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Aurora police union holds no-confidence vote in Chief Vanessa Wilson

AURORA, Colo. (KDVR) — There could be a new obstacle for Aurora’s police chief as she tries to reform the department, as officers in one of the city’s police unions are voting on whether they think she’s up to the job.

On Thursday night, the Aurora Police Association was wrapping up a no-confidence vote in Chief Vanessa Wilson, while the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 49, already issued a statement of no confidence earlier this week.

“The call to reject Vanessa Wilson is only a call to say that they are not ready to change the things that the community has demanded for years now,” said Candice Bailey, an at-large candidate for Aurora City Council who’s been active in the movement to address police misconduct.

She says the no-confidence vote is a misstep and misguided.

“Two organizations that are trusted with supporting their officers are actually denouncing the highest seat of the police force,” Bailey said.

The APA plans to turn over the results of its vote to city brass. Meanwhile, the Aurora FOP has scheduled an Oct. 5 meeting with Wilson to address officer concerns.

“Law enforcement is ugly. We are warriors that fight that fight,” said Marc Sears, the FOP union president, in an interview earlier this week.

Sears said Wilson proceeding forward with a deeper look at a highly publicized, violent traffic stop hurts department morale and officer psyche.

“At some point in time, they have to look at the wellbeing of police officers,” Sears said.

Since Wilson was appointed Chief in August 2020, she has had to tackle a number of high-profile cases.

In a statement, Deputy City Manager Jason Batchelor said in part: “She was selected, because we believed, and still believe, that she’s the right person. She accepted and embraced her role, knowing significant challenges were ahead.”

Wilson was not immediately available for comment.

Sources tell FOX31 there were 442 votes of no confidence and 16 votes in Wilson’s favor.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


Vanessa Wilson named Aurora’s new police chief as department continues facing scrutiny over Elijah McClain’s death

The interim chief of a suburban Denver police department has become the first woman to permanently lead the agency that’s looking to regain public trust following a tumultuous year since the death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man officers stopped on the street and put into a chokehold.

The City Council chose Vanessa Wilson in a 10-1 vote Monday night, hours after she apologized for the latest controversy tied to the Aurora Police Department. Officers investigating a stolen vehicle this past weekend made four Black girls, ranging from 6 to 17, lie face down on the ground and handcuffed at least two of them. Police later discovered they had the wrong vehicle.

MORE: Aurora police apologize after girls handcuffed in stolen car mixup

The national reckoning over racism and police brutality following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis brought renewed criticism to Aurora police over the August 2019 death of McClain, who was stopped by three white officers responding to a call about a suspicious person wearing a ski mask and waving his arms as he walked down a street.

Police put him in a chokehold, and paramedics gave him 500 milligrams of ketamine to calm him down. McClain suffered cardiac arrest, was later declared brain dead and taken off life support several days later.

Wilson, who is white, has 23 years of experience with the Police Department in Colorado’s third-largest city, a diverse community east of Denver. She got the job over three other nationwide finalists — all Black men.

She said in a statement that Aurora is at a crossroads and that she’s committed to the force being “an active and engaged part of this community.”

“We will be a transparent partner dedicated to making Aurora a safer city for all, with respect for our diversity, an embrace of unity, and continual conversation about how we can do better,” Wilson said.

McClain family lawyer Mari Newman said she’s wary of Wilson’s experience within a department riddled with brutality and racism. But she also says she’s an optimist.

MORE: The Colorado attorney general’s review of Elijah McClain’s death is unprecedented. Here’s how it may go.

“My hope is that she will prove that she has not just the moral compass but also the fortitude to do the right thing and to overhaul a broken department,” Newman said.

Wilson moved quickly last month to fire three officers, including one involved in confronting McClain, over their involvement in taking and sharing photos of police reenacting the chokehold near where McClain was stopped.

Wilson called the photos “a crime against humanity and decency.”

