Recently fired Aurora police Chief Vanessa Wilson defended her two-year tenure leading the department Monday, saying Aurora — and the country — needs more police chiefs who are not afraid to push for reform even in the face of resistance from police unions.
The news conference was the first time Wilson spoke publicly since City Manager Jim Twombly fired her Wednesday. Twombly said he fired her because of concerns about her ability to lead the department, but refused to give more specifics about his reasoning.
Wilson said Twombly’s determination that she failed to adequately manage the department was incorrect and that he was under political pressure to fire her.
“I have to stand up for myself,” she said. “I wasn’t going to go quietly into the night, I wasn’t going to accept a resignation and just walk away. But I know what this is driven by. This is a political agenda. There should not be partisan politics in public safety.”
Wilson wouldn’t say if she plans to sue the city or seek other legal action.
“I’m exploring all options,” she said.
More than a dozen community leaders stood by Wilson’s side at the news conference and slammed Twombly’s decision to fire Wilson as a setback to the city. They applauded Wilson for her successful community outreach and said they doubted any new chief could fill her shoes.
“She is community, she is the one who bridged the gap,” said Angelina Baker. “Without community there is no law enforcement.”
Wilson’s firing comes amid rising violence in the city and increased criticism of Wilson from some members of the Aurora City Council, who blamed the chief for tanking officer morale and said it was time for new leadership. Other council members, along with community members, said Wilson should not have been fired and that there was a concerted effort to force her out.
Wilson acknowledged that her decisions to fire more than 12 officers over the course of her tenure were not always popular and angered the Aurora Police Department’s two officers’ unions. But leadership isn’t about popularity, she said.
Policing needs leaders “that are willing to stand up to the unions, that are willing to stand up to people who are doing it wrong, and are willing to fire officers who are doing it wrong,” she said.
“I’m not talking about a mistake with directives, I’m not talking about failing to fill out a piece of paper,” she said. “I’m talking about abusing individuals, I’m talking about lying in police reports, I’m talking about criminal behavior. It cannot and should not be in that building.”
Wilson said the two unions — the Aurora Police Association and the Fraternal Order of Police — fought her efforts to reform the department and discipline officers.
Wilson became interim chief in January 2020 after working at the department for more than 20 years and was appointed permanent chief later that year. She took the top leadership role promising to reform the department and restore community trust as the agency stumbled through a series of high-profile controversies under the previous chief’s leadership, including the death of Elijah McClain in Aurora police custody and an on-duty officer who found passed out drunk at the wheel.
During her tenure, Wilson publicly fired at least a dozen police officers for wrongdoing and implemented reform efforts, including those mandated by a court-monitored consent decree. In September, more than half of the department’s officers said in a union poll that they had no confidence in Wilson’s leadership.
More than 200 officers left the department during Wilson’s two years in leadership. The department is budgeted to employ up to 744 officers and, as of last week, employed 709 officers.
But many officers supported Wilson as chief, said Aurora police Sgt. Paul Poole, a 40-year veteran of the force and a founder, former vice president and member of the Aurora chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police lodge. He read a statement from a fellow officer who wished to remain anonymous but showed their support for Wilson’s leadership. The officer said some in the department threw a “temper tantrum” over the firings, but that the firings were justified.
“Which of the officers she fired do you want patrolling your streets?” the officer wrote.
Many officers who supported Wilson feared speaking out in support of her or the reforms because they worried about retaliation from their supervisors or their peers, Poole said.
“I am hopeful that my statements don’t result in any retaliation upon me, but if it comes I certainly won’t be surprised,” Poole said. “I am prepared for it.”
Wilson said perhaps her internal messaging could’ve been better but that she focused on community relationships, trusting a command staff “that should also be pushing my messages down and not diluting my messages to the troops.”
“I was told to mend relationships with community,” she said. “To send a woman out to do that, to trust me to do that, to hold peoples’ hands that were angry and to tell them to please still believe in APD because of the fine men and women who work here. And I’m able to do that. And yet, once we’ve crossed that bridge, now I’m told that I can’t lead, that I don’t have the, I guess, management skills that they’re looking for.”
Wilson said Twombly is a good man and stood by her in many press conferences and supported her decisions as chief.
“I didn’t make the decisions that I made in a vacuum,” she said. “I have bosses that I answer to. I feel that the timing (of the firing) is such that he’s being pressured, but that’s just my opinion.”
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