DENVER (AP) — The interim chief of the Aurora police department has become the first woman to permanently lead the agency that’s looking to regain public trust following a tumultuous year since the death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man officers stopped on the street and put into a chokehold.
The City Council chose Vanessa Wilson in a 10-1 vote Monday night, hours after she apologized for the latest controversy tied to the Aurora Police Department. Officers investigating a stolen vehicle this weekend handcuffed at least two Black girls, who were seen crying in bystander video as they laid face down on the ground. Police later discovered they had the wrong vehicle.
The national reckoning over racism and police brutality following the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other Black people brought renewed attention and criticism to Aurora police over the August 2019 death of McClain, who was stopped by three white officers responding to a call about a suspicious person wearing a ski mask and waving his arms as he walked down a street.
Police put him in a chokehold, and paramedics gave him 500 milligrams of ketamine to calm him down. McClain suffered cardiac arrest, was later declared brain dead and taken off life support several days later.
Wilson, who is white, has 23 years of experience with the Police Department in Colorado’s third-largest city, a diverse community east of Denver. She beat out three other nationwide finalists — all Black men.
She said in a statement that Aurora is at a crossroads and that she’s committed to the force being “an active and engaged part of this community.”
“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 said.
McClain family lawyer Mari Newman said she’s wary of Wilson’s experience within a department riddled with brutality and racism. But she also says she’s an optimist.
“My hope is that she will prove that she has not just the moral compass but also the fortitude to do the right thing and to overhaul a broken department,” Newman said.
Wilson moved quickly last month to fire three officers, including one involved in confronting McClain, over their involvement in taking and sharing photos of police reenacting the chokehold near where McClain was stopped, a spot that had become a memorial.
Wilson called the photos “a crime against humanity and decency.”
Firing them without a hearing by an internal review board prompted criticism from one of the department’s unions, the Aurora Police Association, which called her actions “extremely concerning.” It accused Wilson of making the decision because she was a finalist for the top job.
The police unions didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on Wilson’s appointment.
Newman called Wilson’s previous actions a “mixed bag.” She criticized the department’s use of force, which included pepper spray and batons, during a violin vigil this summer for McClain, but also praised Wilson’s quick decision to fire the officers who participated in the mock chokehold photos.
“What I’m hoping to see is more swift and decisive action like that,” she said.
McClain’s name became a rallying cry in protests against racial injustice a year after his death.
Police body-camera video shows one officer approaching McClain and telling him: “Stop right there. Stop. Stop. … I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious.”
The officer tells McClain to “Stop tensing up,” and “Relax, or I’m going to have to change this situation,” as McClain tries to escape the officer’s grip.
In the video, McClain tells officers: “Let go of me. I am an introvert. Please respect the boundaries that I am speaking.”
Police have said McClain refused to stop walking and fought back when officers tried to take him into custody. The officers used a chokehold that cuts off blood to the brain — a tactic banned in several places following Floyd’s death.
A local prosecutor decided not to charge the officers last year, citing a pathologist’s determination that it was inconclusive how McClain died. Following protests nationwide, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis appointed Colorado’s top prosecutor to open a new investigation.
It is one of several inquiries underway into McClain’s death.
Federal officials say they’re considering a civil rights inquiry, while the state health officials are looking into what role the sedative played in McClain’s death. The city also is reviewing police policies, including use of force.
Aurora police have been criticized for using force against protesters and for an officer’s decision to draw a gun on an Indian-American doctor outside his refugee center.
Internal controversies also have emerged, including an officer who was found passed out drunk at the wheel of his parked but running patrol car. The scandal led the person in line for acting chief to step aside late last year, leading Wilson to become the temporary leader in January.