Aurora’s city manager fired police Chief Vanessa Wilson on Wednesday, citing a “lack of confidence” in her ability to lead, even as critics called her removal a setback for police reform efforts.
During a news conference Wednesday morning, City Manager Jim Twombly acknowledged Wilson’s community involvement during her two years as chief — she was assigned to lead the department as the city faced national scrutiny over Elijah McClain’s death — but said concerns with her “overall leadership” and “overall management” led him to fire her.
“Chief Wilson prioritized community involvement. This is something we all recognize as a strength of hers,” Twombly said. “However, there’s more to being chief than that, and that involves management of the police department.”
Twombly declined to cite specific problems with Wilson’s job performance.
Wilson’s attorneys said the former chief was fired without cause, calling the move part of a “concerted campaign” by some city council members to smear her, according to a statement.
“In an effort to justify getting rid of Chief Wilson, the city and city council have engaged in a conspiracy to leak misinformation to the media and falsely attribute responsibility for the department’s long-standing historical problems to Chief Wilson,” the statement from Paula Greisen and Scott Medlock read. “In reality, Chief Wilson made numerous attempts to have good faith discussions with the city leadership about these issues and repeatedly sought the resources necessary to resolve them from the city council.”
The council member named in the statement, Danielle Jurinsky, could not be reached for comment, and the statement did not disclose the nature of alleged media leaks.
Wilson did not address her termination, though she said she looks forward to working in law enforcement and that she was proud of what she accomplished with the city’s police officers.
“I am proud of the progress this department has made during the myriad of challenges that we have faced,” she wrote.
Her firing capped a rocky tenure focused on changing the Aurora Police Department’s culture and bolstering its community ties. As chief, she managed the fallout from a string of controversies, including McClain’s death after police stopped him and medics administered a fatal dose of ketamine. Other incidents that led to complaints of racially biased policing include when Aurora police officers wrongly handcuffed a group of young Black girls during a stolen car investigation.
Seven Democratic lawmakers representing Aurora, including state Sens. Rhonda Fields and Janet Buckner, rose to the former chief’s defense Wednesday, praising Wilson’s commitment to “rebuilding our community’s trust in our city’s police department,” and calling her firing a step back in that effort.
“Chief Wilson has been working hard to build a police force that reflects the diversity of our community and hold officers accountable for racially biased actions. Her firing in the middle of these efforts sends a terrible message to the police force and to the community about Aurora’s commitment to reforming these practices,” the statement said.
Co-signing the statement were state Reps. Iman Jodeh, Naquetta Ricks, Mandy Lindsay, Mike Weissman and Dafna Michaelson Jenet.
Wilson’s removal comes about a month after an audit commissioned by the city of Aurora revealed a backlog of more than 2,500 police reports, relating to carjackings, child abuse, and homicides across the city. More than 1,000 of the unprocessed reports were from 2021.
The audit, conducted by Florida-based PRI Management Group, said the department was aware of the backlog but took “insufficient steps to correct this high-liability matter.” The delay in processing could enable criminals who might otherwise have been investigated and taken into custody to re-offend, Ed Claughton, the author of the audit, wrote.
The audit also found that several thousand court-ordered record seals and expungements were not fully processed and more than 1,000 public records requests had not been fulfilled.
“The level of risk facing the police department is astounding,” Claughton wrote.
Twombly said his decision to fire Wilson was not because of the backlog of records, but due to his “lack of confidence” in her ability to lead the department. His decision came “with considerable amount of thought” and ongoing discussions with officers in the department, he said.
Two district attorneys whose offices work with Aurora police said Tuesday they were “alarmed” by the backlog of police reports, which they said must be “remedied immediately” to protect the integrity of ongoing cases.
“Once that is done, we urge city leaders to determine how these failures occurred and ensure that they do not happen again,” 17th Judicial District Attorney Brian Mason, representing Adams and Broomfield counties, and 18th Judicial District Attorney John Kellner, representing Arapahoe, Douglas, Lincoln and Elbert counties, said in a joint statement.
On Wednesday, Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman said he supported Twombly’s decision to fire Wilson, calling the police records delays a “monumental failure of leadership” that compromised public safety.
Yet Coffman tempered his remarks with praise, calling the former chief “the right person at the right time for the city.”
“I think she was instrumental not only in gaining their trust back but also in setting the department on a path for reform — necessary reforms,” Coffman said. Prior to the audit, Coffman said he did not feel that Wilson needed to be replaced.
Wilson, who has served nearly 25 years with Aurora police, became the first woman to lead the department when she was named interim chief in December 2019, in the wake of McClain’s death.
She moved quickly to fire three officers, including one who confronted 23-year-old McClain, for their involvement in taking and sharing photos of police reenacting the chokehold McClain was placed in when he was stopped.
The embattled Aurora Police Department faced numerous controversies during Wilson’s time as chief. In September, the Colorado Attorney General’s Office found that the department consistently violated state and federal laws with racially biased policing and excessive force practices, the office’s yearlong investigation concluded.
The findings included that Aurora police officers use force against people of color nearly 2.5 times more than white people based on their relative percentage of the population and that nearly half of the people whom Aurora officers used force against were Black, even though Black residents make up about 15% of the population in Aurora.
Following the release of the report, Wilson said the department was committed to change. The department has since entered a consent decree to address the problems cited in the report and require independent oversight of the agency.
That consent decree remains in force despite Wilson’s departure, Attorney General Phil Weiser said in a statement. He pledged to “continue this important work with Aurora leadership and the next Aurora police chief.”
Division Chief Chris Juul will temporarily oversee operations at the department as the city works to name an interim chief, Twombly said. The city will also open a nationwide search for a permanent chief.