Weeks after Aurora officials ousted former Police Chief Vanessa Wilson, and months into a pervasive problem with backlogged police reports, the public still can’t get straight answers about the controversy.
Police reform and law enforcement issues are critical in Aurora, and this controversy is too important to just look the other way.
It’s hard to pin down when the problem of a ballyhooed backlog of police reports waiting for “transcription” began, but the recent police leadership debacle is easy to peg.
For the past decade or more, the reputation of Aurora police has become that of an insular, secretive and abusive department. Years of uncovered, horrendous crimes, racism and malfeasance, culminated in a court-monitored consent decree, where the state attorney general identified patterns and practices of racism, abuse, cover-ups and malfeasance.
The findings are horrific, not just because of what was documented, but because it wrongly shrouded the entire police department in a cloud of mistrust and corruption. Aurora Police has long had a proud and well-deserved reputation for its progressive, community-based department, serving one of the most diverse large cities in the country.
City Manager Jim Twombly elevated Wilson as chief just as the department drew endless ridicule and suspicion onto itself by one mistake after another. Despite that, and despite the ruined APD reputation especially among Black residents, Wilson was able to restore public credibility to the department with her candid, honest admissions of police malfeasance and demands for transparency, accountability and professionalism.
Some police members, mostly union officials, pushed back against high-profile firings and condemnation of police actions when they clearly warranted condemnation. A car full of Black girls and women forced face-down onto hot pavement, a drunken officer passed out in his squad car, officers mocking the infamous death of Elijah McClain and an officer pistol-whipping a man were just the most infamous APD exploits Wilson lambasted.
In 2021, three Republican city council members — Dustin Zvonek, Danielle Jurinsky and Steve Sundberg — campaigned against Wilson’s honesty, swearing allegiance to Aurora’s police unions, winning their support and seats on the city council. All have made repeated, disparaging comments about police accountability, but Jurinsky went so far on talk-radio as to demand Wilson’s ouster, calling her “trash.”
Since the new city council was seated, these lawmakers and police union officials have routinely made it clear they wanted Wilson out.
In a ham-handed series of gaffes, Twombly fired Wilson April 6, citing only a vague allegation that Wilson was unable to lead.
Along the way, the question of a backlog of police report transcriptions became a key point in city lawmakers demanding Wilson’s firing.
It clearly was a convenient deception.
After multiple demands for information and explanations by Sentinel reporters, it’s become apparent that:
- The transcription process of curating police reports is not critical to pursuing investigations nor solving crimes and pursuing offenders, as the public was misled to believe by Ed Claughton, CEO of consultant PRI Management Group and author of a scathing report. The exaggerated claims were repeated by city officials.
- That a backlog of transcribed reports has been a long and recurring problem, predating Wilson’s tenure as chief.
- Claughton has a profound, documented reputation for criticizing on social media police reform efforts, leaders pushing for police accountability and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement.
- That the author of the report wildly inflated the alleged threat to individuals and the community posed by the backlog.
- That city officials failed due diligence in assessing the reputation of the report’s author, even in the face of how critical police reform and practices is to the Aurora community.
- That Twombly knowingly allowed the report to be used privately and publicly as a way to provide cover for Wilson’s firing, despite the fact it was grossly erroneous and misleading.
- That even after much of this came to light after reporting in The Sentinel, city and police officials continued to pursue justification of giving the report credence and credibility by adding that six cases were finally identified justifying Wilson’s critics fear of risks created by the debacle.
These six cases were at best nothing more than compelling illustrations of sloppy policing on the part of officers and investigators, having nothing to do with Wilson nor the lag in transcribed cases. The cases were for the most part old, cold events that never allowed unchecked criminals to continue victimizing people as the report’s author and Wilson’s critics on the city council insisted.
In short, Twombly and city officials still have produced nothing to show that Wilson’s firing was anything less than a political hit job.
Aurora is about to embark on hiring a new chief, after hobbling the city not just with a police department suffering from one of the worst reputations in the country, but now as a city led by a suspect group of lawmakers and officials who have destroyed what little trust and credibility Aurora and the police department had left to offer.
There is nothing more critical to Aurora right now than finding a trustworthy leader of the police department. It comes at a time when crime and violence are so concerning, when the reputation of the police is so appalling and now the stature of those responsible for hiring and overseeing the chief is badly damaged.
The only hope for Aurora now is complete honesty, transparency and accountability about Wilson’s ouster. Without it, a new chief will struggle against a mountain of doubt and credibility when the job of fixing this ailing police department is nearly insurmountable.