A calling from above: Aurora police chief talks God, reform at faith summit

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Protesters and police, including Chief Vanessa Wilson, center, kneel together for eight minutes and 46 seconds during a peaceful protest against police brutality, following the death of George Floyd, Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in Aurora, Colo. Floyd died in police custody on Memorial Day in Minneapolis.(Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado)

AURORA | Aurora police chief Vanessa Wilson doesn’t necessarily think God is a man sitting on a giant throne. But she believes there’s a higher power. And she prays.

“I have my own personal relationship with God and I truly believe that he put me here at this time for a reason,” Wilson said Friday during a virtual day-long summit with local faith leaders. She also believes that for those drawn to it, policing is a calling.

“It’s not a calling from HR, it’s a calling from above,” she said. “To lay down your life for a stranger…takes a special type of person.”

An Aurora Police officer talks during a virtual meeting Oct. 22 focusing on Aurora police, mental health and faith. SCREEN GRAB

The summit is part of Faith and Blue, a national initiative to connect police departments with the communities they serve through houses of worship.

The day started off with a one-on-one discussion with Wilson, with Pastor Reid Hettich of Mosaic Church asking Wilson questions about her faith life, police reform and what it’s been like leading the department over the past 22 months.

Wilson spoke positively of her department throughout the talk, emphasizing that she did not believe that the scandals that have drawn APD local and national headlines over the past two years are representative of the department as a whole. However, she was candid about the issues plaguing the department and the toll it has taken on her personally.

When you’re the chief, “it’s your fault,” she said. “Everything that happens is yours.”

Wilson stepped into the role under tumultuous circumstances. A 25-year veteran of APD, Wilson was the first woman to be named division chief, in 2015, and became interim chief at the beginning of 2020 when former chief Nick Metz retired. In August of that year she was named as the department’s new chief, following a summer of sweeping protests against racism and police brutality in Aurora and across the nation.

Since then, Wilson has worked to restore trust with the community, a job made challenging by ongoing cases of police misconduct. In July she launched an internal affairs investigation into an officer who has been accused of strangling, pistol-whipping and repeatedly threatening to shoot an unarmed man he was arresting. Two officers are facing criminal charges in connection with the incident.

Hettich asked Wilson why an officer would feel comfortable acting like that when his body camera was recording. Wilson said she could not talk in detail about the situation because a criminal case is underway, but that “every officer that saw that video was shocked and disgusted because it tarnished our badge.”

She said that she communicated to the victim in the case through his lawyer that he is welcome to speak to her personally at any time.

This week, an Aurora police sergeant was placed on leave  following a June traffic stop in which he repeatedly swore at a teenage girl whom he had detained on suspicion of driving over the speed limit. An investigation is ongoing.

Hettich also asked Wilson about the vote of no confidence that APD’s two police unions took against her recently. In the symbolic survey, 442 union members responded “no” to the question: “Do you feel confident in the leadership of Chief Vanessa Wilson?” The department has 744 officers in total.

Wilson said that the vote hurt her, particularly because she has been with the department for such a long  time.

“That shook me real hard, because I am a human and I have feelings,” she said. “I love this place. And so to have that was pretty awful.” However, she said she understands why officers are so frustrated right now.

“If I’m that target then so be it,” she said. “That’s what those four stars are for.”

At the summit Hettich and Wilson both encouraged people to apply for an open position on the civil service commission, the entity that is responsible for the hiring and firing of police and fire personnel. The commission has been a source of significant criticism from community activists, and Wilson said that people who want to be a part of the solution to improving APD should apply. Applications are due by 5 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 29.

Hettich mentioned that Wilson has asked him several times during her tenure to pray for the department, something that none of the past police chiefs he knew had done.

“Whether you ask or not, there will be people praying for you,” he said.

The Faith and Blue summit will continue on Saturday with a game day hosted by the department from noon to 4 p.m. at the Town Center at Aurora in front of JC Penney. The family event will include free food, interactive games and a bicycle giveaway.

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Janet G
Janet G
1 month ago

The United States is a secular nation. Please keep your religion and your beliefs OUT of anything to do with your job as police chief, Vanessa.

Joe Felice
Joe Felice
1 month ago
Reply to  Janet G

It was a faith summit, and she was just responding to questions that she was asked.

JACINTA BOWDEN
JACINTA BOWDEN
1 month ago
Reply to  Janet G

It’s a free country oh, and that’s what’s wrong with our country today we’ve taken God out of everything

ZJohn
1 month ago
Reply to  Janet G

Amen to keeping religion out of the day to day operation of the police department. Wilson is a mockery of being a police chief. She has let the small radical groups dictate her decisions instead of what a police chief must do to be a leader for the officers and All citizens of Aurora. Yes, the pistol whipping officer decision was right, but the rest of her decisions, and her own lack of personal integrity, is what facilitated the vote of no confidence. You don’t have 449 votes of no confidence to 16 votes for just minor reasons. The 16 votes were most likely from personal friends and those in appointed positions who are scared to be demoted and lose their desk jobs and high salaries.

Wake up citizens of Aurora, your police department is so under staffed because of the current chief’s administration, that if you call 911 the response to your emergency is going to be delayed. God speed to the good men and women of APD, who do the actual work at the department day after day, while battling the lack of leadership in the entire chief’s office.

Joe Felice
Joe Felice
1 month ago
Reply to  ZJohn

Many of us believe she is doing a great job amid insurmountable obstacles, one of which is ideologs such as you.

Joe Felice
Joe Felice
1 month ago

I agree 100% with everything Chief Wilson has said. She has a deeply held faith and personal relationship with God, as do I. She’s got one of the toughest jobs on the planet right now and I happen to think she’s handling it pretty well. Of course the haters and naysayers will say differently.

john wilson
john wilson
1 month ago

Vanessa is the last person that I would believe has any faith, except in her ability to shift blame and climb in an organization

DadConner
DadConner
1 month ago
Reply to  john wilson

Agreed. Not only externally, by projecting blame but internally with her own staff.

Don Black
Don Black
1 month ago

Machiavelli said about politics “First you must appear to be religious”.

DICK MOORE
DICK MOORE
1 month ago

442 officers not having confidence in her leadership abilities only hurts her feelings. It tells me a lot more than that. All negative on her leadership.

Bringing religion into government and policing says something about her leadership to me. All negative and not the American way. I just don’t see how she is allowed to keep her position and why she doesn’t resign.

Joe Felice
Joe Felice
1 month ago

https://www.9news.com/video/news/local/colorado-news/aurora-police-local-churches-food/73-c5442f77-89d1-43e2-aea0-4b9ca02031d4?jwsource=cl

And some criticized the Chief for participating in a faith summit. What she said was that she had “a PERSONAL relationship with God. . .,” appropriate, though not a positional or departmental one. Everyone, even those in the public eye, has a faith-based belief system, which helps make them the person that they are. How-many elected politicians tout their religion constantly? And they legislate based on that, which IS inappropriate. Having beliefs is one thing; preaching them to others and legislating based on them are wrong.