Local police reform activists, elected officials defend embattled Aurora Chief Wilson

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Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson giving details about a new consent agreement with Aurora to oversee its police and fire departments. PHOTO BY PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | Elected officials and community members are defending assailed Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson in the days after her attorney said she was pressured by a top city official to step down.

Wilson’s attorney Paula Greisen said the chief as well as Darin Parker are being targeted by a group of City Council members who want to oust them, alluding to denigrating comments made by Councilmember Danielle Jurinsky in particular.

Other council members said over the following days that they supported the chief.

“This is about politics and not about public safety,” said Councilman Juan Marcano.

He said Wilson has shown a great deal of courage in pushing back against those officers in the department who were caught abusing their power or abusing citizens.

“She is actually holding people accountable,” Marcano said. “She’s earned the respect and admiration of constituents across the city.”

Because of that, she’s become a target of part of the police department irked by demands for accountability among the ranks, he said.

The councilman said that some Republicans on the city council, and especially those elected in November, pandered to a contingent of police determined to oust Wilson and install a chief who would once again look the other way.

“No one police chief is perfect,” Marcano said. “But Wilson has been able to begin rebuilding the public trust in the city’s police. She stands up for her officers.”

Last Monday, Greisen said Wilson was invited onto a Zoom call with Twombly in which the city manager said they needed to discuss an “exit strategy” for Wilson.

“Chief Wilson’s response was that she was not resigning and had no plans to resign,” Greisen said, “and that if the City of Aurora wanted to talk about that, they could contact me.”

Conservative Councilmember Steve Sundberg, who serves on the council’s policy committee for public safety, said he was “out of the loop” regarding any discussions between Wilson and senior city management about Wilson’s resignation.

“All I can really say is I think she’s done a great job building trust with the community at a time when the police department needed it,” he said.

Alison Coombs said during the council’s Monday night meeting that the council should “give some respect to our chief, who has stepped into mess, after mess, after mess that this department already had in place.” She complimented Wilson’s leadership and engagement with the community.

Coombs’ remarks came after Councilmember Dustin Zvonek alleged the police department’s records division was “mismanaged” — citing problems outlined in a recent Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act audit — and said the council needed “to ensure that we have the leadership capable of leading that department.”

“I hope that our city management will continue to look further into this,” Zvonek said.

Aurora NAACP Chapter President Omar Montgomery said he had “strong concerns” about Wilson being asked to leave while the city is under a consent decree.

He compared the alleged scenario of council members conspiring against Wilson to the controversy that erupted earlier this year when some members of the Douglas County Board of Education reportedly colluded in private to fire superintendent Corey Wise.

“If there’s real issues with Chief Wilson’s performance, let’s talk about it as a community,” Montgomery said. “I have concerns that the community is not involved in these discussions.”

He said the departure of Wilson would result in the department “starting from scratch” as it tries to rebuild trust within the community.

“I think Chief Wilson is doing the best she can to mend these fences,” he said. “If anything, I’ve heard people say they like the direction she’s going with accountability. … We’re definitely in a very important time when it comes to what Aurora’s Police Department is going to look like.”

State Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, who was a co-sponsor of Colorado’s 2020 police reform bill, said she found Twombly’s actions baffling, and that Wilson needs more time to try and rebuild the community’s trust in the beleaguered department.

“Chief Wilson deserves a chance, not a resignation letter,” she said. “You don’t change culture on a dime, it’s like turning around a ship. I think it’s premature, and I’m very disappointed.”

She wanted to know if city leadership has spoken to Wilson directly about whatever concerns they have with her performance.

“They want to ask her to resign because she’s holding people accountable for their poor performance?” she asked. “What are we supposed to do, have blinders on, and let (police) continue to do what they’re doing without oversight and leadership?”

Some were unsurprised to hear Wilson was being pressured to step down, arguing that she was “set up to fail” given the conflicting demands of officers, city leaders and community members seeking reform.

“I haven’t always supported all of the decisions she’s made, but I’ve seen her make changes in the police department in ways that no one else has been able to,” said Lindsay Minter, one of the members of a community task force on police reform that was established in the wake of Elijah McClain’s death and other police scandals.

“I feel like the amount of change she’s made in such a short time is scary for people, because people hate change,” Minter said. “She’s definitely done a good job of making everyone mad.”

