APD veteran division chief Vanessa Wilson named interim chief after weeks of Aurora controversy

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Aurora City Manger Jim Twombly, left, watches as Aurora Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson addresses reporters at a press conference at Aurora City Hall Dec. 30, 2019. PHOTO BY GRANT STRINGER, Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | Division Chief Vanessa Wilson, a 24-year-veteran of the Aurora Police Department, has been named interim police chief, following a month of tumultuous news from the department.

One week before Deputy Aurora Police Chief Paul O’Keefe was slated to take the reins of the department on an interim basis he unexpectedly withdrew his name from consideration on Christmas Eve.

Wilson, who has been candid about the loss of public trust in the police department, said she will also apply for the full-time chief’s position.

O’Keefe’s decision to withdraw from an interim chief position came exactly two weeks after CBS4 and then other media published a story detailing how an Aurora cop found drunk in his running cruiser earlier this year remained on the force despite recommendations from internal panels to fire him. O’Keefe was the first person to respond to then-Agent Nathan Meier’s unmarked patrol car, which was parked in a median near Buckley Air Force Base on March 29. Meier later admitted to drinking vodka to the point of memory loss while on duty.

O’Keefe said the controversy weighed on his decision.

“This request is not something that I make lightly; I have given great thought to this decision and believe, under the current circumstances, that it is in the best interest of the police department, to which I have committed over 24 years of dedicated service, and to the City of Aurora,” O’Keefe wrote. “It is my intention that by removing myself from this interim position, that the men and women of the Aurora Police Department will ultimately be able to move beyond the negative depiction currently being broadcast and be recognized for the exceptional professionals that they truly are.”

The controversy complicates the current search for a chief to replace Metz, which will play out in the months to come.

While the police chief is an appointment made by the city manager, city council member Allison Hiltz said she expects the lawmaking body will want to have some input about the hiring.

“Council did have conversations before,” Hiltz, who chairs the city council’s public safety policy committee, said of previous police chief hirings. “But the main difference will be a difference in priorities.”

For Hiltz, transparency rises to the top.

”I think we need to re-evaluate what that commitment to transparency looks like… and maybe take a fresh look because what we’re doing isn’t working,” she said.

In the meantime, Hiltz said the interim chief can play an important role.

“The interim has an incredible opportunity to bridge some of this divide and work with the community to rebuild this trust and set a precedent for the incoming chief, whoever that may be,” she said.

Council member Curtis Gardner, elected in November and will also sit on the public safety committee, said he will look to Wilson as a person who can better reach the community.

“Some of the recent news makes it clear we have some issues we need to address,” he said, adding that he’d like to see whoever is named chief have a background in police up to date on police training and techniques and has experience with big city public safety issues, such as drugs and gangs.

On Monday, Wilson said restoring public trust in the community was her priority, echoing past statements.

At a November 3 town hall about public safety, Wilson said Chief Nick Metz put into place several initiatives that increase transparency in the wake of officer-involved shootings and deaths, but added “we haven’t done everything that we can do.”

Councilwoman Alison Coombs attended the announcement that Wilson will temporarily lead APD. She said she supported the move.

“I know that … Wilson is well respected by community members and community leaders — particularly folks that have been involved in pursuing justice in the Elijah McClain case and broadly, for the police,” she said. “So I think she’s a very good pick, because the community knows that they can trust her.”

Mayor Mike Coffman said he also supported Wilson taking the reins.

Earlier this month, City Manager Jim Twombly tabbed former U.S. Attorney John Walsh to investigate the police department’s handling of the incident involving Meier in March.

Several hours before O’Keefe sent his retirement plans to city management, Aurora police released outgoing Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz’s disciplinary action regarding the Meier incident, explaining the officer’s demotion and temporary suspension. Meier is also subject to random urinalysis and breath testing, according to Metz’s Oct. 22 report.

Metz has vehemently defended his decision to uphold Meier’s employment.

Metz, who worked in the Seattle Police Department for more than 30 years before coming to Aurora in 2015, announced in September his plans to retire from law enforcement at the end of the year. He plans to pursue a master’s degree and work at a local psychology firm that caters to law enforcement officials.

O’Keefe is retiring from the department on March 31, 2020, he wrote in his statement to Batchelor.

O’Keefe had been tabbed to serve as interim chief in October. He first joined the department in 1989 before briefly joining the Brighton Police Department, according to a city statement issued in October. He rejoined the ranks of Aurora police in 1995 and was named deputy chief in 2015. He was tasked with leading the department’s investigation into the Aurora theater shooting in 2012.