AURORA | Amid the hiring of a new temporary police chief and an extended search for a permanent replacement, ex-Aurora Police Department chief Vanessa Wilson’s attorney says there are “many reasons” why the community should doubt Wilson’s firing earlier this year.
Wilson and attorney Paula Greisen notified the city in September they intend to file a lawsuit over the termination, which Wilson alleges was done illegally.
“Clearly, the only plan was to get rid of her — not to consider the long-term interests of the APD or the community,” Greisen told The Sentinel.
Wilson was hired as chief in August 2020, several months after being appointed on an interim basis. She took control of the department as protests against the killing of unarmed Black people by police continued to roil the country, including in Aurora, where just a few months earlier police used pepper spray to disperse a violin vigil honoring Elijah McClain.
During her tenure as chief, Wilson came into conflict with the Aurora Police Department’s two police unions as she sacked numerous officers involved in misconduct and rolled out diversity policies that drew the ire of some.
Wilson’s time as chief also included the finalization of an agreement between the city and the state attorney general’s office mandating a raft of public safety reforms, after an AG investigation found Aurora police regularly engaged in racially-biased policing and had used force disproportionately against residents of color.
Wilson was fired in April following months of criticism by conservative City Council members that she had alienated rank-and-file police officers and didn’t do enough to address rising crime. City Manager Jim Twombly criticized Wilson’s leadership and management abilities generally but said he did not believe she was to blame for crime.
The city has since struggled to find candidates for the job, with the first search ending in failure after two of the three finalists dropped out.
Former chief Dan Oates was tapped to lead the department on an interim basis through the summer and fall. Separate reporting from The Sentinel and CBS4 found that Oates, while leading the department said he sought to “stabilize”, altered discipline boards and procedures and intervened in the discipline of two Aurora officers.
Starting Dec. 5, the department will come under the control of its second consecutive interim chief, Art Acevedo.
While Oates was contractually barred from seeking the job of permanent chief, Acevedo is not, though he hasn’t said definitively whether he will apply for the job.
In the Sept. 23 notice of Wilson’s intent to sue the city for illegally firing her, Wilson’s attorney, Paula Greisen, alleged that the chief was fired at the behest of council conservatives for implementing the consent decree agreement between the city and the AG’s office.
“Chief Wilson was terminated because of her efforts to implement and enforce the consent decree, her association with and advocacy for people of color, and in retaliation for, and in anticipation of her engaging in additional protected activities to reform racially motivated policing in the City of Aurora,” Greisen wrote in the notice.
She described a “conspiracy” to fire Wilson hatched among council members Danielle Jurinsky and Dustin Zvonek; and Aurora Police Association president Doug Wilkinson, who himself was fired from the department after criticizing diversity efforts in an email that the Civil Service Commission said “denigrated and showed hostility toward women and minorities.”
Both council members were endorsed by Wilkinson prior to their election in 2021. Greisen said Jurinsky and Zvonek pressured Twombly to fire Wilson, and that the chief continued to face retaliation, even after leaving the department.
“Though officers in good standing are routinely allowed to keep their badges upon separation from the department, the City refused to allow Chief Wilson to have her badges following her 26 years of service,” Greisen’s notice reads.
“Likewise, the City refused to issue Chief Wilson a Law Enforcement Officer Safety Act card, which would have allowed her to carry a concealed weapon. Deputy City Manager Jason Batchelor told Chief Wilson that he had approved releasing the badges and LEOSA card, but he was overruled by ‘the powers that be.’”
While the notice says Wilson was told by Twombly that she was being fired for “prioritiz(ing) community involvement,” city spokesman Ryan Luby pointed to a news release from April in which Twombly said it was “clear that Chief Wilson has prioritized community involvement” but that “the police chief also needs to effectively manage the operations of the department, effectively engage with staff, build morale, and validate employee feedback.”
Luby also said the city has consistently stood behind the consent decree as the path forward for the department and supports the work of IntegrAssure to monitor the city’s compliance with the agreement.
“City management is unwavering in the commitment to fulfill the terms of the consent decree to ensure that the Aurora Police Department serves every member of our community equitably,” Luby wrote.
The notice was filed within 182 days of Wilson’s firing to comply with the requirements of the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act, which describes how Coloradans can seek recourse if they believe they have been harmed by a local government agency.
Before Wilson can file a lawsuit, the city must formally deny her claim (Luby said the city has yet to respond), or 90 days must elapse with no formal response to Wilson.