Vanessa Wilson and the Empathetic Courage Behind Zero Tolerance for Police Brutality
Updated: Jul 15, 2020
The pulses and spikes of national news drama make it difficult to keep tabs on any one story beyond any one day. Nevertheless, today I want to bring everyone’s attention to the upcoming appointment of the Aurora Police Department’s Police Chief because the appointment will likely define the outcome of the Justice for Elijah McClain Movement, as well as the future of police reform within APD.
This position is currently being served by 24-year APD veteran Vanessa Wilson, who made national headlines Independence Day weekend for firing three officers and accepting the resignation of a fourth in response to all four being involved in a photographed reenactment of the chokehold that was used on 23-year-old Elijah McClain in 2019 during an unwarranted stop and subsequent brutal arrest, the result of which McClain died. Thus, Wilson’s swift and decisive action in response to her department’s lack of humanity is what put her on the map, but the more I learn about her, the more I realize, maybe she should have already been there.
In many ways, one could interpret Wilson’s role as simultaneously clean-up and renovation. The clean-up involves the mess former APD Chief Nick Metz left in the wake of his retirement (at age 54) from the Aurora police department after just five years of service with that department (1).
While most news outlets summarize his retirement as occurring “after 36 years of service,” when I noticed a detail that Metz previously served in Washington in the Seattle Police Department, alarm bells reminiscent of Spotlight (but the police version) went off in my head. How many times have we unconsciously noted an awkward shift in historical narrative and accepted it without questioning the powerful narrator?
Humans are creatures of habit, perhaps none more so than government workers with powerful unions and substantial pensions. Why, I wanted to know, would a man with a 30+ year career in law enforcement in one of America’s most popular cities move to Aurora, Colorado to start all over? (No offense to Aurora.)
It didn’t make sense, until tab by Google tab, it did.
Here is a full reconstruction of the events that led up to Vanessa Wilson being named as Aurora Police Department’s interim Police Chief, focalized through the career of her predecessor whose decision to retire is but one detail of a much bigger picture.
Nick Metz began his work in the police force when he was just 20 years old, entering the Seattle Police Department in 1983. He moved steadily up the ranks and then in 2001, he was promoted to assistant chief.
In 2013, then-interim police chief Jim Pugel shocked the community by removing Metz from his position. The reason? The emergence of a federal monitor’s report that was highly critical on the progress of police reforms (emphasis mine; (2)).
The result: Metz was given a choice between accepting a demotion to the rank of captain or opting for a severance package.
Metz accepted the change of status with the SPD, but then in 2015 accepted a new position as Police Chief with the Aurora, Colorado police department in their efforts to diversify. This move made him Aurora’s first Black Police Chief (3).
Throughout his five years in Aurora, Metz’s tenure was marked by a number of controversies, including: reinstating in 2018 Officer Nate Weiner after he was fired for making racist comments (4), overruling a recommendation in 2019 by the Aurora Police Department’s Chief’s Review Board to fire Officer Nate Weiner, who was found passed out in his car (in uniform and on duty) due to vodka intoxication (5), Elijah McClain’s death in August 2019 (6) and not holding the officers accountable in November of that same year (7).
In September 2019, Metz announced that he would retire from the police force at the end of the year—but didn’t rule out an eventual reentrance. According to his official retirement statement, one of the many things he plans to do in his extra free time into providing counseling services for officers and their families (8).
In January this year, Aurora residents convened at the Aurora Municipal Center to give a recruiter their expectations for the next police chief. The crux of their concerns is perhaps best summed up by retired Aurora Police Lieutenant Don Black, who warned the recruiter to be on alert for applicants who may be on the lookout to move for the promotion, rather than for commitment to the job: “… what you’ve given us and what your systems have given us, since I’ve been around, and that’s been since 1978 in Aurora, are basically car salesman [sic]” (9).
Following Metz's announcement, now-former Deputy Paul O'Keefe was the first one tapped to be interim chief. However, this move was derailed soon after following O'Keefe's mishandling of a call that led officers to discover Officer Nate Weiner passed out drunk in his car. O’Keefe did not file DUI charges or search the vehicle for alcohol, despite having had to smash the window to check his unconscious co-worker's vitals (10).