Firing them without a hearing by an internal review board prompted criticism from an officers union, the Aurora Police Association. It accused Wilson of making the decision because she was a finalist for the top job.

Marc Sears, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police chapter, told Sentinel Colorado newspaper that Wilson was the right person to lead the department. With her permanently as chief, she’s free to make the changes she wants without fear of them being undone by a replacement, he said.

Newman called Wilson’s previous actions a “mixed bag.” She criticized the department’s use of force, which included pepper spray and batons, during a violin vigil this summer for McClain but also praised Wilson’s quick decision to fire the officers over the mock chokehold photos.

“What I’m hoping to see is more swift and decisive action like that,” she said.

Aurora activist Candice Bailey, a member of the city’s police oversight committee, said it was better to pick someone with knowledge of the community rather than a “Black face” from another part of the country. But she’s concerned Wilson might be limited in what she can accomplish by the police union and the department’s culture. Bailey said she’s tired of apologies and wants Wilson to personalize the pain the community feels and act on that.

“If it were her child or her mother’s face down on the concrete, what would her actions have been?” she said, referring to the girls’ treatment over the weekend.

McClain’s name became a rallying cry in protests against racial injustice a year after a local prosecutor decided not to charge the officers, citing a pathologist who couldn’t determine how McClain died. Following protests nationwide, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis directed Colorado’s attorney general to open a new investigation.

Federal officials say they’re considering a civil rights inquiry, while the state health officials are looking into what role the sedative played in McClain’s death. The city also is reviewing police policies, including use of force.

Besides criticism of using force, Aurora police have faced internal controversies, including an officer who was found passed out drunk at the wheel of his parked but running patrol car. The scandal led the person in line for acting chief to step aside late last year, with Wilson becoming the temporary leader in January.

Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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Aurora leaders on Monday hired Vanessa Wilson to be the city’s new police chief — the first woman to hold the position.

The city manager appointed Wilson — a longtime officer who has served as interim chief since Jan. 1 — to take the chief position permanently and City Council approved the appointment nearly unanimously.

Wilson joined the department in 1996 and rose through the ranks. In 2015, she became the first woman appointed to the rank of division chief and also was the first woman to serve as interim chief. During her career, she’s overseen patrol, investigations, field training and internal affairs.

As interim chief, Wilson’s handling of large protests in the city has been criticized by protesters as well as those who oppose the protests. Wilson has also fired at least six officers for misconduct during her seven-month stint leading the department.

“Aurora is a city that has experienced many triumphs and tragedies, and we sit at a crossroads for our city’s future,” Wilson said in a statement. “I am committed to leading the Aurora Police Department to be an active and engaged part of this community in building a collaborative and constructive path forward. We will be a transparent partner dedicated to making Aurora a safer city for all, with respect for our diversity, an embrace of unity, and continual conversation about how we can do better.”

The mayor and nine council members voted to approve the hire, though some expressed reservation in their support. Councilwoman Angela Lawson voted against the appointment and said she preferred the other internal candidate for the job.

“She’s had a trial by fire, ever since she became interim,” Councilwoman Marsha Berzins said.

Three other candidates vied for the job:

  • Marcus Dudley Jr., an Aurora police commander who leads the department’s internal affairs bureau
  • Alexander Jones, a colonel and bureau chief at the Baltimore County Police Department
  • Avery Moore, assistant police chief at the Dallas Police Department

The appointment comes as the department continues to grapple with the fallout from a series of high-profile incidents, including the Aug. 30 death of Elijah McClain after three of the department’s officers violently arrested him though he hadn’t committed a crime. McClain’s death gained international attention in June during widespread protests of police brutality and put a national spotlight on the Aurora Police Department.

The new chief will also have to address sinking morale inside the department, the results of multiple ongoing investigations into McClain’s death, a community push for civilian oversight of the agency, fallout from a protest where officers used pepper spray and force on a largely peaceful crowd, a significant uptick in violent crimes and national conversations about the future of policing.

