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'She has showed up when others wouldn't': Activists stand by fired Aurora police chief

Vanessa Wilson, who was just dismissed as the chief of police in Aurora, Colo., last week, speaks at a rally in support of her efforts to insure police reforms on the steps of the Aurora municipal building Monday, April 11, 2022.
David Zalubowski
Vanessa Wilson, who was just dismissed as the chief of police in Aurora, Colo., last week, speaks at a rally in support of her efforts to insure police reforms on the steps of the Aurora municipal building Monday, April 11, 2022.

Community leaders and activists on Monday rallied around a suburban Denver police chief who was fired last week despite her community work, including efforts to rebuild trust with residents following the 2019 death of Elijah McClain.

Pastor Topazz McBride said the firing of Vanessa Wilson by the city of Aurora sent a message that supporting justice, communities of color, victims, families and those without homes can result in you losing your job.

“She has showed up when others wouldn't,” McBride said of Wilson, standing among other supporters, including some city council members, outside the Aurora Municipal Center, near police headquarters.

City Manager Jim Twombly has said Wilson was fired because of concerns about her leadership and management, although he credited her for her outreach work.

Wilson said her firing was part of a “political agenda." She did not elaborate but after she was fired her lawyers said members of the city council's new conservative majority had engaged in a campaign to smear her reputation and did not support her efforts to reform the department and eradicate systemic racism found by the state attorney general's office last year.

The attorney general's office is also prosecuting three police officers and two paramedics indicted in McClain's death. He got into a struggle with police officers who confronted him as he was walked down the street and was then injected with ketamine, a powerful sedative. He later died at the hospital.

“It’s not about me. It’s about making sure that we have leaders in police departments in this city, in this state and across the country that are willing to stand up to the unions, that are willing to stand up to people that are doing it wrong, and are willing to fire officers that are doing it wrong,” said Wilson, who did not rule out filing a lawsuit over her firing.

Wilson was quick to fire officers accused of misconduct, posting the results of investigations online for the public to read. Some were fired for using excessive force but some lost their jobs for lying about the hours they worked or wrongly claiming overtime.

Then in February, Wilson fired the president of one of police department’s two police unions for an email he sent to over 200 department employees criticizing diversity provisions the city had agreed to under a consent decree with the state attorney general’s office and disparaging the city’s residents.

“To match the ‘diversity’ of ‘the community’ we could make sure to hire 10% illegal aliens, 50% weed smokers, 10% crackheads, and a few child molesters and murderers to round it out. You know, so we can make the department look like the ‘community,’” Doug Wilkinson wrote in the email.

Last fall, Wilson received an overwhelming vote of no confidence from members of both unions after she called for an investigation of officers previously cleared of wrongdoing in a controversial traffic stop of a Black man, Sentinel Colorado reported.

Aurora Sgt. Paul Poole said it appears that Wilson's “transparent disciplinary decisions” drew the wrath of police unions and some politicians. Poole, who is Black, said he believes that there are people in the department's unions that agree with Wilkinson's email but said he wanted to speak out against Wilson's firing despite fears he could be retaliated against.

Dustin Zvonek, one of the new conservative council members who was endorsed by the police union during last year's campaign, said he deplored Wilkinson's email.

Zvonek blamed Wilson for poor morale in the department, calling her an insecure and insular leader more focused on community relations than in managing the police department. He blames her for an increase in retirements and resignations, which he said were even worse than other departments have been experiencing, leaving the department without enough staff to respond to less-violent crimes.

He said he did not object to Wilson’s firings of police officers over misconduct and did not think they contributed to the poor morale in the department. Instead, they were concerned that her efforts to heal the rift with the community might prevent her from standing by them even if they acted correctly but it looked bad to the public.

“I would also expect the new chief to be willing to stand unapologetically with any officer who does everything right even if the optics draw concern because we owe it to officers,” he said.

Copyright 2022 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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