Vanessa Wilson appointed chief to lead Aurora’s beleaguered police department

AURORA | Aurora has a new police chief: Vanessa Wilson.

City Manager Jim Twombly and a majority of city council on Monday night elevated Wilson to the top-cop position in the Aurora Police Department after Wilson served a tumultuous stint as Interim Chief. She was appointed to the temporary position in late December after former chief Nick Metz announced his retirement.

Twombly said that Wilson had “performed so well as Interim Chief.” Her seven-month tenure has been pockmarked with controversies, including contentious protests over the death of Elijah McClain, multiple officers fired for mocking McClain’s death in photos, other officers accused of drinking and driving, and the recent detention of a Black family erroneously suspected of stealing a car.

Aurora city council members endorsed Twombly’s decision with a 10-1 vote, with Councilmember Angela Lawson casting the lone “no” vote.

In a Tuesday interview with the Sentinel, Wilson called police treatment of non-white people a “systemic problem” warranting change. She also looked to the city’s Community Police Task Force for concrete policy changes and assured its members they won’t be given “lip service.” 

But Wilson said deep-seated change will “take time.” 

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

On the topic of recent protests and clashes with police, Wilson also declared that actions after a July 25 protest march — in which a smaller group of demonstrators lobbed fireworks at APD headquarters and broke windows — put her police officers at risk.

Wilson affirmed that her officers are not “expendable.”

Her greatest fear as chief, she said, is the death of a cop on her watch, highlighting the two Aurora police officers and a burglary suspect were shot following an incident in Denver’s Green Valley Ranch neighborhood last week. 

On Monday night, lawmakers largely lauded Twombly’s appointment of Wilson.

“I’m actually surprised that anyone would want to be a chief of police during these times,” Councilmember Françoise Bergan said of Wilson.“She certainly has had to deal with challenging times and difficult decision-making.”

Born in San Juan Puerto Rico, Wilson will be the first woman and the first openly gay person to lead the nearly 750 sworn employees of the Aurora Police Department. She’s been with Aurora police since 1996, when she came to the agency from her first law enforcement job as a police officer at Virginia Commonwealth University. She started in Aurora as a patrol officer and has since moved through the ranks, serving various roles with the investigations, intelligence and internal affairs units.

Wilson, a longtime member of the Aurora Police Association, received the endorsement of the department’s new chief bargaining union, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 49, shortly after she was named interim chief.

Marc Sears, president of the local FOP chapter, said he believes Wilson is the right person to lead the department moving forward.

“After seven months of being the interim chief, I’m sure Chief Wilson is champing at the bit to say, ‘I can do this and this and this,’” Sears said. “She’s kind of had her hands tied because people say, ‘Well what if you’re not the chief? We don’t want to make changes and then have somebody new come in and change it all over again.’”

Wilson edged out fellow APD veteran Commander Marcus Dudley, as well as a duo of top-level police administrators from Maryland and Texas, for the role.

Lawson said she would have preferred Dudley, who currently oversees the department’s internal affairs bureau, to be named chief. Dudley was recently named one of five finalists to lead the police agency in Waco, Texas.

Lawson also said she would like to strip power from the city manager to appoint a police chief and instead allow city council to make a final decision. She suggested that Twombly would have appointed Wilson as chief regardless of the community input process. 

Lindsay Minter, an activist with Black Lives Matter 5280 and a member of Aurora’s Community Police Task Force, was part of the process to hire a new chief. She was surprised by Lawson’s assertion that the process didn’t really matter and expressed disappointment with the outcome. 

“If it was a facade in hiring, and they asked us for our opinion and it was all an act… I think that is worth being investigated,” Minter said.

Colonel Alexander Jones with the Baltimore County Police Department and Assistant Chief Avery Moore with the Dallas Police Department were the two external candidates vying for the position that comes with a salary of approximately $200,000 per year.

Councilmember Alison Coombs said that the police department required “deep-seated structural change.”

“No one chief is going to be able to do that on their own or know, on their own, what to do,” Coombs said, calling for citizens to remain committed in shaping APD’s future.

Omar Montgomery, president of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People branch, said Tuesday he wants to see a concrete timeline for reforming APD.

“I think that the appointment of the new police chief, I hope — being optimistic — would bring some type of expedited and systemic change,” he said.  

Montgomery was motivated Tuesday by his extreme disappointment with a recent video depicting APD officers detaining a group of Black girls during a weekend investigation of a stolen car. Officers later determined that the vehicle they were seeking had the same license plate number but was from out-of-state and was a motorcycle. 

“This systemic problem is embedded in the policing philosophy of Aurora PD,” he said.  

Aurora city lawmakers also granted initial approval Monday night to a city-wide ban on police using carotid chokeholds, which restrict blood flow to the brain. Police stopped and restrained McClain, the young, Black massage therapist, in part with carotid chokeholds in August 2019.

Lawmakers unanimously approved the ordinance, which still requires a second vote.

Councilmembers Juan Marcano and Angela Lawson introduced the ordinance in June to ensure longevity in an existing rules change in APD. City officials already had banned police from using carotid chokeholds in June. A sweeping state law that month also banned police use of carotid holds and chokeholds.

This story was updated Tuesday with reactions from community leaders and contents from an interview with Chief Wilson.