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.”
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.