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Vanessa Wilson becomes Aurora's first female police chief

City Council voted Monday to approve the appointment of Wilson who has been the department's interim chief for seven months.

AURORA, Colo. — Aurora City Council at its meeting Monday night voted 10-1 to approve the appointment of Vanessa Wilson as the new chief of the Aurora Police Department (APD).

Wilson is the current interim chief for APD, an appointment she's had since the beginning of the year. But Wilson's tenure with the department is 23 years long. 

City Manager Jim Twombly recommended Wilson for the position. While the majority of council members voted in favor of Twombly's recommendation Monday night, many expressed reservations about Wilson but said they felt a 'no' vote would not lead to better alternatives. 

"I don’t think we had any candidates come forward who were ready to radically transform policing if we’re perfectly honest," said Aurora city council member Allison Coombs Tuesday. "I did vote yes. But I felt like it was a situation where the choice was either Vanessa Wilson gets appointed, or we go back to the drawing board and Vanessa Wilson stays in this position during this critical moment. So, there wasn’t really a distinction between those two choices."

Coombs and other members of Aurora's city council expressed concern about appointing someone who came up through the ranks of a department that has so many issues with its culture. Still others said, their problem wasn't as much with Vanessa Wilson, as it was the lack of city council and community involvement in the selection of a new police chief. 

"Right now, the police chief serves at the pleasure of the city manager. Not at the pleasure of council, and not at the pleasure of the voters," Coombs said. "And so it’s very hard for council to hold a chief accountable."

Coombs is among a few councilors who said they believe more people, either city council and/or the voters, need to be given a voice when making appointments that impact the community. 

"I believe that we have a council that hears from our community that change is what they want," Coombs said. "I did hear from Chief Wilson during the interim process a commitment to change and to taking council’s guidance around the changes that we need. So I hope that that commitment remains firm in the face of what I know is pressure from the other side to keep things the same."

Others showed their express support for her appointment, including Mayor Mike Coffman who said he believes Wilson has taken strong actions since stepping in as interim and is committed to listening to the community.  

"She had a lot of support in the community and that includes people from all diverse backgrounds," said another city council member and 'yes' voter Curtis Gardner Tuesday. "I think they recognize that while she may not look a certain way, she certainly can lead the charge in bringing about the reforms that are needed in Aurora."

Wilson will be the department’s first female police chief. In 2015, she was the first female to attain the rank of division chief in the department and was the first female to serve in the position of Aurora interim police chief.

“I am honored, humbled and energized by the trust the city manager, mayor and council have placed in me,” Wilson said in a news release from the city. “Aurora is a city that has experienced many triumphs and tragedies, and we sit at a crossroads for our city’s future. ... We will be a transparent partner dedicated to making Aurora a safer city for all, with respect for our diversity, an embrace of unity and continual conversation about how we can do better.”

Wilson steps in during a turbulent time for the department – APD has been under fire for its role in the death of Elijah McClain, a photo scandal related to the McClain case and an officer reportedly found drunk and slumped over in his patrol car. The department has also been scrutinized for its response to recent protests over the death of McClain. 

Watch the vote from Monday night below:

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The nationwide search for a new police chief began in January 2020 after the deputy chief, Paul O'Keefe, who was supposed to take over the top job on an interim basis, withdrew his name and announced plans to retire instead. Wilson was then named interim police chief.

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In a town hall in June where the community could ask the four candidates questions, Wilson spoke about hitting a glass ceiling and not expecting to be named interim chief. 

She said moving forward, she hopes the community is ready for more broken ceilings. She added that implicit bias needs to be addressed and when someone calls in a suspicious person, it should never be for the color of someone's skin. 

During her time as interim, Wilson has taken steps to change policies regarding police use of force within APD. 

Council members in Monday's meeting stressed this is just the beginning of change needed within the department. 

“I believe Vanessa is the right person with the right skills to lead the Aurora Police Department at this time," Twombly said. "As a city and as a nation, we are facing unprecedented calls for police reform and improvement. As interim chief she has already taken steps to begin to restore trust between the department and the community. With more than 23 years of varied roles in the Aurora Police Department, Wilson has extensive experience in not only law enforcement, but importantly, relating to and serving a complex and diverse community. We heard from members of the community that she has the qualities that Aurora needs today and in the future.”

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