Former Aurora police chief says she may sue, and that the ‘vast majority’ of officers support police reforms

Allison Sherry/CPR News
Vanessa Wilson said the “vast majority” of officers embraced the changes underway in her first remarks since being terminated last week as Aurora’s police chief, Monday, April 11, 2022.

In her first remarks since being terminated last week as Aurora’s police chief, Vanessa Wilson said the vast majority of officers in the Aurora Police Department support the state-ordered reforms and she left open the possibility that she will sue the city for her firing. 

“I have to stand up for myself. I wasn’t going to go quietly in the night when I know what this is driven by. This is a political agenda and there shouldn’t be partisan politics within public safety,” said Wilson, who was flanked by more than a dozen community leaders and elected officials on Monday. “I am exploring all options.”

Wilson said she is proud of the Aurora officers every day she’s worked with for almost 26 years and said the “vast majority” embraced the changes underway because of the state-ordered consent decree that will require new policies and procedures after the 2019 death of Elijah McClain after a violent arrest.

“The vast majority of the officers in the Aurora Police Department embraced the changes that are coming,” Wilson said. “Please, still believe in those men and women because they’re out there doing it right now, selflessly.”

Wilson said in her fewer than three years at the helm of the agency, she bucked the police union and officers who committed wrongdoing on the job.

“I’m talking about abusing individuals. I’m talking about lying in police reports. I’m talking about criminal behavior,” Wilson said. “It cannot and will not should be in that building … What I did is not popular, I understand that. Leadership is not a popularity contest.”

She said she hoped her successor will carry out the reforms and continue to work hard to reach out to the community. 

Wilson said she sympathized with Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly, who terminated her last week, because she knew he was under “political pressure.”

“This isn’t about me,” she said. “This is about making sure we have leaders who are willing to stand up to the unions, who are willing to stand up to the officers who are doing it wrong … I know what this is driven by … I feel for City Manager Twombly. He is under extreme political pressure whether he wants to admit it or not.”

On Monday, more than a dozen Aurora elected leaders, community activists and even a current sergeant on the police force gathered on the west steps of the Aurora Municipal Center to speak out angrily against the termination of Wilson. 

Many said her departure was going to take the department backward in its progress in mending relationships with the city’s communities of color.

“Aurora needs a police chief who is willing to carry out multiple responsibilities while closing the gap of inequity and justice,” said Maisha Fields, daughter of state Sen. Rhonda Fields. Fields is, herself, a crime victim and her brother was murdered. “It is unfathomable that we’re here today because she’s committed to the truth.”

Allison Sherry/CPR News
Maisha Fields, daughter of state Sen. Rhonda Fields, called Vanessa Wilson's termination a “setback” for communities of color in Aurora. Monday, April 11, 2022.

Wilson took the reins at the agency, with roughly 740 sworn officers and 200 civilian staffers, at one of the most tumultuous times in the history of the city. 

In August 2019, McClain died after being violently arrested by several Aurora Police officers and then administered ketamine by paramedics. Gov. Jared Polis appointed state Attorney General Phil Weiser to investigate the death and the former officers and paramedics now face felony charges

Weiser also found in a “patterns and practices” investigation into the Aurora department that the agency had a troubled history of racism in policing

Aurora Sgt. Paul Poole, a 40-year law enforcement veteran, said he has seen Wilson hold officers to a higher standard —  and she has bucked the police union.

“It has been my experience that no officer wants to hear about the ways he or she can be disciplined or fired,” he said. “The actions and statements made by Chief Wilson tended to rail against the philosophies of some law enforcement officers and certainly against the hierarchy in law enforcement unions.”

He read a statement from an unnamed officer of color who said he appreciated that Wilson tried to promote more officers of color than previous chiefs.

“I understand that Chief Wilson’s firing is a vote to return the police force back to what it was and frankly it was a place where unethical officers were not held accountable,” Poole said. “You may see a rise in crime as an example of the old way of policing was … officers threw a temper tantrum because they didn’t want to be held accountable.”

Angelia Baker, a community activist, said she doesn’t believe anyone can follow in Wilson’s footsteps.

“I hope when they make the decision of who will walk in the footsteps of Chief Wilson … and I don’t know if that’s possible … that they will involve the community,” she said. “That community needs to be at the table making decisions. Not city council.”

Maisha Fields agreed.

“The firing of Aurora’s chief will set back critical efforts,” she said. “This is a setback. It’s a setback for equity. It’s a setback for justice and it puts Black and Brown people of color … on the table for more injustice.”