When Vanessa Wilson was appointed the interim chief of the Aurora Police Department in December, she didn’t shy from the fact that she was taking over after a string of negative incidents.
“Let’s be honest, I’m stepping in at a very turbulent time,” Wilson said at the news conference.
The controversies haven’t stopped since then, even as the city searched for a permanent chief to lead the department. Whomever the city manager chooses to step into the role will take over a department recently thrust into the national spotlight for the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain at the hands of three of its officers all while navigating a national conversation about the future of policing.
“We’re in the one of the biggest movements in history, ever probably, and the spotlight is on Aurora,” said Candice Bailey, a community organizer who sits on the Aurora Police Community Task Force.
Both external candidates for the position — Baltimore County Police Col. Alexander Jones and Dallas’ Assistant Chief Avery Moore — declined interviews with The Denver Post about how they would move the department forward. A spokesman for the city of Aurora declined a request to interview the two internal candidates, Wilson and Cmdr. Marcus Dudley, the head of the internal affairs bureau.
The city manager is expected this month to recommend a candidate to the City Council, which will vote whether to approve the selection. The new chief will have to regain trust with community members, navigate discussions about defunding the agency, respond to city, state and federal investigations into the death of McClain, and work with a group trying to establish civilian oversight over the department.
“The next chief is obviously not going to have an easy job before them because they’ll have a department that does need, in my opinion, a fair bit of housecleaning,” Councilman Juan Marcano said.
Internally, the next chief also will have to deal with a crisis of morale and an increasing number of officers who are leaving the force, said Sgt. Marc Sears, president of the Aurora Fraternal Order of Police union.
“Honestly, we’re in a very different place in policing than we’ve ever been before,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which consults in chief searches nationwide. “I don’t think the importance of police chiefs has been felt more than it has before. Leadership matters. We’re in a period of incredible change. Really, it’s overstated but it’s uncharted waters.
“I tell chiefs, the good news is you got the job and the bad news is you got the job,” he said.
In the past year, the department has been embroiled in the following controversies:
- Aug. 24: Violent arrest of McClain, which later led to his death and sparked a series of protests and rallies
- Oct. 10: An officer shoots a man through the front window of the man’s home after officers failed to announce they were police
- Dec. 10: News reports reveal the case of an officer who passed out drunk in his car while on duty, but was not criminally investigated or fired
- Dec. 16: A former officer is sentenced to jail for stealing from a police nonprofit while still on the force
- Jan. 13: An Aurora police officer pleads guilty to driving under the influence and prohibited use of a weapon, and later resigns
- April 6: The department fires an officer after he drunkenly drove a car in a Colorado Springs neighborhood
- June 15: Another officer is fired for drunkenly crashing his car
- June 27: Police use batons and pepper spray against people during a largely peaceful protest in honor of McClain
- July 3: Three officers are fired, and another resigns, in connection with mocking photos taken near a memorial to McClain
- July 17: Public records reveal an officer who was fired in February had left a restrained woman on the floor of his patrol car for 21 minutes despite her pleas that she couldn’t breathe
One of the internal candidates is intimately familiar with some of the most high-profile incidents of the past year.
Dudley, the internal affairs commander, oversaw the major crimes department during its investigation into the death of McClain. He also was involved in the investigation into Nate Meier, the Aurora officer found passed out drunk in his car while on duty. Meier did not face charges and kept his job, though Dudley was one of the high-ranking department leaders to recommend Meier be fired. The police chief at the time, Nick Metz, overruled those recommendations.
Dudley is also a finalist to become the police chief in Waco, Texas. Jones, of Baltimore County, applied to be chief of Columbus, Ohio, in the fall of 2019 but was not selected.
City leaders will have to decide whether to bring in an outsider to move the department forward or to elevate a longtime member of the embattled police force.
“Sometimes someone from inside the department can hit the ground running and knows what needs to be done,” Wexler said. “Sometimes someone from the outside can be a fresh set of eyes.”
Existing knowledge of Aurora’s growing and deeply multicultural community is a must, Bailey said.
“Given the inferno we’re in, it would be deaf to Aurora to pick someone who doesn’t know our history, our culture,” she said.
The series of incidents has prompted the City Council to conduct a deep examination of the department’s policies and procedures. For several meetings, representatives have presented on topics such as use-of-force protocol, the internal affairs process and crowd-control techniques.
During a meeting last week of a council committee, Wilson and other top departmental leaders responded to questions about use-of-force, including data that shows Aurora police disproportionately use force against Black people.
An analysis of all 2019 incidents in which Aurora police reported they used force shows that 47% of the people officers used force against were Black. Black people make up 16% of the city’s population.
Councilwoman Angela Lawson questioned Wilson over the numbers, which she said were “disturbing.”
“I can certainly understand why people of color feel the way they do” about being disproportionately targeted, Lawson said.
Wilson said she couldn’t immediately explain the numbers, but that she’d look into them.
The data offers credence to a lack of trust many people of color in the community have felt for years.
As an educator, Bailey sometimes led students through a simple game. She’d create a line on the floor and ask students to step forward if they could answer “yes” to fun questions: Do you like to smile? Is your favorite color blue?
“If we did one of those inside of our community and we asked, ‘Have you ever been assaulted by the police? Have your rights ever been violated in court?,’ we’d all be on the line,” she said.
Marcano said he’s received many emails over the past few weeks from his constituents about the police department. Some show support for the department and say its funding should be increased. Others say they have lost trust in the department and that the role of police in the community needs to be re-evaluated. The latter message is more common, he said.
All of the chief candidates, though to different degrees, seemed interested in having a conversation about police responsibilities, Marcano said of his one-on-one conversations with the four finalists. Broader conversations also are needed about the roots of crime: generational poverty, housing instability, hunger, untreated mental health needs.
“I’m not blaming any individual officer or any individual chief of police,” Marcano said. “This is systemic. This is nationwide.”
One of the agency’s police unions agrees.
“What this country has done is put the burden on the police — no matter what the problem is we have to handle it,” Sears, the Aurora Fraternal Order of Police president, said. “We have to be handymen. We have to be therapists. We have to be school counselors.”
The union is open to having conversations about shifting some of those responsibilities to civilians hired within the department, but doesn’t want the agency’s budget reduced, he said.
More important to the union than any reform is a chief who will support the officers, Sears said. Morale is low in the department and an unprecedented number of officers are resigning or retiring, he said.
“The morale is horrible,” he said. “It’s absolutely horrible.”
He dismissed the recent protests of the department and said he believes the majority of Aurora residents trust its officers. Sears attributed all of the criticism of the agency to a small group that happens to have a large audience, including the news media.
“They’re not going to win,” Sears said of the protesters. “They’e just here to cause commotion and be a thorn in our sides.
“I don’t think that we have the trust of the activists,” Sears said. “I don’t think that we have the trust of anarchists. And you know what, I don’t want their trust. I don’t care!”
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