More than 25 people wrote in during the public comment section of Monday’s meeting to slam the department for these incidents and others. The criticism constituted the bulk of public comment and included calls to defund the department, the arrests of the officers involved in the death of McClain and multiple opinions that the department is irreparable.

“Can anyone, anywhere say they’re proud of the Aurora police department?” one commenter said.

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The previous chief, Nick Metz, retired Dec. 31. His planned retirement was overshadowed by controversy over his decision to allow an officer to keep his job after being found passed out drunk in a running department vehicle while armed and on duty. The department’s former second-in-command, Paul O’Keefe, also retired in December after it was revealed he was the first officer on the scene and part of the decision to not investigate the incident as a crime.


AURORA | Aurora has a new police chief: Vanessa Wilson.

City Manager Jim Twombly and a majority of city council on Monday night elevated Wilson to the top-cop position in the Aurora Police Department after Wilson served a tumultuous stint as Interim Chief. She was appointed to the temporary position in late December after former chief Nick Metz announced his retirement.

Twombly said that Wilson had “performed so well as Interim Chief.” Her seven-month tenure has been pockmarked with controversies, including contentious protests over the death of Elijah McClain, multiple officers fired for mocking McClain’s death in photos, other officers accused of drinking and driving, and the recent detention of a Black family erroneously suspected of stealing a car.

Aurora city council members endorsed Twombly’s decision with a 10-1 vote, with Councilmember Angela Lawson casting the lone “no” vote.

In a Tuesday interview with the Sentinel, Wilson called police treatment of non-white people a “systemic problem” warranting change. She also looked to the city’s Community Police Task Force for concrete policy changes and assured its members they won’t be given “lip service.” 

But Wilson said deep-seated change will “take time.” 

“I can’t snap my fingers and have that happen,” she said. 

On the topic of recent protests and clashes with police, Wilson also declared that actions after a July 25 protest march — in which a smaller group of demonstrators lobbed fireworks at APD headquarters and broke windows — put her police officers at risk.

Wilson affirmed that her officers are not “expendable.”

Her greatest fear as chief, she said, is the death of a cop on her watch, highlighting the two Aurora police officers and a burglary suspect were shot following an incident in Denver’s Green Valley Ranch neighborhood last week. 

On Monday night, lawmakers largely lauded Twombly’s appointment of Wilson.

“I’m actually surprised that anyone would want to be a chief of police during these times,” Councilmember Françoise Bergan said of Wilson.“She certainly has had to deal with challenging times and difficult decision-making.”

Born in San Juan Puerto Rico, Wilson will be the first woman and the first openly gay person to lead the nearly 750 sworn employees of the Aurora Police Department. She’s been with Aurora police since 1996, when she came to the agency from her first law enforcement job as a police officer at Virginia Commonwealth University. She started in Aurora as a patrol officer and has since moved through the ranks, serving various roles with the investigations, intelligence and internal affairs units.

Wilson, a longtime member of the Aurora Police Association, received the endorsement of the department’s new chief bargaining union, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 49, shortly after she was named interim chief.

Marc Sears, president of the local FOP chapter, said he believes Wilson is the right person to lead the department moving forward.

“After seven months of being the interim chief, I’m sure Chief Wilson is champing at the bit to say, ‘I can do this and this and this,’” Sears said. “She’s kind of had her hands tied because people say, ‘Well what if you’re not the chief? We don’t want to make changes and then have somebody new come in and change it all over again.’”

Wilson edged out fellow APD veteran Commander Marcus Dudley, as well as a duo of top-level police administrators from Maryland and Texas, for the role.

Lawson said she would have preferred Dudley, who currently oversees the department’s internal affairs bureau, to be named chief. Dudley was recently named one of five finalists to lead the police agency in Waco, Texas.

Lawson also said she would like to strip power from the city manager to appoint a police chief and instead allow city council to make a final decision. She suggested that Twombly would have appointed Wilson as chief regardless of the community input process. 

