DENVER — A majority of officers from a suburban Denver police department that had faced investigations and community outrage over its run-ins with people of color reported disapproving of the police chief who has committed publicly to reforming the force and its reputation.
Members of the Aurora Police Department’s two labor unions, the Aurora Police Association and the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, voted in a poll this week that asked, “Do you feel confident in the leadership of Chief Vanessa Wilson?” The response was 442 votes against her to 16 in favor.
The union vote comes less than a month after Attorney General Phil Weiser announced that several Aurora officers and paramedics were indicted on manslaughter and other charges in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who was put in a chokehold and injected with a powerful sedative. Weiser also announced this month that a civil rights investigation found the Aurora department’s patterns and practices indicated a history of racially biased policing.
Doug Wilkinson, head of the Aurora Police Association, said the union vote was prompted by Wilson reopening an investigation into a May traffic stop of a Black man who said he was tackled and stunned with a Taser by police. He said the officers had “already been cleared of wrongdoing by department experts.”
“She should be removed immediately,” Wilkinson said.
Deputy City Manager Jason Batchelor voiced his full support for Wilson’s leadership, saying she’s made “difficult” and “unpopular decisions” during her time as chief.
“Over the last 21 months, she has been a vocal champion for Aurora police officers while also making it clear that she supports implementing best practices,” he said in a statement. “I believe we all share the same goal in supporting our officers and look forward to working with the FOP to address their concerns and restore trust.”
Wilson served as the interim police chief for eight months before being officially hired last August. She has twice called for expedited internal affairs investigations, including into the arrest of a man who was pistol-whipped by an officer. Wilson also took swift action in firing three officers who were involved in a photo scandal where police imitated the chokehold used on McClain in front of a memorial dedicated to him.
Her actions came after Colorado lawmakers passed a sweeping police accountability law last year that requires all officers to use body cameras by July 2023, bans chokeholds, limits potentially lethal uses of force and removes so-called qualified immunity from police, potentially exposing officers to lawsuits for their actions in use-of-force cases. Lawmakers strengthened it this year to encourage more officers to use their body cameras and promote “deescalation techniques.”
The Aurora Police Department reported having 744 sworn officers in August. However, several dozen officers are in roles that prevent them from joining the unions, according to city documents.
A total of 96 officers have left the department this year, greater than the number of officers who left in 2020.
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