Aurora City Council approves Vanessa Wilson as police chief

The decision comes during a tumultuous time in the department as it faces criticism over clashes with protesters.
4 min. read
A protest march begins, demanding justice for Elijah McClain. July 25, 2020.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Aurora City Council on Monday night approved City Manager Jim Twombly's recommendation to appoint interim Aurora police chief Vanessa Wilson as the city's next police chief.

The decision comes as the agency deals with criticism over its treatment of demonstrators and faces multiple investigations over the death of Elijah McClain.

The council's decision was 9-1, with council member Angela Lawson voting against Wilson's appointment.

Mayor Mike Coffman said it was a difficult decision between Aurora police Commander Marcus Dudley Jr., another finalist for the job, and Wilson. Coffman also voted in favor of Wilson.

Wilson said in a statement on Monday she was honored, humbled and energized by the decision. She said the city sits "at a crossroads for our city's future."

"I am committed to leading the Aurora Police Department to be an active and engaged part of this community in building a collaborative and constructive path forward," Wilson said in a statement on Monday.

While announcing his decision, Twombly said Wilson has taken charge of the department by making "difficult personnel decisions" and made changes related to McClain's death and after officer Nathan Meier was found drunk in his department cruiser last year. Meier wasn't charged due to a mishandled investigation.

"Those situations should be handled better in the future by directions that she's put into place," Twombly said. He added, "I would say because of the way Vanessa handled herself through the interview process, the way she's handled herself as interim chief, and her history with the department, I would ask that the council approve her appointment as chief of police."

Lawson said she supported Wilson but said Dudley Jr. was better suited for the job due to his connection to the community.

Wilson has served as interim police chief since January.

She stepped in after former Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz retired last year.

Wilson and other department officials have been asked to comment on the agency's behavior and actions during a June vigil for McClain and again last month after a driver sped through a crowd in Aurora (the Denver Post reported top brass weren't able to attend a public meeting about the latter due two Aurora officers being shot in Denver).

Both demonstrations focused on McClain, who died in August 2019 after an encounter with police. His death is now squarely in the national spotlight and has reignited calls for justice from advocates and others emboldened by demonstrations against police violence and racism prompted by the death of George Floyd.

Aurora Police officers make a line in the street as immigration activists march on the home of Johnny Choate, GEO Group's lead of their contract immigration jail in Aurora. Sept. 19, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

City, state and federal authorities all have ongoing investigations into McClain's death. Adams County District Attorney Dave Young last year declined to press criminal charges against the cops involved in his death. One of the officers was fired last month, but it was due to his involvement in a photo recreating a stranglehold near the site where McClain died. Two other officers were fired for the incident.

During the public comment portion of Monday's meeting, several comments were read criticizing Aurora police over McClain's deaths and the department's investigation into the Jeep driver who drove toward protests last month. A few commenters noted their support for police.

Several mentioned the latest controversial incident: Aurora police department's decision to detain and handcuff a Black family on Sunday. Police said they were following policy. 9News reported cops responded to a stolen car report, but the cops had the wrong vehicle.

"This is another incident of racial profiling and police brutality," one comment read by the city staff said on Monday evening. "Thank goodness no one was killed."

Wilson tweeted out a statement about the incident while the council met.

Wilson has served in the department for 23 years. She made history in 2015 as the first woman to attain the rank of division chief in the department and became the first woman to serve as interim police chief.

She's also previously served as metro division chief, overseeing the department's investigative bureau and special operations bureau. She was also a commander for patrol operations, an executive officer of the investigations bureau, an internal affairs commander and a recruitment and field training lieutenant.

Wilson has a bachelor's degree in humanities from the University of Wyoming. She's received awards for her support of crime victims and for helping create the Aurora Community Outreach Team, which addresses homelessness in the city.

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