.

State senator Rhonda Fields , D-Aurora, one of the cosponsors of Colorado’s sweeping 2020 police reform bill, voiced her displeasure on social media.

“I am disappointed by (Aurora’s) actions in firing Chief Wilson, who proudly protected our community for 26 years, and rose to become the first woman to serve as Chief of Police,” said state Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora. “The city’s action shows that restoring public trust and holding police officers accountable still is not a priority for our community. This termination was deeply flawed, and I hope the city reconsiders this shameful and disruptive decision.”

Even Aurora’s member of Congress chimed in on the news that Twombly ousted Wilson amid pressure to get rid of her from some Republicans on the city council. 

“The Colorado Attorney General’s Patterns and Practices report made clear that reform is needed, and I believe that Chief Wilson’s firing is a setback in that effort,” said Congressman Jason Crow, D-Aurora. “The next chief must be someone who, like Chief Wilson, is committed to addressing rising crime in the community in a fair and equitable way and in full compliance with the Consent Decree.”

APD Chief Vanessa Wilson shows one of two photos of the three police officers mocking the death of Elijah McClain at the site of McClain’s 2019 encounter with APD, during a July 3 press conference discussing the photos in questionPhoto by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Wilson was appointed by Twombly in August 2020 after serving as interim chief for about seven months. She will be paid a year’s salary for the termination “without cause,” according to city officials and the terms of her contract.

Some Aurora officials said they backed Twombly’s decision to sack Wilson, despite the immediate blowback.

Mayor Mike Coffman endorsed Twombly’s decision during Wednesday’s press conference, though unlike the city manager, he did mention specific  reasons for supporting a change in leadership.

“Given the challenges that we had when she came on, I think (Wilson) was the right person for the right time at that time,” Coffman said. “Given the fact that we have rising crime, given the fact that there was a lack of urgency in her leadership, and resolving the problem certainly caused me to support the city manager’s decision.”

The mayor insisted that the city would continue to carry out the reforms that Wilson began.

At a press conference Wednesday, Twombly said neither the rise in crime in Aurora nor a scathing audit of the department’s records section released this week were grounds for the firing. 

“Chief Wilson prioritized community involvement. This is something we all recognize as a strength of hers. However there is more to achieve that involves management of the police department,” he said. “There also needs to be effective management of department operations, engagement with officers and staff, and a strategic approach to moving the department forward.”

Twombly did not give any specific examples of mismanagement by Wilson during Wednesday’s press conference, though a recent, scathing police records audit specifically blamed department leadership for a backlog of police reports.

Wilson’s lawyer told The Sentinel the termination was “a concerted campaign by Councilmember Danielle Jurinsky and other conservative city council members to smear Chief Wilson’s reputation and credibility.”

The chief said in a statement that she was “thankful for the opportunity to serve the people of Aurora” and “proud of its police officers and what we’ve accomplished together.”

“I look forward to continue working in law enforcement to ensure transparency, reform, and accountability,” Wilson said in the statement. “During my time as chief, my focus has been to bring about the reforms required by the consent decree and restore trust in our community.  I am proud of the progress this department has made during the myriad 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.  I am proud to have been their chief.”

Taking over as acting chief will be Chris Juul, who formerly served as division chief. During previous vacancies, the deputy chief, currently Darin Parker, stepped into the role.

Twombly said Juul was chosen because he has strong district commanders reporting to him. The city manager said the city would name an official interim chief within two to three weeks, while a new chief is expected to be picked sometime in the next six months.

Then APD Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson makes notes, Jan. 16, 2020, during a Public Safety meeting at the Aurora Municipal Center.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Community reacts to Wilson ouster

Many of those who advocated for reform in the wake of police scandals described the firing as a betrayal of the city’s commitment to reform.

Sheneen McClain, whose son Elijah died at the hands of Aurora police and paramedics in 2019, said she was pessimistic about the future of the department. McClain was disappointed by Wilson’s firing, calling the former chief a “good person” who “stepped in to clean up someone else’s mess.” 

“So what (if) she’s not patting all the police officers on the back? Should she? The police department of Aurora has a history of killing people and justifying it with their rules,” McClain said. “She was cleaning it up, and they got rid of her. So, nobody should be trusting that Aurora, Colorado, is going to change. The ink hasn’t even dried on the consent decree before they’re totally going against it.”

