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Police chief who took over Colorado department during fallout over Elijah McClain’s death is fired

<i>Philip B. Poston/AP</i><br/>Aurora Department Chief Vanessa Wilson speaks to reporters near the scene of a drive-by shooting that left six teenagers injured in November 2021.
Philip B. Poston/AP
Aurora Department Chief Vanessa Wilson speaks to reporters near the scene of a drive-by shooting that left six teenagers injured in November 2021.

By Virginia Langmaid, CNN

The chief of the embattled Aurora, Colorado, police department — who took over during the fallout over death of Elijah McClain — was fired Wednesday amid concerns that the city’s manager said were about management and leadership.

“There are two main themes that continue to rise up as top of concerns: overall management and overall leadership,” City Manager Jim Twombly said at a news conference, adding that he would not get into specifics, but “it’s an overall evaluation based on a lot of input.”

The decision to fire chief Vanessa Wilson raised concerns among at least one city council member who says the city manager was under pressure to fire the chief. Wilson’s attorney pointed to an editorial in a local newspaper, published Wednesday, that called the move a “political hit job.”

The announcement comes weeks after an outside consulting firm — which has also come under scrutiny — released a preliminary report in mid-March that “identified an issue of significant concern regarding backlogged police records,” a report that Twombly said was not the reason for Wilson’s firing, and again puts the Aurora Police Department in the national spotlight.

The department has been reeling for years after three of its officers were indicted on charges of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in the death of McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who was stopped in August 2019 by police while walking home from a store, placed in a carotid hold and then injected with ketamine. The move led to a 14-month investigation by the state’s attorney general that determined the department has a pattern of practicing racially biased policing and excessive force, and has failed to record legally required information when interacting with the community.

Twombly had announced the decision in a statement earlier Wednesday, saying Wilson had been relieved of her duties and the city had launched a search for a new police chief effective immediately. Twombly said Aurora Police Division Chief Chris Juul will take over the job of chief in the interim.

“It is clear that Chief Wilson has prioritized community involvement,” Twombly said in a statement provided to CNN and published on the city website. “However, the police chief also needs to effectively manage the operations of the department, effectively engage with staff, build morale, and validate employee feedback.”

“This, as I said in my opening statement, is based on my evaluation of the situation, my discussion with officers, my review of the report that came out on the record situation, and then the overall evaluation that I’ve made,” Twombly added during the news conference.

Hundreds of backlogged cases, report finds

The preliminary evaluation found more than 2,500 backlogged records at the Aurora Police Department, according to the report written by Ed Claughton.

“As a result of the delays in processing police reports, violent crimes reported to the Aurora Police Department may not be investigated for months, enabling suspects who might otherwise have been investigated and taken into custody, to re-offend,” Claughton wrote.

The backlogged cases, more than 1,000 of which are from 2021, include those involving murder and child abuse, according to the report.

“The Aurora Police Department would face significant scrutiny and liability in the event a suspect commits a murder or other violent crime who otherwise would have been taken into custody were it not for the transcription queue,” Claughton wrote.

On Tuesday, Twombly issued a statement calling the preliminary findings “alarming.”

“The issues it identified are patently unacceptable. While the consultant discusses them in terms of liability, I see them as a risk and danger to our officers and the community,” he said.

Twombly went back and forth on the weight of the report in Wilson’s firing.

In an exchange with a reporter, Twombly said Wilson “wasn’t fired because of the records problem.”

“It really comes down to a lack of confidence in my, on my part for her to be able to lead the department,” he said at one point.

Official says city manager may have been pressured to fire chief

Asked whether he was “essentially told by city council that if you didn’t fire Vanessa Wilson, they would fire you,” Twombly said no. “I’ve never been told that by council. I’ve certainly heard rumors to that effect; I’ve never been told that.”

Juan Marcano, City of Aurora Council Member for Ward IV, told CNN the city manager was pressured to fire Wilson.