Candice Bailey, a former Aurora City Council candidate and another member of the task force, said she thought Wilson had not met the community’s expectations for reform in the wake of the McClain case. But she also said she thought it was “virtually impossible” to do so given the influence of the two police unions.

Bailey was critical of Twombly’s leadership as well as the role Jurinsky may have played in pressuring the police chief.

“It is not something the community has asked for,” Bailey said. “I have heard the community say to remove the brutality and the culture of violence inside the police department.”

“What kind of pressure is Mr. Twombly under in order to make a decision that he has the sole right to make? … He just overrode the need for the community’s voice. He has slighted our community,” she said.

Greisen told The Sentinel that the chief had no plans of leaving the department. Greisen said she reached out to the city attorney’s office about two weeks ago on Wilson’s behalf to ask whether rumors of a conspiracy to oust the chief were true.

“There has been a campaign against Chief Wilson and the deputy chief orchestrated by certain members of city council,” Greisen said. “They have made it clear their priority is to push her out. They have called her ‘trash’ and said her termination is in the works, and there’s been an ongoing effort to demoralize and demean her.”

Greisen said City Attorney Dan Brotzman told her at the time that he knew of no plans to ask the chief to step down.

When asked by a Sentinel reporter Wednesday to confirm whether he had requested that Wilson submit her resignation, Twombly said he was “surprised” by the inquiry.

“This is kind of a volatile situation, and I don’t really have anything to say about it,” the city manager said before the call abruptly ended.

City spokesman Ryan Luby sent a statement shortly after in which he wrote that it would be “wholly improper for us to engage in speculative conversations on any personnel matter.”

“We remain focused on comprehensive public safety changes that are in the best interests of our community and employees. There have been and continue to be frequent discussions between city leadership and public safety leadership about progress on those changes,” Luby said.

“This is part of a campaign to force her out for her efforts to reform the police department and implement a court-ordered consent decree,” Greisen said. “She has had a laser focus on doing that since she took the position of chief of police.”

Wilson was appointed by Twombly in August 2020 after serving seven months as the interim chief following former Deputy Aurora Police Chief Paul O’Keefe’s withdrawal to lead the department through to its next leader. Aurora City Council members endorsed Twombly’s decision with a 10-1 vote, with Councilmember Angela Lawson casting the lone “no” vote.

Wilson is the first woman and first openly gay person to lead the nearly 750 sworn employees of the department. She started with APD in 1996 as a patrol officer, moving through the ranks and serving various roles with the investigations, intelligence and internal affairs units.

Upon being selected as chief in 2020, amid various police department controversies including the aftermath of the death of Elijah McClain, Wilson told the Sentinel she believed police brutality against non-white people was a “systemic problem” and that changing the department would take time.

“I can’t snap my fingers and have that happen,” she said.  

While Wilson, a longtime member of the Aurora Police Association, originally had the endorsement of the department’s chief bargaining union, the Fraternal Order of Police, the two organizations said in October that she’d received a “vote of no confidence” by a majority of the department’s sworn officers.

“She should be removed immediately,” former officer and APA head Doug Wilkinson wrote in an email to tThe Sentinel following the vote. He said he was irked by a then-recent call from Wilson to investigate an incident of officers that had been previously cleared of wrong-doing and called for the vote.

Wilkinson was later fired by Wilson for an email he wrote to fellow officers decrying the department’s diversity policies. 

Following the vote of no confidence, Aurora city management staff said the chief had their full support.

“…She was selected because we believed, and still believe, that she is the right person. She accepted and embraced her role knowing significant challenges were ahead,” Deputy City Manager Jason Batchelor said in a statement. “She is responsible for making difficult and, at times, unpopular decisions to meet the needs of both employees and our community. Over the last 21 months, she has been a vocal champion for Aurora police officers while also making it clear that she supports implementing best practices…”

— Sentinel staff writers Kara Mason and Carina Julig contributed to this report.

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None
None
4 months ago

Why are the voices removed

john wilson
john wilson
4 months ago
Reply to  None

same reason many posts are removed and censored, to manipulate the narrative.

doug
doug
4 months ago

Thorough discussion of the issue. Thanks. I totally agree, Chief Wilson stays on the job.
We do need more transparency and accountability from or city council though. And SOON!

Publius
Publius
4 months ago

Color me unsurprised that those invested in the status quo seek to discredit a reformer.

Doug Wilkinson
Doug Wilkinson
4 months ago

How come “the community” never includes the majority of citizens who want criminals held responsible for their misconduct? The homicide rate has tripled since leftists were elected to “reform” the police. You can either have feel-good programs or crime suppression. You can’t have both.

