DENVER – Vanessa Wilson, who was fired as the chief of the Aurora Police Department last week, said Monday she is considering “all options” in response to her termination, and she and community supporters of hers said they all felt her firing was the result of political pressure.
“I have to stand up for myself. I wasn’t going to go quietly into the night and accept a resignation,” Wilson told a group of reporters and supporters of hers Monday in front of the Aurora Municipal Center – her first public appearance since she was ousted last Wednesday by City Manager Jim Twombly.
In a news conference discussing Wilson’s termination last week, Twombly said it was clear that Wilson had “prioritized community involvement.”
“However, the police chief also needs to effectively manage the operations of the department, effectively engage with staff, build morale, and validate employee feedback,” Twombly said last week. “To provide the level of public safety that our community deserves, a change in leadership must occur.”
Wilson said Monday she felt like she had done what she was hired to do – reform the embattled police department and reconnect with the community.
“What I did was not popular. I understand that. Leadership is not a popularity contest,” Wilson said. “This police department has men and women out there that took an oath not because of me, but because of what was in their hearts. The vast majority of officers at the Aurora Police Department embraced the changes coming. … Please, still believe in those men and women because they’re out there doing it right now, selflessly.”
She said she felt Twombly was “very wrong” when he claimed that her overall leadership and management of the department was to blame for her ouster and said there “shouldn’t be partisan politics in public safety.”
But Wilson added that “he’s under extreme political pressure, whether he knows it or not.”
“I believe he is a good man. I know he has stood by me at many press conferences before and let me do the right thing. I didn’t make decisions in a vacuum,” Wilson said, when asked if Twombly was being made out to be the fall person in her firing.
Wilson said she felt it was “a convenient moment” that the city released a preliminary report from a police consulting company last week the day before she was fired that showed a backlog of more than 2,500 police reports within the Records Section – which the city said had already been cut down in the few weeks since the report was authored.
She said Twombly knew previously about the issues within the Records Section, which led to the audit last year. But she also acknowledged that he was likely telling the truth last week when he said he did not know about the PRIO report authored March 14 until March 18.
Wilson said she has been told more recently that most of those backlogged cases do not currently involve “any serious cases.”
“I think this was convenience,” Wilson said. “Of course it’s an issue, but I tried to face it head on and with transparency.”
Wilson acknowledged her internal messaging within the department “could have been better” but said the litany of issues she had to address on her two-plus years on the job and her focus on reconnecting with the community were most important to her in earning trust.
“But I’m one person. We have a command staff in place that should also be pushing my messages down and not diluting them to the troops,” Wilson said.
She also said the police unions in Aurora had actively pushed back against her reforms, angry at some of her decisions. But she said she was not beholden to them, but instead to the community and to her boss, the city manager.
Asked if she plans to file a lawsuit against the city over her firing, Wilson said she was exploring all options but not announcing anything on Monday. As for what is next for her, Wilson said she wants to find ways to continue to serve the community as best she can, support acting Chief Chris Juul, whom she called a “fine man,” and find a place to continue her law enforcement career moving forward.
And she thanked APD Sgt. Paul Poole, who spoke before her at Monday’s event to praise her work, reading both a statement of his own and one from an anonymous officer who said they only felt accepted and comfortable within the department while Wilson was chief because of her effort at reforming the department.
“Their words were something I can walk away with my head held high,” she said.
Poole was one of 10 people who spoke at Monday’s news conference, including city council members, community members, activists and others who said they felt Wilson was wrongly fired and the city set back by her ouster.
“It’s not just people of color; there are a variety of people not comfortable (within the police department) railing against the majority,” Poole said. “I hope my comments don’t result in retaliation against me, but if it comes, I will not be surprised and I’ll be prepared for it.”
The sergeant, who has been in law enforcement for 40 years and is a member of one of the unions, said he felt Wilson had incurred the wrath of the unions and certain conservative city council members because of the “transparent disciplinary decisions” made by her and her administration.
He read an anonymous letter from what he said was an APD officer who said they only felt comfortable with Wilson as chief, and that firing her was the department’s “broken culture’s attempt at getting things back to ‘normal’” – a place where they felt they had no voice and were being discriminated against because they are a person of color.
City council members Alison Coombs, Juan Marcano and Ruben Medina all spoke in support of Wilson as well.
“What we’ve witnessed her in the city of Aurora is a concentrated and organized campaign to undermine and sabotage the change our community was demanding,” Marcano said. “…You are seeing what is a police department at war with itself – someone who pleaded to be a change agent and stepped up when our community was demanding change to enact those changes.”
“The bottom line is the chief showed up, took on the difficult tasks of balancing supporting good officers who operate within the law and supporting the community, and making sure everyone in our city could experience safety and would not be living in fear of the documented pattern and practices of racial bias and use of force,” Coombs said. “…It’s just wrong this has happened and I hope that we can move forward and find someone that has half the integrity the chief has had in this process.”
Maisha Fields, an adviser to the governor, longtime community leader and the daughter of Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, called Wilson a phenomenal human and extraordinary leader, and said she felt Wilson was wrongfully fired.
She read a statement from her mother in which the senator said Wilson’s firing “will set back the critical efforts we’ve been working on that were also long overdue.”
“It’s a setback for equity, it’s a setback for justice, and it puts Black and brown people of color … on the table,” she said. “The table for what? The table for more injustice. Because this woman right here, Chief Wilson, was the pathway for equity and justice.”
Debi Hunter Holen, a former city council member, and the others said that while there was no getting Wilson back in place, the city needs to be held accountable to continue her work reforming the department and not slip backwards because of political pressure.
“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,” she said. “Let the chips fall where they may. APD is broken, and council’s solution was to destroy the only thing that had been going right.”
The city of Aurora said Monday afternoon it was working on a response to the news conference and next steps.