Is the Aurora, Colorado, police chief a progressive or just afraid of protests?

Since the uprising against racism and police terror in the summer of 2020 brought major consequences to the Aurora Police Department for the murder of Elijah McClain, the infamously brutal department has adopted a significantly more responsive posture to officer abuse and misconduct. Under Chief Vanessa Wilson, multiple officers have been fired for offenses ranging from repeatedly pistol-whipping a non-resistant Black man to sending an inappropriate email.

Aurora police chief Vanessa Wilson. Credit: Aurora Police Department

Wilson’s swift responses to officer misconduct contrast sharply with the bald-faced impunity Aurorans had become used to from the department. But does this mark a reformed police department that is responsive to community needs or something else? Examining Wilson’s role illuminates the answer.

Vanessa Wilson: Aurora Police Chief as public relations manager

Wilson came on as interim chief in January 2020 after the previous chief Nick Metz suddenly retired in the wake of several department scandals.

On March 26, 2019, Aurora police officer Nate Meier was found passed out drunk in his patrol car in the middle of a busy street while on duty. The vehicle was still running with the gear shift in drive and the unconscious officer’s foot on the brake. Responding officers had to break the window of the squad car to pull out the unconscious Meier. Despite multiple officers on the scene reporting that they smelled alcohol on Meier and in the car, the incident was not investigated by APD as a DUI. Meier kept his job even after admitting he was blacked-out drunk.

On August 24, 2019, three Aurora Police officers and two assisting paramedics brutally tortured and murdered 23-year-old Elijah McClain as he was walking home. The department staged a brief internal investigation that cleared the cops, which Adams County District Attorney Dave Young used to decline to file any charges, and the officers walked free.

Just three days later, Aurora Police Officer Levi Huffine hog-tied a Black woman in his squad car with her hands and ankles behind her back. She slipped off the seat into an inverted position and cried out for help as she struggled to breathe. Huffine ignored her cries, refusing to help her up for twenty minutes. 

One month later, on Sept. 27, 2019, Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz announced he would retire at the end of the year. He said he was “retiring on his own terms.”

New chief, better department?

In January 2020, Vanessa Wilson was brought on as APD’s interim chief. Wilson, a lesbian who addresses the public with great personal affect, was the perfect face to represent a new APD.

Then, on May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis. In the following days, as video went viral of Floyd’s murder, and then protests in Minneapolis were crushed by brute police force, more protests began to spring up across the country rejecting the racist terror of the police in the United States. 

As it became clear how much energy was surging around this movement, police chiefs and officials in many parts of the country joined protests to express their supposed horror at Floyd’s murder and champion conversation between activists and the state instead of more militant forms of action. Wilson joined one such protest in Aurora.

But her sympathy for the demands of such protests steeply declined when thousands of people in the Denver Metro area took to Aurora’s streets demanding justice for Elijah McClain, including the prosecution of Wilson’s officers.

Wilson’s response to the summer of 2020: arresting activists, not killer cops

Over the course of the summer, thousands joined unprecedented protests in the city of Aurora. On June 27, 2020, more than five thousand people marched on the I-225 in Aurora for the first time ever, and hours later, police attacked a violin vigil to honor the memory of Elijah McClain — who played the violin — at the Aurora Municipal Center with gas and batons. 

PSL protest during the summer of 2020. Liberation photo

On July 3, 2020, protesters held a sit-in at the District 1 police station, less than a mile from where McClain was fatally assaulted, to demand that Wilson fire the officers that killed McClain. Wilson, conscious of the PR disaster that came after her officers attacked a peaceful violin vigil days before, ordered officers to not disperse the protest until the early morning of July 4. 

She spoke on the phone with Party for Socialism and Liberation organizer and protest leader Lillian House, who was later arrested, jailed and charged for “kidnapping” the officers inside the District 1 station. House and other leaders beat the charges, despite the best efforts of APD and Aurora District Attorneys to put them in prison for decades. 