Melissa S.
4 months ago
Reply to  Doug Wilkinson

Actually you can. The “feel good” programs have been found to reduce crime!

Joe Felice
Joe Felice
4 months ago
Reply to  Doug Wilkinson

With or without this chief, the crime rate would be increasing. It’s due as much to the pandemic as anything else, but it’s also where our society is headed. Crime is increasing everywhere in the Country. Do we blame that on Chief Wilson? People all over the Country are probably blaming their chiefs-of-police, also.

And for your information, conservatives are in total control of our City. When are you people going to solve all our problems instead of blaming others for everything?

Jeff Ryan
Jeff Ryan
4 months ago
Reply to  Doug Wilkinson

Since 2020 the planet has been suffering under a global pandemic. This pandemic resulted in huge amounts of people being forced to stay at home. Incomes for millions dropped precipitously, and life was turned upside down. One result has been an increase in crime rates, which was predictable.

To apply non-pandemic rules to a pandemic situation is ludicrous. To blame local government for that is equally absurd.

Of course, the obvious treatment, namely less guns in circulation, is politically impossible. But to blame the crime rate on any one police chief in a period when the rules have essentially been suspended is disingenuous to the point of dishonesty.

Noel Berkey
4 months ago
Reply to  Doug Wilkinson

It would be useful to be able to review the studies that support this comment. I doubt that the studies exist, except in the minds of some of the officers that are driving these “votes” to remove the chief. We don’t even get to see the tallies of the “no confidence” votes. Are the supposed “conservatives” on the council really in favor of having the “inmates run the asylum”?

Karen
Karen
4 months ago
Reply to  Doug Wilkinson

If this is the Doug Wilkinson referred to in this article, you were a huge part of the problem, and never part of any solution.

Joe Felice
Joe Felice
4 months ago

The citizens demanded change from the previous way if doing business in the police department, and we got it. Many feel the Chief is doing a good job. She needs support to accomplish her mission. She is trying hard to change the culture of a department that was out of control for many years. This takes time; it won’t happen overnight. I have yet to see or hear a definitive and specific reason as to why some don’t like her, which is really what this all boils down to. Some of us do know the reasons, and they are all political.

Don
Don
4 months ago
Reply to  Joe Felice

I pray day by day our department can look a little more like Portland. A true American utopia.

Don Black
Don Black
4 months ago

Unfortunately, almost everyone who is commenting knows virtually nothing about police work and police leadership. I will say that it is ironic that Rhonda Fields has commented. Her police reform bill has been largely responsible for driving hundreds of good officers out of law enforcement. The bill is hugely flawed and they will not discuss it. The problem with the left is that they simply ignore anything that is inconvenient. They use a simplistic explanation that the officers leaving are just disgruntled and resistant to change. Chief Wilson should have been standing up and explaining the problems with the police reform bill. I have spoken to many attorneys and officers. No one can explain what is meant in their use of force definitions. So, you make it easy to fire and sue officers while you give them vague guidelines on use of force. In fairness to Chief Wilson, even a good chief is in an impossible situation these days. For a chief to stand up for his officers and what is right, he must buck the current popular theme of systemic racism. Chief Wilson, like the Attorney General, instead hopped on the popular racism theme that made her popular. A black economist and researcher, Thomas Sowell, refers to the systemic racism theme as the “invincible fallacy”.