Lindsay Minter, an activist with Black Lives Matter 5280 and a member of Aurora’s Community Police Task Force, was part of the process to hire a new chief. She was surprised by Lawson’s assertion that the process didn’t really matter and expressed disappointment with the outcome. 

“If it was a facade in hiring, and they asked us for our opinion and it was all an act… I think that is worth being investigated,” Minter said.

Colonel Alexander Jones with the Baltimore County Police Department and Assistant Chief Avery Moore with the Dallas Police Department were the two external candidates vying for the position that comes with a salary of approximately $200,000 per year.

Councilmember Alison Coombs said that the police department required “deep-seated structural change.”

“No one chief is going to be able to do that on their own or know, on their own, what to do,” Coombs said, calling for citizens to remain committed in shaping APD’s future.

Omar Montgomery, president of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People branch, said Tuesday he wants to see a concrete timeline for reforming APD.

“I think that the appointment of the new police chief, I hope — being optimistic — would bring some type of expedited and systemic change,” he said. 

Montgomery was motivated Tuesday by his extreme disappointment with a recent video depicting APD officers detaining a group of Black girls during a weekend investigation of a stolen car. Officers later determined that the vehicle they were seeking had the same license plate number but was from out-of-state and was a motorcycle. 

“This systemic problem is embedded in the policing philosophy of Aurora PD,” he said. 

Aurora city lawmakers also granted initial approval Monday night to a city-wide ban on police using carotid chokeholds, which restrict blood flow to the brain. Police stopped and restrained McClain, the young, Black massage therapist, in part with carotid chokeholds in August 2019.

Lawmakers unanimously approved the ordinance, which still requires a second vote.

Councilmembers Juan Marcano and Angela Lawson introduced the ordinance in June to ensure longevity in an existing rules change in APD. City officials already had banned police from using carotid chokeholds in June. A sweeping state law that month also banned police use of carotid holds and chokeholds.

This story was updated Tuesday with reactions from community leaders and contents from an interview with Chief Wilson. 


Aurora vanessa police email wilson

AURORA | A majority of Aurora police officers have said they do not have confidence in Chief Vanessa Wilson’s ongoing leadership of the department in a symbolic survey, escalating the turmoil for the beleaguered agency.

Members of the Aurora Police Department’s two labor unions, the Aurora Police Association and a local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, responded to a single-question poll this week voicing their lack of support for the chief, who was awarded the full-time role last August after serving as head of the organization on an interim basis for eight months.

Union members voted 442 to 16 against Wilson, with the majority responding “no” to the question: “Do you feel confident in the leadership of Chief Vanessa Wilson?,” according to Doug Wilkinson, head of the APA.

“She should be removed immediately,” Wilkinson wrote in an email.

Marc Sears, president of the local FOP branch, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

Both unions boast several hundred members, and officers can opt to pay dues and join either or both organizations, which offer legal counsel and other resources to officers. The APA was the designated bargaining unit for officers for decades, but the FOP assumed that role following a vote in 2019.

Aurora police reported having 744 sworn officers in August, though several dozen of those workers are in roles that preclude them from being union members, according to city documents.

The vote was prompted following a CBS4 story published last week on a controversial traffic stop in May. The report on a Black man who reported being tackled and stunned with a Taser after nearly hitting officers with his car prompted Wilson to open an investigation into the incident.

That irked Wilkinson.

“After a recent event in which Chief Wilson restarted an investigation on officers who had already been cleared of wrongdoing by department experts the Aurora Police Association Executive Board determined it was necessary to hold a vote of no confidence on her administration,” he wrote.

The vote comes about a month after Attorney General Phil Weiser announced that a state grand jury had indicted several officers and paramedics on homicide charges related to the arrest of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who died days after first responders restrained and sedated him, in August 2019. Weiser also recently published a damning report on the agency that outlined repeated patterns and practices of racially-biased policing in Aurora, which will likely cause the agency to be overseen by the state for years to come.

