AURORA | Aurora City Manager announced a “change of leadership” in the police department Wednesday morning, firing chief Vanessa Wilson without a specific cause.
Wilson, who has been at the helm of the department for two years now, will be paid a year’s salary for the termination “without cause.”
In answering questions from reporters Wednesday, Twombly said it was neither the rise in crime in Aurora nor a scathing records audit released this week that 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 to reporters during a news conference about the decision.
Wilson’s lawyer told the Sentinel the termination was “a concerted campaign by Councilperson Danielle Jurinsky and other conservative city council members to smear Chief Wilson’s reputation and credibility.”
A day before Twombly announced his decision, a consultant previously criticized for a lack of professional objectivity blasted Aurora police in an audit saying thousands of police reports for crimes as serious as murder and child molestation have gone unprocessed.
“She wasn’t fired because of the records,” Twombly told a reporter at a news conference Wednesday. Instead he pointed to two “themes”: overall management and overall leadership, he said.
“I’m thankful for the opportunity to serve the people of Aurora. I am proud of its police officers and what we’ve accomplished together,” Wilson said in a statement through her attorney. “I look forward to continue working in law enforcement to ensure transparency, reform, and accountability. We must all remain dedicated to practices that ensure the safety and well-being of our communities and the fair treatment of all citizens. 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 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. I am proud to have been their Chief.”
City council members were mixed in their responses to the firing.
“Given the challenges that we had when she came on, I think she was the right person for the right time at that time,” Mayor Mike Coffman said Wednesday. “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.”
“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, he 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 Allison Coombs echoed 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.
Outside city hall, the comment was more targeted.
Lindsay Minter, an activist and member of Aurora’s Community Police Task Force, said that 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 that she had made significant strides in building back trust with the community. Now, all that has been undone.
“With a stroke of a pen he took all that trust she built with Aurora away,” Minter said.
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 (the Aurora government’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,” she said. “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.”
Police record consultant Ed Claughton, CEO of PRI Management Group, issued a scathing assessment Tuesday of a long-standing police records backlog, laying blame on Chief Vanessa Wilson’s administration.
The audit report comes on the heels of news of an effort to oust the chief, disliked by some council conservatives and police union members for her outspoken support of police reform.
Activist Candice Bailey said that 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 believes that he should be fired as well.
“If her head is on the chopping block, his should be as well,” she 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 department” but chose to place the blame on Wilson, she said.
According to the audit, the backlog of documents included 2,512 police reports as of March 11, 1,054 of which 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.”
State legislators representing Aurora, all Democrats, joined a chorus of voices 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,” lawmakers said in joint press release. The group includes representatives Iman Jodeh, Naquetta Ricks, Mandy Lindsay, Mike Weissman, and Dafna Michaelson Jenet and state senators Rhonda Fields and Janet Buckner. “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.”
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.”
The chief’s critics however, seized on the report, demanding accountability.
Aurora Mayor Mike 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.”
Danielle Jurinsky, who the chief’s attorney has obliquely identified as being part of the conspiracy to oust Wilson, linked to a news article on the audit and said it was “time for significant leadership changes in the APD.”
The firing immediately drew attention to the city’s consent decree with the state’s attorney general, mandating reforms in APD, partly because of death of Elijah McClain at the hands of Aurora police.
“Sheneen McClain and Kyle Vinson are very alarmed after learning of Aurora City Council’s suspicious termination of Police Chief Wilson,” said the family’s attorney, Qusair Mohamedbhai. “Aurora is already regressing soon after the ink has dried on the consent decree. McClain and Vinson recognize Chief Wilson’s efforts to engage with 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 Tuesday, 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.”
While Claughton blamed department leadership for a backlog of hundreds of reports, some members of the department and an attorney for police Chief Vanessa Wilson questioned his judgment, suggesting he was beholden to the “political agenda” of the chief’s opponents on the city council.
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.
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.
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.”
City Manager Jim 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.
“As I’ve mentioned above, this situation didn’t happen overnight, and I believe she inherited much of it,” he wrote.
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.
Claughton suggested the majority of records section employees be assigned to addressing the backlog. He recommended the department:
- Reduce the number of mistakes in police reports which are not caught by police supervisors and tell sergeants to scrutinize reports more closely.
- Direct the municipal court to fully implement the Versaterm system, which would reduce the burden on the section to print records and provide copies and paper documents.
- Train officers during daily briefings on how to look up records within the backlog.
- Give officers the ability to look up criminal histories from their mobile computers without having to contact the records section.
Twombly said in the 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 promoted 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.”
City spokesperson Ryan Luby said that, since March, the backlog had been cut down to 1,252 pending reports. Twombly described a variety of steps taken by the department to address the backlog, including:
- Assigning a police lieutenant with prior records management experience to oversee the section.
- Transitioning to fully in-person work in the records section.
- Temporarily closing the section to the public on Wednesdays to focus on transcription.
- Training sergeants on quality control measures to fix reports before they’re submitted to the records section.
- Temporarily assigning officers on light duty to the records section.
- Automating more of the records management system to reduce errors.
- Adding more records technicians and a supervisor as well as an open records coordinator to process CCJRA requests.
- Conducting a pay study to ensure the city can continue to hire and retain records staff.
- Prioritizing “significant” cases that require more investigation or jail follow-up.
Claughton recommended there be a backlog of no more than 50 reports at a given time.
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 heard during protests over police brutality following the death of Elijah McClain.