For this PERF Critical Issues Report, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with Aurora, Colorado Police Chief Vanessa Wilson. Chief Wilson was appointed the permanent chief of the Aurora Police Department last Monday, August 3, after serving as the interim chief since January 1. The Aurora Police Department has received national scrutiny for the August 2019 death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain after he was detained by police and, more recently, detaining and handcuffing a woman and children after mistaking their car for a stolen vehicle. Chief Wilson discussed her approach to leading the department after these incidents and how experiences earlier in her career prepared her to be a chief.

Chuck Wexler: How many years have you been with the Aurora Police Department?

Chief Wilson: I started in December 1996, so in December I will reach 24 years with Aurora.

Wexler:  Where did you grow up?

Chief Wilson:  I was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. My dad was a union electrician, and we moved around quite a bit to be where power plants were being built. We left Puerto Rico when I was 4 or 5, and I ended up going to college at the University of Wyoming. That’s when I fell in love with the West, and Colorado especially.

Wexler:  Why did you decided to become a cop?

Chief Wilson:  Probably my senior year of college. I took a criminal investigations course, and I just fell in love with it. In college there were a lot of people who were anti-cop, but I met some officers through that investigations course and thought, “They’re not like that at all.” I’ve always had that desire to help others, so I thought it was a good job for me to look into.

Wexler: What did you think being an officer was all about?

Chief Wilson:  For me, it was about helping the community and helping victims of crime. I was really passionate about that. I was a security guard in Virginia before I joined the Virginia Commonwealth University Police Department in 1994. A lady had her purse stolen, and I was on my mountain bike and chased the guy down. Someone called it in, and when the police showed up, they said, “You know you can get paid for this, right?” I guess I just had that desire to act when I saw something was wrong.

Wexler:  How did you find your way to Aurora?

Chief Wilson:  I was a cop at VCU in Richmond, Virginia for a couple years. I wanted to come back to Colorado. My humanities degree wasn’t too marketable for a job. I applied with the Denver, Aurora, and Lakewood Police Departments. I was going through the process with both Denver and Aurora, and Aurora hired me.

Wexler:  At that point did you think you might become a police chief?

Chief Wilson:  From the very beginning, I felt like I wanted to make a difference, and I knew I had to have the power to make substantive changes and policy changes. I identified issues in policing when I was coming through the ranks. It was often an “us vs. them” mentality, and I thought we could do better. I had the “social worker” approach, as some would’ve called it back in the day, because I wanted to work with homeless people and focus on victims’ rights. A lot of people thought that was mission creep. But I was pretty outspoken as I came up through the ranks, and now here I am.

Wexler:  At one point you were in charge of creating a homeless outreach unit, correct?

Chief Wilson:  Yes, (Police Chief) Dan Oates and (City Manager) Skip Noe realized there was an issue with homelessness, and Dan knew I had a passion for that issue and wanted to try to make it better. He gave me that project, and it ended up being very successful.

I didn’t want to criminalize homelessness. People were calling us because they saw homeless individuals as nuisances, but these are human beings and we need to do better by them if we possibly can. There were a bunch of different nonprofit groups trying to help, but they were all fighting for the same grant funds and resources.

City Manager Noe and Chief Oates decided to let the police department take the lead. We met with all the groups, and created a group to go out and check the homeless camps for anyone in need of help, particularly those who might be experiencing hypothermia. We called it the “Cold Weather Action Plan.” We got a bus, put decals with all the organizations’ logos on it, and two officers drove it with an outreach worker, a physician assistant or nurse, and a mental health professional. And we had emergency blankets, food kits, and other resources.

We went out to the camps and tried to build relationships with individuals. They had always had a negative relationship with the police, because we were telling them to move along. Now we were offering help.

We saved some lives. There were people who were showing signs of hypothermia and needed to be transported. After a while, when it started snowing or bad weather was moving in, homeless community members would call and ask if the bus was coming out.

Wexler:  What do you think about the discussions today about taking some responsibilities, including homeless outreach, away from the police.

Chief Wilson:  We’re available 24/7/365, and if there is a group that takes that responsibility from us, they need to be that available as well. Often the homeless population is dealing with mental health issues, or a drug or alcohol addiction. There are lots of groups that want to step up and take over, and that’s fine. I never wanted to police homelessness, I just wanted to build that relationship between homeless individuals and law enforcement. If we have something to replace it, then I’m all for it. But if it’s going to just be nine-to-five services, that’s not going to help anyone.