The firing also sparked questions about the city’s consent decree with the state attorney general, which mandates police and fire reforms partly because of McClain’s death.

“Sheneen McClain and Kyle Vinson are very alarmed after learning of Aurora City Council’s suspicious termination of Police Chief Wilson,” said McClain family attorney Qusair Mohamedbhai. “McClain and Vinson recognize Chief Wilson’s efforts to engage with (the) community, and they both demand Aurora stop undoing efforts to combat systemic racist and violent policing. Aurora has unfortunately not learned from the recent $15 million Elijah McClain settlement.”

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser issued a statement Wednesday, saying the consent decree will be unaffected by Wilson’s firing.

“The consent decree requiring improvement of policing and building trust in law enforcement in Aurora is with the City of Aurora, not any one person or agency,” Weiser said. “The attorney general’s office will continue this important work with Aurora leadership and the next Aurora police chief.”

Omar Montgomery, president of the Aurora branch of the NAACP, said that he thought the leadership turnover would be bad for Aurora.

“Every time we get mad at a chief, we terminate them or make their lives a living hell,” he said. “At some point we need some stability so our community can begin to heal.”

He questioned who would want to come and be police chief in a city where they didn’t have the support of their local leadership.

“Our public safety community puts their lives on the line everyday to make our community safe, and they deserve to have leadership they can believe in,” Montgomery said. “At the same time, we also need a leader that’s going to hold people accountable when they do wrong.”

Lindsay Minter, an activist and member of Aurora’s Community Police Task Force, said she believed Wilson was “set up to fail.”

“Nobody likes change, but to treat someone who served the department for 25 years in such a manner is deplorable,” she said.

Minter said she didn’t always agree with the decisions that Wilson made but said the chief had made significant strides in building back trust with the community. Now, Minter said, all that work has been undone.

“With a stroke of a pen, he took all that trust she built with Aurora away,” Minter said.

State legislators representing Aurora, all Democrats, joined in pushing back on the firing.

“The firing of Aurora’s police chief will set back the critical and long overdue efforts currently underway in Aurora to ensure accountability and integrity in our police department,” representatives Iman Jodeh, Naquetta Ricks, Mandy Lindsay, Mike Weissman and Dafna Michaelson Jenet, and state senators Rhonda Fields and Janet Buckner said in a joint press release.

“Chief Wilson has been working hard to build a police force that reflects the diversity of our community and hold 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,” they said.

Wilson “held officers who engaged in misconduct accountable, and refused to tolerate the status quo that the Attorney General’s investigation found consistently endangered the lives of Black and Brown people in Aurora,” the group wrote. “We will not go back. Aurora needs a police chief who will continue these critical reforms to eradicate the department’s clearly documented pattern of racist policing and targeting of people of color.”

Local activist Candice Bailey said Wilson’s firing “sends the message that change is not welcome or warranted in the city of Aurora.” She criticized Twombly for placing the blame wholly on Wilson and argued the city manager should lose his job too.

“If her head is on the chopping block, his should be as well,” Bailey said. “He is the most powerful man in our city and chooses to deflect leadership and accountability to one individual.”

Bailey sits on the citizen’s advisory budget committee and said that anyone who has seen the city’s budget for the past several years would have known that there was a problem with records.

“There is not a question in my mind that every leader in our city knew there was a problem” in the records section, but Twombly chose to place the blame on Wilson, Bailey said.

Critical police records audit came hours before firing

According to the records section audit by Ed Claughton of PRI Management Group — who has come under fire for alleged conflicts of interest in past audits — the backlog of documents included 2,512 police reports as of March 11. One-thousand-and-fifty-four of those dated back to 2021, according to the audit report.

Claughton warned that the backlog could hold up investigations or result in dangerous criminals not being arrested before harming more people.

“It is administrative errors and failures such as this that lead to cases like the Charleston, SC church mass murder and the Marjorie (sic) Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, both of which would not have happened had law enforcement not erred in the processing of prior cases involving the suspects,” he wrote.

