Aurora Councilmember Alison Coombs addresses those in attendance at a Jan. 14, 2020 public forum, in the chambers of the Aurora Municipal Center, to discuss what the cities residences want to see in their next police chief.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Regan Williams is a man who knows police chiefs.

As a recruiter for Bob Murray & Associates, he’s helped hire more than a 100 of them. As head of public safety in Sunnyvale, California, he used to be one.

Now, he’s tasked with finding Aurora’s next chief of police.

City management has officially started its search for the city’s next top cop following the retirement of Nick Metz in December. Metz presided over the department for nearly five years.

Williams, who also helped hire Metz and his predecessor, Dan Oates, spent much of last week meeting with city staffers and community members to get a better sense of what’s desired in the next chief.

At a community forum Williams hosted Jan. 14, he got an earful.

“I want someone that doesn’t really approach this from a crime-ridden … point of view,” said Hashim Coates, a community activist and former member of the city’s Human Relations Commission. “Law and order is not what Aurora needs. We need someone who understands the full diversity of Aurora and its complexities.”

Regan Williams, Sr. Vice President and Recruiter, from Bob Murray & Associates, fields questions from Aurora residents, Jan. 14, 2020, in the chamber of the Aurora Municipal Center, regarding what the cities residences want to see in their next police chief.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

For nearly two hours, community members like Coates laid out some of what they want, and much of what they don’t, out of the next person to wear four gold stars on his or her collar.

Retired Aurora Police Lieutenant Don Black implored recruiters to stay away from candidates seeking to elevate their careers by lily padding from agency to agency.

“No one has figured out yet how not to pick that politician,” Black, an Aurora cop of 32 years, told recruiters. “And what you’ve given us and what your systems have given us, since I’ve been around, and that’s been since 1978 in Aurora, are basically car salesmen.”

Williams is expected to spend the next two months thumbing through resumes and cover letters before presenting city management with an initial crop of candidates later this spring. In May, city managers will lasso a group of about half a dozen finalists who will meet with cops and community members at a public forum. A final selection is expected to be made in about five months.

Whomever is selected will be quickly tasked with mending woefully frayed tethers between Aurora police and residents. More than the roughly $200,000 annual paycheck, Aurora’s next police chief is slated to inherit a department, and in large part a city, in tumult.

The McClain family’s attorney, Mari Newman, speaks to the media during a press conference, Nov. 23, at the Aurora Municipal Center, after the APD released the body camera footage of Elijah McClain the previous evening. CIty officials are looking at a policy task force that could lead to independent review of such cases.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Following months of protests sparked by the in-custody death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain in late August, police brass faced increased public scrutiny in December after a CBS4 report revealed an on-duty cop found drunk and unconscious in his cruiser last spring was never charged with DUI and remains on the force. On Jan. 9, a different officer pleaded guilty to driving drunk while off-duty in Douglas County in June.

“I have never seen such a fracture, in my 24 years, with the public,” Interim Chief Vanessa Wilson said of the recently frosty relationship between police and residents. “ … Our cops are really taking a beating out there, and it’s really taking a toll on them emotionally and their families. They really do care.”

This screen grab from Aurora police body cam video shows Officer Nathan Meier passed out behind the wheel of his police car as fellow officers try to extract him. An investigation later determined that Meier had passed out from drinking. Meier was not charged with DUI. The incident has caused a vocal backlash against police administrators. SENTINEL FILE PHOTO

Indeed, Aurora police have been busy lately. There have been a total of 11 homicides in the city since Dec. 1, and at least two other shootings in which people were maimed. Overall, crime in the city trended up in 2019, with 19 reported homicides in the first nine months of the year, according to the most recent Aurora police crime statistics. That was a 35 percent increase over 2018.

“I think right now it is an uptick in violent crime, and I think (it’s) the accessibility to guns,” Wilson said. “You know, people can fight and have an argument and yell and scream and disagree with each other, but when there’s a gun involved … tragedy is going to occur.”

Much of the recent violence has involved area teens, some of whom have ties to gangs, according to various social media accounts and anti-gang crusaders.

Jason McBride, a program assistant with the Gang Rescue and Support Project in Denver, said the nature of gangs is constantly evolving, though the law enforcement response to their proliferation has remained stagnant.

Aurora Police have cordoned off the entrance to JC Penney at the Town Center of Aurora Mall Dec. 27, 2019 after reports of a shooting in the mall. PHOTO BY QUINCY SNOWDON/Sentinel Colorado

“This is 2020, and these organizations are still trying to intervene and prevent gangs in a 1993 way,” McBride said. “We need to be five steps ahead of these kids and we’re 20 years behind them … They’re not necessarily identifying with a park or a school or numbers or anything like that … now, it’s six or seven kids who play Fortnite together.”