On July 23, 2020, protesters again took the highway in Aurora, and their protest was attacked by a right-wing terrorist who attempted to kill protesters by driving through the march. Protest leaders say that Aurora police allowed the terrorist onto the highway and were friendly with him after he exited. Wilson said, the day after the attack, that she was “concerned” by the driver’s actions. He was not charged. 

Regular violence by Aurora police against non-protesting Aurorans continued during the summer of 2020 as well. On August 2, 2020, five Aurora cops pulled over and ordered a Black family out of their car because they believed it to be stolen. The family, including a 6-year-old child, was ordered out of the car, some of them were handcuffed and ordered to lie prone on the pavement. Of course, the family had not stolen their vehicle — in fact, the stolen vehicle was actually a motorcycle with a license plate from another state. After apologizing to the family, Wilson said she would “look at new practices and training” for the officers, but she did not fire the officers. 

Aurora PD faces criticism and pushback at all levels

Recognizing the power of the movement in the streets, local and national bodies were pressured to open new investigations into the death of McClain and the practices of APD. 

Colorado Governor Jared Polis opened an Attorney General’s investigation in June 2020 into the Aurora Police Department and the death of Elijah McClain. This eventually led to the indictment of the three cops and two paramedics who killed McClain on homicide and other charges. The AG’s investigation also delivered damning findings on the patterns and practices within APD, including systemic racial bias, excessive force and disregard for laws. 

To address these findings, the department is now under a consent decree, with the state requiring them to work with an independent monitor for as long as five years to implement reforms addressing the issues found in the investigation. 

The city of Aurora paid out $15 million to settle the civil rights lawsuit brought by the McClain family in November of last year.

Movement wins show increased accountability amidst continued brutality 

During the summer following the mass movement, in late July 2021, APD led an uncharacteristic arrest of two of their officers, John Haubert and Francine Martinez, on charges related to their violent arrest and beating of Kyle Vinson, a 29-year-old Black man.

Vinson had been in an Aurora business park applying for jobs and was resting with two other men who had helped him fill his bike tires when Haubert stopped him. Haubert pistol-whipped Vinson and forced him to lie on his stomach as the officer beat his head with a pistol some 13 times. Haubert held his gun at Vinson’s head and strangled him for 39 seconds during the arrest while Martinez watched. “You’re killing me,” Vinson cried as Haubert held him down and struck him. 

Six days after the police officers brutalized Vinson, the Arapahoe County DA issued warrants for the arrest of Haubert and Martinez. Haubert was charged with attempted first-degree assault, second-degree assault and felony menacing. Martinez was charged with two misdemeanors for not intervening in Haubert’s use of force. 

In a press conference held by Chief Wilson on the same day the warrants were issued, she begged Aurorans not to protest: “I would ask the community, as angry as you are, I need peace in this city, please. … I need all of us to take a breath. The first part of justice has been served with the officers being arrested. I will do my part as the chief of police with the internal affairs investigation, but I need peace in this city.”

Video clip of APD Chief Wilson addressing the public at a press conference, pleading for peace.

On Nov. 16, 2021, Doug Wilkinson, the now-former president of the Aurora Police Association, sent an email to 270 Aurora police union members. In this email, Wilkinson mocked the consent decree between the City of Aurora and the Attorney General that had been won by the movement for justice for Elijah McClain. 

The email complained about the police department’s new requirements under the decree, saying, “The decree indicates that they want to replace as many of the department’s white males as possible with as many women and minorities … We could make sure to hire 10 percent illegal aliens, 50 percent weed smokers, 10 percent crackheads, and a few child molesters and murderers to round it out. You know, so we can make the department to look like the ‘community.’” 

One day after the email was sent out and Aurora officers complained to HR about the letter, chief Wilson put Wilkinson on leave. Wilkinson was then fired by Wilson on Feb. 3, ending his 20-year career with APD.