“I can tell you from my perspective, I absolutely have confidence that he was pressured by the more vocal members of our Republican majority to get rid of Chief Wilson, or basically they would try to get rid of him,” he said. “This is, pure and simple, a retaliation against a police chief that was aggressively trying to reform our department’s culture after our community rose up and demanded it.”

Wilson’s attorney, Paula Greisen, directed CNN to an editorial published Wednesday in Sentinel Colorado calling the report a “clear political hit job” and alleging ideological biases at the consulting firm that conducted the report.

“Why a city like Aurora — in the thick of state mandated police reform and trying to dig out from under of a mountain of documented police scandals, many of them focusing on systemic racism — would hire a consultant who is a self-proclaimed warrior against police reform, Black Lives Matters demands and other ‘woke’ concerns, is befuddling,” the editorial board wrote.

The editorial alleged an anti-police reform lean to Claughton’s investigation,

Twombly said in the news conference that PRI Management Group, the consulting firm that Claughton works for, was selected through a process where Aurora city employees examined work that it and another organization had done, and in evaluations PRI scored higher.

“They addressed the issues that we wanted to address, and they had done similar studies in the past,” he said.

Asked whether he had any concerns about Claughton’s posts on social media, Twombly said he had been unaware.

“I didn’t know about those until yesterday. We don’t generally, not generally, we don’t ever check political backgrounds of consultants that we hire. What they’ve posted, or, we don’t do a litmus test on whether they’re conservative or Democrat or whatever.”

In a statement provided to CNN by email, PRI Management Group specified it was conducting a staffing study for the City of Aurora which is still in progress, and that the study is not aimed at specific employees.

“This study did not include evaluating individual employee performance, nor was our work in any way, shape, or form, intended to disparage, smear, evaluate, or impact the employment of the Chief of Police,” the statement said.

“To suggest anything to the contrary, or to politicize this matter, is very unfortunate.”

CNN has reached out to Claughton for comment.

Marcano said Wilson became interim chief in January 2020, after the deputy chief, in line to take over from the retiring chief, resigned following a “cover-up” for another officer. “Leadership passed to then-interim Chief Vanessa Wilson, who eventually became chief of police,” he told CNN.

“This was at a time where our community was reeling from the murder of Elijah McLean and was demanding accountability. That was further amplified then by the murder of George Floyd, and demands for police reform and accountability nationwide.”

Marcano said he thought Wilson “earned the ire” of the Aurora Police Association, the union that represents the city’s police officers, while working on reform, “and I’m disappointed because I think that those reactionary forces have won with these actions of our city manager today.”

Support for firing decision

In a statement released Wednesday, the Aurora Police Association said it had been made aware of the firing and “fully supports” the decision.

“We look forward to working closely with a new incoming administration, prioritizing the morale of the officers, leadership of the Administration, and service to the citizens of Aurora,” the association said.

Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman said in the news conference Wednesday that he supported Wilson’s initial hire, but the report changed things.

“She, I thought, was the right person at the right time for this city, that we were going through a pretty challenging time in terms of restoring the trust in our community,” he said.

“I think she was instrumental not only in gaining that trust back but also in setting the department on a path for reform.”

“I had some concerns as the situation changed in Aurora and crime became an increasing issue about her leadership, but I’ll say this, that my concerns never rose to a level of saying that we ought to replace the police chief,” Coffman said.

“However, this report about the critical role of records and the lack of leadership and making sure that that process worked effectively, I think compromised the public safety of our city, and I think that was and is a monumental failure of leadership.”

For his part, Twombly said Wilson “excelled” as a leader in the community.

“In terms of the many crises that we have experienced, I think she did very well in responding to those. I think obviously that was her strength, and she deserves accolades for that. But as I said, there’s more to managing a police department than that aspect of it.”

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CNN’s Leslie Perrot contributed to this report.

Article Topic Follows: CNN – National

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