The announcements came as a record number of Aurora police officers were reported to have left the department so far this year, surpassing the number of departures in all of 2020. A total of 96 officers had left the organization as of the middle of September.

When asked for a statement from Wilson on the recent vote, a spokesperson for the Aurora Police Department referred a reporter to a deputy city manager, who serves the conduit between Aurora’s civil service workers and City Manager Jim Twombly.

Unlike in Denver, where the mayor has the final say on most issues, Twombly is tasked with effectively running the city.

“Chief Wilson has my full support to lead the agency,” Deputy City Manager Jason Batchelor said in a statement. “The members of this agency have my full support. She was selected because we believed, and still believe, that she is the right person. She accepted and embraced her role knowing significant challenges were ahead. She is responsible for making difficult and, at times, unpopular decisions to meet the needs of both employees and our community. Over the last 21 months, she has been a vocal champion for Aurora police officers while also making it clear that she supports implementing best practices. This vote comes at a time when there are a lot of changes underway for the policing profession. I believe we all share the same goal in supporting our officers and look forward to working with the FOP to address their concerns and restore trust.”


New Aurora Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson pledges transparency amid tumult at department

AURORA, Colo. – The city of Aurora announced Monday that Division Chief Vanessa Wilson will be the interim chief of the police department, and she pledged to show transparency and work with the community to rebuild trust in the department amid a host of incidents in recent months.

Wilson will become interim chief Jan. 1 – after Chief Nick Metz retires at the end of the year. She is a 23-year veteran of the department and was the first woman to be named division chief within the department – a rank she attained in April 2015. She has overseen the Metro Division and previously was the Operations Patrol Chief for the department.

Monday marked her 23rd anniversary with the department. Wilson said at a morning news conference that she was grateful to lead the department during the national search for a permanent chief – a job for which she said she would apply. City Manager Jim Twombly said he expected the recruiting effort to take between six and eight months.

Wilson acknowledged Monday she was becoming interim chief “at a very turbulent time” when the community “is angry” following the in-custody death of Elijah McClain, the handling of Agent Nate Meier’s on-duty intoxicated driving incident, the retirement of Metz and the retirement of Deputy Chief Paul O’Keefe and his withdrawal from consideration for the interim chief position over his involvement in the Meier incident. O'Keefe had been set to be interim police chief before his retirement.

She said she and the department would work “tirelessly” to regain the community’s trust and said that “no one is above the law,” but also asked the community not to give the department a blanket condemnation because of the incidents over the past few months. Wilson said that she would be asking for significant input from the community and community groups and would move forward with the recommendations the department receives.

“Obviously, the trust in us from the community has been very significantly shaken by previous events we’ve gone through for the past four months,” she said.

Regarding the McClain death, Wilson said that the department has already found a retention system for body cameras to ensure they do not fall off officers as they did in the McClain incident. Wilson said she has named an executive team that will set up a tactical review board of the McClain case.

Twombly has enlisted former U.S. Attorney John Walsh to lead an independent review into the Meier case. He will work with 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler on any possible criminal charges. Both Wilson and Twombly said they could not comment on the case Monday because of the independent review, but Wilson said the video of the incident was “disturbing and shocking.”

Wilson said she loved the department and the Aurora community and thanked her fellow officers for their support, as well as Metz for appointing her as division chief in the first place.

Wilson holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wyoming and has graduated from both the Police Executive Research Forum at the Senior Management Institute for Police in Boston and the FBI National Academy.

She started as a patrol officer with the department, was a recruiter, then 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 promoted to captain in 2014 and started developing the Aurora Community Outreach Team. She was also “instrumental” in creating APD’s Crisis Response Team, according to the department, and has been working on developing the department’s first Domestic Violence Unit.

“Chief Wilson is a dedicated and proven leader in the Aurora Police Department who excels at building consensus and developing strong ties to the community,” Twombly said. “We are confident that she is the right person to guide our team as interim chief and be a steady and respected figure both with our officers and our residents.”


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