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Former Aurora Police chief files notice of claim, plans to sue over firing

Vanessa Wilson claims she was fired from the Aurora Police Department for her efforts to reform the department.

AURORA, Colo. — Former Aurora chief of police Vanessa Wilson has informed the City of Aurora that she intends to file a lawsuit claiming she was fired illegally. 

In a notice of claim filed by law firm King & Greisen, LLP on Sept. 23, Wilson's attorneys allege she was fired in retaliation for enforcing the consent decree between the City of Aurora and the State of Colorado that was entered "to reform the long-troubled police department and end the racist profiling practices that had, unfortunately, become the Department's hallmark."

The document says Wilson worked diligently to enforce the decree by terminating officers who were responsible for using excessive force and "otherwise violating the rights of Aurora residents of color."

It says she was terminated in violation of public policy, was prevented from carrying out her lawful duties, was discriminated against for her association with people of color and was retaliated against "for her association with and actions to protect members of Aurora's Black community."

The consent decree was implemented after Attorney General Phil Weiser conducted an investigation into claims of racially discriminatory policing by the Aurora Police Department. The report found that Aurora officers had "a long-standing pattern and practice of violating state and federal law through racially-biased policing and the use of excessive force which disproportionately injured people of color."

The notice of claim lists several examples of Wilson firing or disciplining officers for misconduct involving people of color, including terminating two officers who reenacted the chokehold used on Elijah McClain in a photo and a third officer who replied "ha ha" when he received the photo.

RELATED: The death of Elijah McClain: A timeline of events

It also claims newly-elected city councilmembers Danielle Jurinsky and Dustin Zvonek sought to halt or reverse Wilson's reform efforts. Both were endorsed by Aurora police union head Doug Wilkinson, who is accused of mocking the consent decree and Wilson's efforts to implement its mandates. Wilson fired Wilkinson in February 2022.

In addition to the city and councilmembers Jurinsky and Zvonek, the notice of claim names several others including Mayor Mike Coffman and City Manager Jim Twombly. 

Wilson's attorneys did not responded to 9NEWS' request for additional comment Wednesday.

9NEWS Legal Expert Whitney Traylor said this legal document, a notice of claim, is a required step before somebody sues the government.

"Most of these types of cases settle. And something this public, I would be surprised it if didn't settle. You have to remember – when you go to a jury trial, its in their hands," he said.

Wilson was named interim police chief in January 2020, and was appointed permanent chief the following August. She was fired in April 2021 after rebuffing City Manager Twombly's efforts to pressure her to resign. 

In Twombly's termination letter, he says he has lost trust and no longer has full confidence in her ability to lead the Aurora Police Department. 

She was given up to 12 months of severance pay and benefits, unless she accepts another position during that period. 

The notice of claim states Wilson has suffered severe emotional distress, as well as economic damages from the loss of her job.

When asked for comment, city spokesperson Ryan Luby denied Wilson's claim that she was fired for enforcing the consent decree saying, "City management is unwavering in the commitment to fulfill the terms of the consent decree to ensure that the Aurora Police Department serves every member of our community equitably."

The full statement is below:

City Manager Jim Twombly terminated Vanessa Wilson’s at-will employment in accordance with the Offer of Employment she negotiated with the city and signed in Aug. 2020. A copy of it is attached for your reference. 

Contrary to the allegations asserted in the Notice of Claim, City Manager Twombly did not “illegal[ly]” terminate Ms. Wilson’s employment for “prioritiz[ing] community involvement.” As Mr. Twombly stated in the attached, widely distributed news release in April 2022, “It is clear that Chief Wilson has 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. To provide the level of public safety that our community deserves, a change in leadership must occur.” Consistent with this statement, Mr. Twombly informed Ms. Wilson in a Termination of Employment letter that she was terminated for her “failure to effectively create a positive culture of stability, employee satisfaction, and engagement in the agency,” and for “failure to strategically review, assess, manage, and provide efficient oversight to the overall police department operations.” That letter is also attached for your reference. 

Mr. Twombly and the city management team wholeheartedly embraced Ms. Wilson’s community engagement efforts and, as she herself noted in a news conference following her termination, supported her through tough decisions she made during her time as chief. 

Additionally, contrary to the assertion that Ms. Wilson was “illegally terminated for her actions to enforce the terms of the consent decree,” we have always maintained that the consent decree is the path forward, and we remain engaged in ongoing public safety changes and continue to make progress on the consent decree and with the Consent Decree Monitor. In fact, the Consent Decree Monitor team documented that progress as recently as Oct. 15 on their website. City management is unwavering in the commitment to fulfill the terms of the consent decree to ensure that the Aurora Police Department serves every member of our community equitably.

RELATED: Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson fired 'effective immediately'

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