“While the police department is aware of this, it has not assigned the level of urgency that it should and has taken insufficient steps to correct this high-liability matter,” he said. “Ultimately, such failures are the result of a lack of leadership and accountability.”

Wilson’s leadership of the department has become a divisive topic on Aurora’s city council in recent months — attorney Paula Greisen previously said City Manager Jim Twombly asked Wilson on March 21 to resign, claiming Twombly was under pressure from a council contingent unhappy with Wilson’s efforts to reform the department.

City council members had mixed responses to the news of firing.

Councilmember Alison Coombs said she was “disappointed” by Twombly’s decision to fire the chief, which she said would undermine ongoing efforts to reform the department.

“This tells the worst actors in our police department that the city management is not in charge, and the City Council is not in charge, and instead, they are,” she said.

Coombs accused new council members of working behind the scenes to orchestrate the firing of the chief.

“I think Vanessa was in a tough position because she had lost the morale of her department, and when you lead an organization the size of Aurora’s, it’s very hard to lead when you’ve lost the rank and file (officers),” said Councilmember Curtis Gardner.

However, Gardner said he did not think the problem was entirely her fault, and that some of the reported crisis of confidence within the organization was caused by external factors.

“To me, there isn’t sufficient evidence that she should no longer be the police chief,” Gardner said, but he acknowledged the decision was ultimately Twombly’s to make.

Councilmember Steve Sundberg said he was disappointed Wilson didn’t take greater ownership over the backlogged police reports and other problems within the department.

“She’s done well building trust within the community,” Sundberg said. “However, there’s been some systemic failure and severe attrition within the ranks, and that’s been taken into consideration by the city manager.”

He said the audit was discussed during a recent meeting of the council’s public safety policy committee, which he viewed as a missed opportunity for the chief to take responsibility.

“That has put our city under tremendous liability,” he said. “I was waiting for her to tip her finger up and say the buck stops here. I would have had great respect for her if she owned it.”

A veteran Aurora police officer of color, speaking on the condition of  anonymity to The Sentinel, for fear of reprisal, said numerous female officers and minority cops are convinced that the audit controversy is just the latest effort to stymie police reform, especially transparency and accountability.

“There are forces at work here that want to turn back the clock,” the officer said, referring to multiple mandates for police reform. “New conservative members of the city council are either agents of some police union leaders or themselves working to push back against a chief who has worked to restore credibility and trust from the community.”

The officer said Wilson was put in a Herculean predicament from the beginning, trying to rebuild credibility with the public and shore up a police department while making clear “it would no longer be business as usual.”

“The chief has made it clear that she’ll fire cops who commit fireable offenses,” the officer said. “That infuriates some cops who see nothing wrong with pistol-whipping suspects or telling officers that the chief wants to replace white male cops with inferior officers of color.”

The officer said there are many cops afraid to speak out against this effort, fearing it could cost them a future promotion or even their job. More worrisome, the officer said, is bullying and hazing by fellow officers.

“Cops are like lemmings,” the officer said. “They follow the leader.”

Many cops are afraid to step up against those fighting reform because they worry what might happen at a critical moment when they need help from someone who sees them as a political opponent.

“Am I going to be covered when I’m out on calls?” the officer asked. “It may never come to that, but I can tell you, the worry and the fear that it could happen is palpable,” adding that it prevents many officers from voicing their opinions.

The officer said too many cops and political leaders are mistaken in thinking that policing requires oppressive authority and control.

“You can fight crime and endear yourself to the community at the same time,” the officer said.

Records audit raises questions

A veteran ranking officer in the Aurora Police Department also questioned the validity of some claims made in the report, specifically that the public was in imminent danger because cases involving murderers or sexual predators languished.

The officer also spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to talk about questions the audit raised.

That officer said the PRI report was highly unusual in the language used in the assessment, levying a political charge against the police department “leadership.”

The day before Twombly announced the firing, Claughton issued his scathing assessment of the police records backlog, including thousands of unprocessed police reports for crimes as serious as murder and child molestation. The auditor blamed Wilson’s administration for the failure.

Twombly said in a statement that he and the city’s internal audit team hired PRI in December, after an internal audit of the department’s compliance with the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act showed widespread problems within the records section.

