Aurora Police Chief, who tried to restore trust with the community, fired for not building morale inside department after two years of turmoil

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Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Vanessa Wilson (far right) during a community meeting about a fatal police shootout in Montbello in 2017.

Updated 3:23 p.m.

Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson was fired by city officials for not effectively managing the department and working to build morale amid more than two years of turmoil that included the death of Elijah McClain after an arrest and a subsequent state-ordered agreement to reform the agency.

Wilson was known for being engaged and active in the community, and Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly said as much in a statement released Wednesday morning that she “prioritized” outside relations over working inside the agency with 744 sworn officers and a little more than 240 staffers.

“The police chief also needs to effectively engage with staff, build morale, and validate employee feedback,” Twombly said. “To provide the level of public safety that our community deserves, a change in leadership must occur.”

In a statement issued by her lawyer, Wilson said she was grateful for the opportunity.

“I look forward to continue working in law enforcement to ensure transparency, reform, and accountability,” she said.

As chief, Wilson dealt with the aftermath of the death of Elijah McClain

Wilson had been with the department for more than two decades, rising up from patrol through being a division chief. She was the first woman to be named chief in the agency’s history in 2019.

In a statement at the time, Wilson said she would work to restore trust in the community following the August 2019 death of McClain, who was walking home from a convenience store when he was violently arrested and administered ketamine by paramedics.

A few days later, he died. His story was among the nationally high-profile police deaths that summoned thousands of people to the streets — both in Colorado and across the country — in the summer of 2020 calling for national police reform.

The three officers and two paramedics involved in McClain’s arrest face felony charges and the city settled with the McClain family for $15 million.

Wilson's firing was criticized by Elijah McClain's mother, as well as some Aurora lawmakers

Sheneen McClain, Elijah’s mother, called Wilson’s termination disappointing. Wilson had reached out to McClain a number of times to express sympathy. She also invited her to speak to a class of police academy cadets about her family’s experience.

“She was pushing them to do better and they fired her because they don’t want to do better,” she said. “She’s not a cheerleader. I don’t know why they would expect her to be a cheerleader.”

Several Aurora elected leaders agreed with McClain on Wednesday, saying Wilson’s departure is an insult to the police reform work taking place in Aurora.

‘I’ll fight for the rest of my life’: Elijah McClain’s mother reflects on two years since his death

A statement released by Iman Jodeh, Naquetta Ricks, Mandy Lindsay, Mike Weissman, Dafna Michaelson Jenet and state Sens. Rhonda Fields and Janet Buckner condemned the decision saying Wilson was making in-roads in the city’s communities of color to trust police again.

“She held officers who engaged in misconduct accountable, and refused to tolerate the status quo that the attorney general’s investigation found consistently endangered the lives of Black and Brown people in Aurora,” the statement said. “We will not go back. Aurora needs a police chief who will continue these critical reforms to eradicate the department’s clearly documented pattern of racist policing and targeting of people of color.”

Qusair Mohamedbhai, a civil rights lawyer who represents McClain and Kyle Vinson, who was beat up last year by two Aurora officers who were then swiftly reported to prosecutors by Wilson, called her termination a regression because the “ink has barely dried” on the consent decree.

“Aurora has unfortunately not learned from the recent $15 million Elijah McClain settlement,” he said.

Reforms, high turnover, rising crime

In 2020, state Attorney General Phil Weiser launched a patterns and practices investigation into the Aurora Police Department in wake of McClain’s death.

That investigation found that the police department had repeatedly violated state and federal law with racist policing practices. The agency entered into a consent decree with agreements to reform use of force and training late last year.

In a statement on Wednesday, Weiser thanked her for her service.

“The consent decree requiring improvement of policing and building trust in law enforcement in Aurora is with the city of Aurora, not any one person or agency,” he said.

During her tenure, Wilson repeatedly tried to call out officers who broke laws or didn’t conduct themselves professionally. She held a large press conference when two officers violently arrested another unarmed person suspected of trespass and referred their cases to the district attorney for prosecution. She also put out press releases every time an officer was fired.

Amid all that, almost 100 officers left the agency in the last year, according to city records.

And, simultaneously, the city has weathered a rapid increase in violent crime — including last November when 16 teenagers were shot in 20 days. There were 45 homicides in Aurora last year, according to the police department. In the first four months of this year, they’ve had 12.