In Aurora, ACOT (Aurora Community Outreach Team) was very successful, to the point where the city council dedicated marijuana tax revenues to create a homeless response coordinator. Now the ACOT group goes out during the wintertime, and we’ve built a new resource center in Aurora. So it has grown by leaps and bounds. That little group that we started became homeless response coordination within the city of Aurora. The police are called sometimes, but there are a lot of things police aren’t doing anymore, because we have that coordinator and outreach workers.

When this was led by the police department at the outset, we all had a good working relationship. Everyone put their heads and resources together. We had some really good conversations about why police were needed. In the beginning there were some nonprofit groups who thought the homeless population wouldn’t respond to the police. I think they were surprised that the right police officers with the right mentality did a lot of good for that community.

Wexler: How did you approach your role as interim chief?

Chief Wilson:  I had a good conversation with my city manager and deputy city manager, and I told them that if they wanted me to be interim chief, I needed the ability to make change and promotions to move this department forward. We were facing a huge crisis within the city of Aurora and our police department, so I needed to make changes. I was able to change policies and procedures that I thought needed to change immediately. I also had to have the power to terminate officers if I felt that it was necessary, and I have done that. It’s not something that I relish doing, but it’s something that needed to be done and I stand behind those decisions. We’re not in a great place now, but at least we’re moving forward, and hopefully we can continue to move forward, make the changes we need to make for this community, and get them to believe in us again.

Wexler:  Do you think there will be much of a difference now that you’re the permanent chief?

Chief Wilson:  I’m still doing what I had been doing since I took over as interim chief. Now that it’s finalized, expectations of me may be higher. I’m thrilled to have the job, even though this is a very, very difficult time. That was a long job interview, so I’m glad to be able to settle in and continue doing what I’ve already been doing.

Wexler:  Aurora has had a series of difficult situations. How do you think about moving forward and reassuring both the community and the cops?

Chief Wilson:  I truly believe that this is a fine agency. Unfortunately, we’ve made mistakes, but that’s not going to define us forever. That’s the message I’m sending to the troops: “I know it’s difficult. I know your families are stressed, with the new Senate bill, qualified immunity being taken away, and all the other things happening across the nation. But we can rise to the challenge, and we can’t shy away from reform or changes. Because that’s what the community is demanding, and that’s who we work for.”

A lot of officers are still passionate about what they do, but I know that morale is low right now. They are being vilified, and we just can’t seem to stay out of the news. I think that’s taking a toll on everybody, and stress levels are very high.

To the community, I’m saying, “I hear you. I’m giving you the voice that you don’t feel you’ve had. I want to work with you so you will feel that our policing is Constitutional and appropriate. At the same time, this community still needs police. So we need to figure out how to work together. We need to sit across the table from each other, not labeling all police as corrupt.”

Wexler:  Are you expecting to have to make any budget cuts?

Chief Wilson:  With COVID, we were all told to present budget cuts, which we did. 3%, 5%, and 10% budget cuts were presented to the city. But it wasn’t about defunding the police or cutting police services back.

We have had discussions about taking tools away, like the things people see as militarizing police and the tools we use to respond to demonstrations. Those discussion are concerning for me. We have a ballistic vehicle that we use to do a lot of rescues, both in blizzards and with people who are armed or in hostage situations. I’m hoping we don’t lose these tools.

And I’m concerned about what’s going on across the country with officers being assaulted, whether it’s lasers in their eyes or gasoline and large mortar-sized fireworks being thrown at them. We need to be able to utilize the tools we have, whether it’s tear gas or OC spray, to minimize harm to both the officers and the community that is demonstrating.

Wexler:  Have you had a lot of demonstrations in Aurora?

Chief Wilson:  Yes, we’ve had demonstrations pretty much every weekend for two months straight. And they will be continuing.

There are people who are legitimately exercising their First Amendment rights by peacefully protesting, and I’m fully in support of that and we will do everything we can to try to keep them safe. But there are some fringe groups who are attaching themselves to these protests, and the only thing they want is confrontation with police.

Wexler: What do you hope to accomplish in the next year?

Chief Wilson:  Hopefully a lot of the investigations we’re going through will be concluded, and we’ll get some sort of direction from the investigations and know where we’re headed. But I’m not going to sit back and wait for those things. We’re changing policies and training and interacting with the community to try to get back to where we were two years ago, when we enjoyed mutual respect and cooperation with the community. We’re looking at all our policies and practices, because we do have to change some of the things we do. If people want to take over some of the roles we have traditionally had and change those, we have to adapt to that.

I also think we need to take a strong look at race and law enforcement, and the disparate treatment that many communities of color feel they have endured from police for decades. It’s time to have a serious conversation about that. I want to bring in implicit bias training and other trainings, not to just check a box, but to actually have meaningful conversation and change, so people can believe in their police department again. 


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.