The act primarily covers public access to police records, as well as protocols for handling and storing all kinds of reports and materials.

The internal audit — requested last year by Wilson and city leaders —- concluded the department had at times not complied with regulations and said the records request process needed improvement to ensure accessibility and transparency.

Alleged violations mostly had to do with how long requests took and how they were handled. The auditors said the records section was understaffed and struggling with a variety of inefficiencies as well as old and incompatible technologies.

“The problems this section faces did not occur over a short period of time, are numerous and in some cases complex,” Twombly said at the time. He also recognized the chief for her attempts to remedy the records problem, saying “this situation didn’t happen overnight, and I believe (Wilson) inherited much of it.”

Besides backlogged police reports, Claughton said in the Tuesday report that more than a thousand public records requests were unfulfilled, several thousand court-ordered record seals and expungements had not been processed, and several thousand Colorado Criminal Information Center second-party quality control checks had not been completed.

He blamed the “organizational structure and work schedule” of the section, criticizing how it was split between a “law enforcement / operations side” and a “public window side.” Claughton said that “while staffing may also be a contributing factor, it is likely not the primary, or even secondary, cause of any backlogs.”

He also said there was an “alarming lack of urgency” within the section that he believed could be addressed by assigning a police lieutenant to get involved in operations.

Twombly said in a statement Tuesday that the consultant released its report after spending a week on-site in March and that the records section was “in many ways … the backbone of Aurora’s criminal justice system.”

“These are not failures that have occurred overnight,” Twombly said. “Nevertheless, it is the city management team’s responsibility to make sure there is a plan in place that prioritizes a swift, thorough and lasting resolution to these problems.”

News of the audit prompted top prosecutors from Aurora’s two judicial districts to sound alarm.

“We have read the PRI report regarding Aurora Police Records Staffing and, suffice to say, we are alarmed,” district attorneys Brian Mason and Johns Kellner said in a joint statement. “Our first concern is to ensure that the public – and specifically victims of crime – are protected. Failures in processing police reports of new crimes or processing reports in ongoing investigations must be remedied immediately to both protect the public and the integrity of existing cases.”

Coffman posted on social media Tuesday that “there is absolutely no excuse for this, and the safety of our residents has been compromised because of a catastrophic failure of leadership within the department.” Jurinsky linked to a news article about the audit and said it was “time for significant leadership changes in the APD.”

City spokesperson Ryan Luby said that, since March, the backlog had been cut down to 1,252 pending reports. Twombly said a variety of steps were taken by the department to address the backlog.

Greisen, Wilson’s attorney, said the chief recognizes the need for improvements in the records section — which is why she supported the original audit and recommended the corrective actions mentioned by Twombly — but does not agree that she is to blame.

Wilson’s attorney reiterated what Twombly said about the problems in the records section existing prior to the chief taking office.

“If the city wanted these conclusions to be taken seriously, then they would have been careful to make sure that it was done by an unbiased firm with no political agenda,” Greisen said. “It’s clear the author does have a political agenda that aligns with the council members trying to oust chief Wilson.”

According to PRI’s website, Claughton founded the firm in 2008. In 2012, after PRI was selected to audit the Milwaukee Police Department, social media posts by Claughton came to light in which he repeatedly praised then-chief Edward Flynn. Milwaukee Police Association president Mike Crivello and others publicly questioned Claughton’s commitment to objectivity, and Crivello told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the auditor was “absolutely compromised if he has already formulated an opinion without doing an investigation.”

Claughton has continued to weigh in on police policies and leadership on his public LinkedIn page, where he’s also criticized the influence of Black Lives Matter — one of the rallying cries of protests over police brutality following the death of Elijah McClain.

PRI told Sentinel Colorado to refer questions about Claughton’s work on behalf of the city to the city itself. Twombly said on Wednesday that PRI was one of two firms that responded to a request for proposals. He mentioned their past experience as one of the reasons why the firm was chosen but did not mention the Milwaukee audit. Twombly said the city was not aware of the social media posts by Claughton prior to hiring the firm.

 

Amid pressure from council conservatives, union leaders, Aurora fires Chief Wilson

Zubair Q Britania

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