The rally at the Capitol steps Monday was different from all the other rallies held in support of Elijah McClain, the young man who died at the hands of Aurora police and paramedics in August 2019 for the crime of Walking Strangely While Black.
This rally was for Vanessa Wilson, the recently fired Aurora police chief, who lost her job because apparently she was too committed, or maybe just committed at all, to following the city’s consent decree from the state attorney general’s office to fix the Aurora police department.
“I have to stand up for myself,” Wilson said Monday. “I wasn’t going to go quietly into 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. I am exploring all options.”
One option for Wilson, who had been on the force for nearly 25 years, nearly three as chief, would be a lawsuit. In the McClain family lawsuit, Aurora had to pay out $15 million. A state grand jury, called by Attorney General Phil Weiser to investigate, indicted five people in the incident that led directly to McClain’s death — three cops and two paramedics — each being charged with one count of manslaughter and one count of criminally negligent homicide.
I’m glad Wilson didn’t go quietly. And I’m glad she has been heard. She was hired as chief to reform the department. We can assume that many of those either illegally or too harshly arrested — one recent study showed Aurora cops were two and a half times more likely to use force in arresting a Black person than in arresting a white one — didn’t go quietly either. They just had no one who cared to listen.
So there Wilson was on the Capitol steps, surrounded by supporters while pleading her case but also the case of what she called “the vast majority” of Aurora cops, who, she insisted, agreed with police reform. Let’s just say it’s not very often you see the activist community rally around a police chief, particularly one of a troubled department. Or see so many community leaders come out to speak up for one.
But it’s not surprising that the impetus for the firing came from the newly elected set of city council members, all of them ultraconservative, at least one of whom had told a radio host that Wilson — the first woman to serve as Aurora’s police chief — was “trash.” Seems the council was intent on firing her because some cops, and the union, had resisted the fact that Wilson was shaking up the department.
We saw much the same thing happen in Douglas County when a newly elected school board fired the school superintendent, who might have been just a little too popular with the district’s teachers for the board’s comfort.
In Aurora, it was the city manager, Jim Twombly, who fired Wilson. He said she had done a great job in community outreach but had not done sufficient work in leading the department. He didn’t offer any specifics of how Wilson failed in her leadership role. And surprisingly, Wilson defended Twombly, saying he was placed under “immense political pressure.”
Mayor Mike Coffman, who said Wilson was the right person at the right time to help heal after McClain’s death, nevertheless said he agreed with Wilson’s dismissal, citing a “lack of urgency” in dealing with a rise of violent crime in Aurora. Of course, nearly every city across the country has seen a rise in violent crime during the pandemic.
Coffman may suggest, again with no evidence, that Wilson was soft on crime, but Wilson definitely went easy on Twombly, who had been trying to persuade her to retire. Wilson refused. She stood up for herself, even if Twombly wouldn’t.
Is this what they mean by cancel culture? I’m still not clear on that.
What is all too clear is the consent decree — to clean up the mess in Aurora’s too-often-gone-rogue police department, to actually fire responsible cops, to provide better training and, maybe most important, to try to restore trust of the police, especially in minority communities.
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McClain’s arrest — he was not accused of a crime, he was not even a suspect in a crime — came after someone had called the cops and described someone wearing a ski mask in August and doing some “sketchy” walking, swinging his hands, apparently to music on his earbuds. That was the catalyst for the consent decree. But it was hardly the only issue. We all know the stories.
Who can forget the on-duty cop who wasn’t arrested despite being passed out drunk at the wheel of his police car.? It was later shown that he had been driving with five times the allowed alcohol limit, but he couldn’t be charged because, somehow, the case was never investigated.
And then there were Black women and children in the parked car at a shopping center being approached by cops with guns drawn. The people were forced to lie face down on the pavement — the youngest being a child of 6. As it turned out, it seems one of the cops must have had reading issues. When he ran the plates, he found that a vehicle with matching plates had been stolen. But there were just a few discrepancies. The car in question had Colorado plates while the stolen car had Montana plates. The Colorado car was an SUV. The vehicle in Montana was a motorcycle.
One Aurora cop, a Sgt. Paul Poole — a 40-year law enforcement officer — was brave enough to speak up for Wilson at the rally. He said he knew that the union and some senior officers were unhappy with Wilson’s emphasis on reform.
He went on to read a statement from an Aurora officer of color, who didn’t come for fear he’d lose his job.
“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 read from the letter. “You may see a rise in crime as an example of the old way of policing … officers threw a temper tantrum because they didn’t want to be held accountable.”
One can only imagine what McClain would say. After he was tackled by police for no reason. After he was twice put in a carotid hold —- now illegal — because, as a confessed introvert, he was struggling to get away. And then it got even worse. The paramedics came and dosed him with the powerful sedative ketamine, on the cops’ advice, saying he was suffering from “excited delirium.” They apparently never attempted to talk to McClain. And unfortunately, they estimated McClain’s weight in figuring the dosage for a 220-pound person. McClain weighed 140.
We do know some of McClain’s last words. The 23-year-old’s pleading with the cops was caught on video and audio:
“All I was trying to do was become better. I’ll do it … I’ll do it. … I’ll do better to help . … I will do anything I have to. … Sacrifice my identity. … I’ll do it. … I’ll do it. … You all are phenomenal, you are beautiful. … Forgive me…”
McClain had no reason to ask forgiveness. The Aurora city officials who, in firing Wilson for her attempts to make McClain’s death stand for something meaningful, are the ones who — at the very least — owe McClain’s family, former Chief Wilson and the rest of the Aurora community an explanation.
Of course, an apology, which we’re never going to hear, would be so much better.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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