McBride, who was involved in Aurora gangs himself in the early 1990s, condemned city leaders’ response to the recent violence, saying he nearly walked out of a recent community forum after attendees failed to discuss youth violence.

“It’s amazingly hard to deal with right now, especially if you don’t have any idea how to deal with it, and, honestly, Aurora has no idea what they’re doing at all — none whatsoever,” he said. “ …  As a kid that’s going through this, I would feel disrespected and insulted because I’d think they don’t give a f*** about us. That’s why these kids are exhibiting these behaviors: because they don’t think anybody cares anyway, and if you go by these meetings, they don’t.”

The city has recently tried to bolster resources for Aurora teens, especially during summer vacation. The city hosted a youth expo this summer and launched a program to disperse free passes to area recreation centers.

Wilson said she’s currently working with the city’s community relations division to double down on those efforts and improve ties between cops and kids.

“It takes the entire community, and it takes the parents getting involved,” she said. “Not saying that they’re not, but if they’re struggling with somebody — a juvenile — that is experiencing whatever they’re going through in their life, whether it’s depression or addiction or just unhappiness, like if parents feel like they don’t have options, we have (Police Area Representative) officers, we have nonprofit organizations; this community has things, solutions, to help with that. They’re our future, so everyone has to be invested in this … I want the kids to believe in us and know they can actually come to us when they have an issue, and I know that’s easier said than done.”

APD Interim Police Chief, Vanessa Wilson, left, walks through the lobby of the Aurora Municipal Center, with Lt. Chris Amsler, Jan. 16, 2020, on her way to a Public Safety meeting.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Chiefly speaking

For now, Aurora has Wilson, 51, at the top of the hierarchical ladder. Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Wilson has spent all but two years of her law enforcement career in Aurora. She started as a cop at Virginia Commonwealth University more than a quarter century ago. She was pulled up as a division chief when Metz came on board in 2015. She’s the first woman to ever lead the agency.

Wilson, who is one of several internal candidates expected to apply for the full-time chief’s gig, is a familiar face to anyone familiar with Aurora police. She frequently stepped in for Metz at community events when he was out of town or otherwise unable to attend, and helped organize community gatherings after international tragedies like the mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand last March.

Qusair Mohamedbhai, who attended several of those events and has represented the families of multiple people killed by Aurora police, lauded Wilson’s outreach.

“I think she has a foot in the community,” Mohamedbhai said. “I think Aurora could do a lot worse.”

Whomever ends up in the chief’s office come June, Mohamedbhai said Aurora would be wise to select an internal candidate like Wilson.

Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson lays out what she hopes to accomplish during her tenure as the Interim Chief for the Aurora Police Department, Jan. 17, 2020.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

“They’re going to need an internal candidate,” he said. “I don’t think it’s working well in various departments in Colorado to bring in an external person. The buy-in period is just too long. Unless someone comes in with an established rapport with the rank and file officers and some semblance of being able to work with unions, it’s just bound to fail from the beginning.”

Metz came to Aurora after a lengthy career in Seattle. Before him, Oates came from Michigan, though he started his policing career in New York City.

Marc Sears, president of the department’s primary bargaining union, said he maintains a solid relationship with Wilson and is looking forward to working with her this spring.

“We have a very good relationship with her,” said Sears, who’s been with Aurora police for nearly 17 years. “I think one of the best things about her is not only does she have the experience, but she actually has the knowledge of the culture and the history in this police department. I would say that the majority of the officers, if not all the officers, know who she is and they know what she stands for. She certainly has expressed to me that her first priority is the cops’ safety.”

Like Mohamedbhai, Sears also lauded Wilson’s community ties, saying she would make a fine chief come summer.

“I think she’s a very good candidate to hold that position,” he said.

Wilson, a longtime member of the department’s previous bargaining unit, the Aurora Police Association, is slated to take part in the biannual contract negotiations with Sears’ group, The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 49, in April.

Following increased staff departures from Aurora police and fire last summer, Sears said he’s looking forward to working toward bolstering police compensation and benefits during contract talks in 2020. Chiefs typically don’t play a hands-on role in such negotiations, but they attend the meetings.

