4 finalists for Aurora police chief make their case at public forum

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AURORA | A quartet of cops from across the country made a pitch to Aurora residents Tuesday night, explaining their individual philosophies on policing and why they believe they’re the best fit to serve as the city’s next chief of police.

The four remaining candidates to be the city’s top cop spent more than two hours June 23 fielding a bevy of questions and concerns from residents on topics ranging from independent review to calls to defund law enforcement agencies across the country.

Current Interim Chief Vanessa Wilson, who has been with Aurora police for more than two decades, painted herself as an experienced local leader and frequently pointed to her six-month tenure as the provisional head of the more than 900-person police force.

“I know what the issues are, and I have the relationships within the community to continue for us to heal as this community and to make real, substantive changes,” she said at the end of the meeting held in Aurora City Council chambers and broadcast over public access TV. “Enough talk, enough things that we have to do: I have put things in place. I have made changes. I am the change agent that you’re looking for.”

The other internal candidate still jockeying to lead Aurora police, Commander Marcus Dudley, portrayed himself as a conceptual thinker with an affinity for analytical, often data-based management.

“I hope that when people look at the panel of folks that are sitting up here that they recognize that there’s not only talent in every single one of us — and we’ve earned a right to be here — but they also factor in some of those other significant things for how we move forward that involve being able to have partners that are built within our community, being able to think conceptually — big picture — and also being able to have the analytical skills to be able to pull together the morale of the department and being able to pull together the community to get behind us so we can all start to advance toward the community goal of reducing crime,” Dudley, who started his career with an environmental engineering firm but has been with Aurora police for 23 years, said.

The duo of external candidates, Colonel Alexander Jones with the Baltimore County Police Department and Assistant Chief Avery Moore with the Dallas Police Department, promised to integrate into the community and properly skipper the agency that has weathered a bombardment of high-profile incidents in the past year.

“In my regular role each day, I build partnerships,” Jones, whose department oversees some 850,000 people just outside the City of Baltimore, said. “I build relationships all through Baltimore County. I want to bring my skillset here so that we can actually engage the community properly, and I think that once we start engaging the communities that we have been over-policing and underserving … we can actually make Aurora much stronger.”

Moore, a nearly three-decade veteran of Dallas police, championed sending recruiters to local schools to mend community ties and ideally attract local, diverse talent to the agency that oversees some 380,000 people.

“I will be with you every step of the way, and I welcome challenge,” he said. “I welcome conversation that needs to be had, and I welcome the opportunity to help change this department in a way that actually is a microcosm of the community.”

The city received more than 800 questions in the days leading up to the public panel, the bulk of which centered on the death of Elijah McClain, the 23-year-old unarmed black man who died several days after police detained him while he was walking home from a convenience store last August.

All of the candidates lamented McClain’s death, though the two external police officers said they weren’t intimately familiar with the case. The two internal candidates said McClain’s death warranted change.

“This community lost a vibrant young man, and that tragedy cannot be reversed,” Wilson said. “But what we can do as a police agency is change the way we do business.”

Earlier this month, Wilson introduced a gaggle of policy changes tangentially related to McClain’s death, including a ban on the controversial carotid hold that was appleid to the Aurora resident while he was detained by a trio of Aurora police officers who were ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing.

Aurora City Council members recently called for a new investigation into the case. That new query remains pending after city management torpedoed the original investigator after local lawmakers questioned his standing ties to law enforcement.

Later in the forum, all of the candidates stood by the city’s use of military-style equipment, including a mine-proof MRAP and armored BEAR that are typically used to rescue stranded motorists during snowstorms.

The candidates also all vowed their support for the creation of an independent review entity in the city, though both Wilson and Dudley pointed to the success of an existing Independent Review Board that is composed of four citizens and four police officers.

The city began its search for a new police chief in January following the retirement of former Chief Nick Metz at the end of 2019.

Wilson was tabbed to be the interim chief in the final week of last year after the man slated to take the job, former Deputy Chief Paul O’Keefe, removed his name from consideration on Christmas Eve following claims that he bungled an investigation into an officer found drunk in his running cruiser while on duty.

City Management received 31 applications for the job and conducted remote interviews with five candidates earlier this spring, according to a city spokesperson. City Manager Jim Twombly is expected to name his selection, which will ultimately have to be approved by city council, sometime next month.

The candidates have met with dozens of local officials and citizens in recent days, and they are slated to sit on yet another public panel with legal, business and education experts tomorrow morning at 8:30 a.m.

Marc Sears, president of the department’s primary labor union, also met with the candidates in individual, 45-minute interviews on Monday. He said he was impressed with Wilson’s answers during the conversations with the union’s executive board.

“If Interim Chief Wilson was selected to be the police chief, the actual police chief, I would not have any concerns about that whatsoever,” Sears said.

Still, he applauded all of the remaining candidates.

“I think all of the candidates are very passionate about their careers and very passionate about police work,” he said. “I think any one of them could bring some positive things to the police department.”

Residents are encouraged to provide their feedback on each candidate using a survey that will be open for one week.