In March 2021, officer Josiah Coe gave methamphetamine to a woman who was leaving a treatment facility, telling her, “I’ll help you out” and “you owe me.” Wilson fired Coe, and he is facing charges.

In June 2021, another officer, Sergeant Ed Acuti, verbally harassed a 17-year-old girl with expletives like “You better keep your f***ing mouth shut. I’ll make your life a living hell. From this f***ng day forward.” Wilson put him on “administrative leave” and ordered APD’s own internal affairs unit to investigate him.

These events are not anomalies within the department — in fact, there are far more than can be included in this article. The anomaly is that APD under Wilson is suddenly firing cops that harass people, kill Aurorans, break the law, or even just say offensive things publicly. This reflects the clear demands of the community, but has earned Wilson the wrath of the small but vocal right wing in Aurora and the rank-and-file of APD. 

Right-wing backlash rallies around APD 

Various right-wing sectors in Aurora and within the police department have reacted as Wilson has attempted to salvage public trust with basic repercussions for rampant officer misconduct. 

On Sept. 20, 2021, the Aurora Police Association conducted a poll among Aurora police officers asking, “Do you feel confident in Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson.” Four hundred and forty-two officers voted that they were not confident in the chief, with only 16 voting in her favor. Earlier that same week, the Aurora Fraternal Order of Police released a statement of no-confidence in Wilson.

On Jan. 27, after a new, right-wing majority took their seats in the Aurora City Council, newly elected Councilwoman Danielle Jurinsky appeared on a radio talk show where she made clear her disdain for Chief Wilson: “Vanessa Wilson is trash.” In an interview, the councilwoman said of Wilson, “She has destroyed the Aurora Police Department,” and in a tweet wrote, “#FireTheChief.” 

These council members, rank-and-file officers, and the Aurora Fraternal Order of Police are working together to undermine Wilson’s desperate attempts to reform the department and avoid more protests. The Aurora Fraternal Order of Police endorsed far-right council members Sundberg, Jurinsky and Zvonek during their campaigns. 

Sundberg proposed lobbying the state legislature to reverse some of its own police reform legislation in an attempt to keep officers in APD. Jurinsky and Sundberg also expressed their dislike of the police reforms, saying they could discourage officers from doing their jobs. They even go so far as claim the reforms and calls for accountability are the reason for Aurora’s rising crime rate.

Thousands of protestors march from the site where APD killed Elijah McClain to the District 1 police station on July 3, 2020. Liberation photo

How should Aurorans understand the struggle between Wilson and the far right?

Vanessa Wilson was elevated to chief in the Aurora Police Department by a conscious sector of the Aurora city leadership that knows that wild, unchecked oppression breeds serious, organized resistance. This sector, and Wilson herself, are not progressive — they are afraid. They know that it is just a matter of time before another instance of police murder sets off another rebellion, so they are frantically working to appear as if they are slowly but resolutely shaping “A New Way” for the department, as their reform program is called.

The backlash against Wilson shows that, within the city of Aurora and its police department, there is a small but vocal movement that wants to keep APD the way that it is. In fact, they want to pump more money into it, hire more officers and create more brutality. It is important to note just how small this sector is — none of the new, right-wing city council members received the votes of more than 10 percent of Aurorans, and there are just a few hundred cops on APD’s force. 

Then, there are the nearly 400,000 people living in Aurora, thousands of whom participated in or supported the 2020 uprising against racism and police terror. Wilson and her faction of Aurora city leadership are trying to win the passivity of these thousands through their concessions. But the lesson for these thousands should be that their action is what moved the needle at all.

As the summer of 2020 showed, another world is possible, one without police and their violence, and that millions of people are ready for it. In a moment where there are not thousands in the streets, it is easy to think that the best option is to support “the lesser of two evils” in power. But, in fact, what we need to do is build our movement, train our organizers and prepare for the next mass movement. It may be closer than we think.

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