“When I first became a police officer 21 years ago, Aurora was the place to be, that was where everybody wanted to go,” Sears said. “Over the past 16 and a half years, I have seen the Aurora Police Department not being the most sought-out agency to be a part of the way it used to be … I think we got a little complacent with the reputation we previously had, and it’s catching up to us.”

In the meantime, Sears said he’s confident Wilson and her executive staff are poised to boost sinking morale following several weeks of organizational unrest.

“I think morale right now, I’m not going to lie, is struggling a little bit,” Sears said. “ … But it’s nothing we can’t get over or we can’t get through, and I think having Chief Wilson and the executive staff she’s put together … is really going to be a key factor in us getting over this. They all have an extensive history here in Aurora, and the men and women that we have now know what it’s going to take.”

Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz talks to reporters about the officer-involved shooting death of a man the previous Saturday. PHOTOS BY PHILIP POSTON

Wrong arms of the law?

John Camper, the past president of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police and current head of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, said whomever city management selects as the next chief should be prepared for long nights and a packed Day-Timer.

“The scope of the issues that you’re dealing with are vast, and they’re ever-expanding, so it’s a very tough job, that’s all there is to it,” he said. “Thankfully there are still plenty of people who want to serve as chiefs of police and lead agencies. It’s not all doom and gloom by any means … but it goes without saying that you’re on-call 24/7, 365 (days a year), and you’re expected to be visible.”

Williams, the recruiter tasked with preparing a slate of potential chiefs, agreed that there are still plenty of candidates, though fewer than there were when he started 20 years ago.

“The candidate pools are smaller,” he said. “I think some candidates have maybe decided that being number two is better than being number one, but the good news is there are still people out there with the requisite skills and desire to be the chief.”

Camper, who served as police chief in Grand Junction for eight years, said a general lack of job security can deter some potential applicants.

“Any chief is one 911 call away from extinction,” he said. “ … Often times it’s the chief who’s the first one who has to leave, and I think people have concerns about that. Thankfully, I didn’t have to worry about that, and I left on my own terms, but it doesn’t always work that way for everybody.”

The timing of the city’s upcoming chief appointment is critical, according to Omar Montgomery, president of the Aurora chapter of the NAACP. The new chief will take over some five months before new district attorneys are elected in both Arapahoe and Adams counties. Both of the current prosecutors, George Brauchler and Dave Young, are term-limited. Brauchler and Young have faced criticism for encouraging police to withhold body camera footage and other details in high-profile cases in an effort to preserve the sanctity of investigations.

Nicole Johnston addresses those in attendance at a community forum where Aurora community members gathered to discuss the death of Elijah McClain, Dec. 10 at Restoration Christian Fellowship.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

“We have a very unique opportunity to do something special right now, to hire a police chief that has community involvement, and we have a DA race that’s coming up,” Montgomery said. “That means we can do some great things not just with police and law enforcement and first responders, but our whole criminal justice system to improve equity and bring equity to all aspects of the criminal justice system — not just some parts of it.”

Montgomery said he’s seeking a new Aurora chief who understands the often fraught relationship between cops and the city’s black community.

“We want someone that’s transparent, someone that’s OK with working with an independent review board when it comes to police shootings and police abuse cases, and we want someone that understands the diversity within our city, from economic class, to racial and ethnic groups, to our immigrant population and the fact that we have different age ranges depending on what ward you’re in,” Montgomery said. “ … With that stated, we want someone who understands that tense relationship between the African-American community and law enforcement.”

City Councilwoman Nicole Johnston is currently in the process of developing a task force that could recommend creating an independent review board in the city. Last week, she introduced a resolution calling for the formation of such an advisory board, which could help stand up an independent entity to review high-profile police incidents.

Wilson, who lives in Denver’s West Wash Park neighborhood with her three Boston terriers, has commended Johnston’s efforts and said she welcomes an ongoing conversation with community members.

“We just need to regain that reputation and regain that trust, and I know that’s going to take time,” she said. “I can’t just wave a magic wand and, ‘poof,’ we’re back together, but I’m excited to see what the future holds for us.”

Whether she becomes permanent chief or not, Wilson encouraged any new chief to remember what patrol officers encounter on the street each day.

“I think they need to be humble, remember where they came from, and remember what it’s like to be a police officer — a line officer on the street — the trauma and the things they see each and every day and not forget that,” she said of the new chief. “They’ll need to really balance the community’s needs, but also stand up for what we are doing right, and not just say, ‘We’re wrong, we’re wrong.’ We are doing a lot right.”

City Manager Jim Twombly is expected to select the next chief in late May or early June. A majority of city council customarily signs off on the city manager’s selection.