While police unions have been wrong in some instances, they are not the powerful force that many citizens think they are. They are forced into defending bad officers in many instances because of the often illegal and incompetent steps taken by police administrators. In my experience, police administrators have more often been far more unethical and dishonest than any of the officers. A bad officer causes a great deal of embarrassment to other officers and pain to the public. Bad chiefs cause a far more problems to a city by their failure to supervise and to properly train. A bad chief uses favoritism that allows bad officers to remain and suppresses the attempts by good officers to professionalize the department. So, step outside your little beliefs about the police and understand a few things. The police do not agree with your systemic racism ideas. Yes, it has existed in many places where the chiefs in charge have allowed it to continue. Hundreds of Aurora officers have been trying to do their jobs in a honest and conscientious way. Now, they know that they have been hamstrung by the police reform bill and the popular systemic racism theme. They know that the chief will not stand up for them when there is a question about use of force. They know Chief Wilson. They know her history. You do not. They know that Chief Wilson will respond to the popular opinion in the media and will not back them except where it is blatantly obvious that they had to do what they did. Again, when the prosecutors and the police administrators are ignoring the Supreme Court guidelines on use of force that were established long ago in Graham versus Connor, the police are victims of popular opinion. Officers are being criminally charged for just putting their arm around someones neck or kneeling on them in a struggle. The chiefs won’t admit that they did not give them enough training. The chiefs will not explain the problems with the police reform bill. The unlawful conduct by a few officers have been expanded to hysteria. In a struggle, while they are fighting, I don’t want them to be able to breathe. After I get them handcuffed, then I will get them on their side and get medical attention. The public, and for the most part police administrators, know virtually nothing about use of force. The recent crowd control efforts in Denver and Aurora show that poorly trained officers become poorly trained chiefs. The officers know that their leaders are not competent. You, the public, however make your judgments based upon smooth, caring statements by the politician chiefs. Sociopaths spend their lives fooling everyone around them. I guess I can understand why the public is so easily fooled. When you have spent a long time working around a sociopath, you see their true colors. The officers have spent a long time around Chief Wilson. She never showed any competence nor caring for what is right during her rise in the department. For the most part, her efforts in the department are smoke and mirrors. But, she will appear like she really cares until she moves on to some better job. The police don’t resent her for being gay. They resent the idea that you suddenly are gifted with enlightened ideas because you are gay or a minority. When your real history is ignored because you are politically correct, it flies in the face of what officers expect in the way of competence and fairness.

Law enforcement is in an impossible situation right now. Just because a suspect is black, every situation is racist. Even the Attorney General’s report on Aurora is badly flawed with poor logic. He made every police contact a racist event. No one will explain to me how police statistics on black arrests and contacts can be proportionate when studies all show that black individuals are disproportionately involved in crime. Please note that the looters are disproportionately black. Notice the present riotous and armed criminal behavior in the beach cities of Florida right now.They are almost all black. How do I make the arrests proportionate? White guilt keeps us from dealing honestly with the problems. The public has unrealistic expectations on use of force and the criminal is now viewed as a victim. The officer is assumed to be a racist bully. Meanwhile, here in Colorado, the police are blessed with a badly flawed set of guidelines called the police reform bill. I must say, I can’t recommend that anyone go into law enforcement right now. I am not sure that law enforcement will recover for a long time, if ever. The legislators don’t even know what they have broken. I do know one thing. Chief Wilson will not be the answer.

Bob
Bob
4 months ago
Reply to  Don Black

You got to love all these politicians this article managed to find with their reborn positions of accountability through demands with false appearances they’re all high end social movers and shakers.  Because everyone else has it wrong to think Wilson is unfit to continue forward as APD chief. 
No doubt his bunch, takes the cake.   
State Sen. Rhonda Fields https://kdvr.com/news/politics/blog-post-claiming-to-expose-fields-well-documented-arrest-record-goes-viral/
Candice Bailey back in the news this week.
https://www.westword.com/news/aurora-colorado-felony-candidate-bans-update-13751798
Juan Marcano
2011 – Colo Dept of Revenue v Marcano,Juan A.  Denver, District
Status Unsatisfied Debt to the State

Last edited 4 months ago by Bob
Bob
Bob
4 months ago

“Wilkinson was later fired by Wilson for an email he wrote to fellow officers decrying the department’s diversity policies.”
So Wilkinson, uses his first amendment privileges and gets fired? A political point of view dissenting from a politically challenged chief, no problems there, move along now.

“Following the vote of no confidence, Aurora city management staff said the chief had their full support” What?

john wilson
john wilson
4 months ago
Reply to  Bob

Wilson meets the council WOKE requirements as a chief, she never was expected to be competent.

Rod Bockenfeld, State Representative
Rod Bockenfeld, State Representative
4 months ago

I know it is not customary for libs to hold people accountable. When your a police chief who can’t control crime, improve morale in your department and who’s harder on law enforcement officers than criminals, you must go. Aurora is a great city. Let’s restore it as a safe city.

Karen
Karen
4 months ago

Have all the seats, Rod. All you do is occupy space in elected office without doing a damn thing. You did nothing as a county commissioner and now you’re doing nothing as a legislator. You don’t even live here.

Kathy
Kathy
4 months ago

You guys interview the same 5 people as if they speak for the whole community. They don’t. A lot of those people have self serving reasons for keeping her in office.