When the kettle began to steam on this issue, O’Keefe not only withdrew his name from consideration, but, like Metz, simply decided to retire. It was at this point that Wilson was nominated to serve as interim chief, a choice that has been applauded due to her vocalized priority of restoring public trust in the police department.
So, who is Vanessa Wilson?
Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson is a 24-year-veteran of the Aurora Police Department. Her career trajectory follows a similar arc to many longtime officers, and indeed is similar to that of former Chief Metz, at least initially. She began as a patrol officer, moved into a recruiting position, and then was a detective. She climbed through the ranks of sergeant and lieutenant and in 2012 was appointed Executive Officer of the Major Investigations Bureau.
As Wilson’s career crystallized, so did her approach to policing: when she was promoted to captain in 2014, she initiated the development of the Aurora Community Outreach Team. She also played a large role in creating the APD’s Crisis Response Team and in developing the department’s first Domestic Violence Unit (11). During Metz’s brief tenure, she became the first woman to be promoted to Division Chief within the department, which is the role she was serving in when she was tapped to serve as interim chief.
As interim chief, she has committed to engaging with Black Lives Matter protesters who continue to give voice to the racism that and subsequent actions by APD officers that caused Elijah McClain’s death. In just her first six months as acting police chief, she has already found a new retention system for body cameras so that they can’t fall off again (officers involved in McClain’s death claimed they did) (12), attended Black Lives Matter rallies and vigils for Elijah McClain (13), named an executive team to set up a tactical review board of the McClain case (14), and, most recently, fired three officers (while a fourth resigned) involved in the gross disrespect and unprofessionalism demonstrated by a photo featuring the now-terminated officers staging a mocking reenactment of Elijah’s death while near the site of his death (15). She has also banned chokeholds, instituted mandatory warnings by cops before they shoot, and mandated officer intervention if a fellow officer is using excessive force (16).
The backlash against Wilson’s most recent decision was swift, with many publicly denouncing her on Twitter and other forms of social media even as she met with Elijah’s mother soon after the event transpired to apologize on behalf of the immaturity and lack of empathy demonstrated by the former officers.
Let me repeat that: Former APD officers made a joke of a 23-year-old boy’s death by reenacting the excessive use of force (specifically the chokehold) used against him, capturing the reenactment on camera, and then sharing it. And it’s Wilson who’s taking heat for setting a precedent of zero tolerance for police officers who mock the deaths of the civilians they’re paid to protect and, in this case, a death the department was directly responsible for.
Wilson has been clear in her reasoning for her decision: “We know that there are cops that have integrity. They understand duty and they understand honor—these four don’t get it,” she added. “They don’t deserve to wear badges anymore” (17).
Maybe more context is necessary. More than 50% of Aurora’s population is not White. However, over 80% of the APD is White. The Black Lives Matter movement and daily national reports of the racial discrimination, profiling, and brutality faced by Black people in this country force us to reckon with the fact that Elijah McClain’s death was not an isolated incident, but Wilson’s decision to unequivocally fire the individuals responsible does not have to be an isolated instance of justice. Nor should it be. The fact that it has elicited the backlash that it has is telling, but Vanessa’s expressed desire to stay on as official police chief is, too.
Maybe her education has something to do with it. Memes featuring the dark joke that compares the education required to become a police officer (hardly any) to the education required for other community-oriented professions such as social workers, psychologists, and nurses circulate regularly on social media, which is why I think it’s important to note that Vanessa Wilson is startlingly equipped to not only lead a police department, but actually renovate the department so that it truly serves the residents of Aurora.
Wilson earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wyoming before joining the APD. Throughout her time with the APD, she attended the Senior Management Institute for Police (SMIP) at Boston University, an intensive three-week course whose “curriculum is much more conceptual than technical and requires participants to think in broad terms about their agencies’ environment and operations” according to their website. In addition to completing this training (which is inaccessible to those without at least a bachelor’s degree… but that’s a discussion for another time), Wilson also completed The FBI National Academy, a 10-week course for U.S. and international law enforcement managers. Participants are nominated by their agency heads for their demonstrated leadership ability (18).
It is only fair to also note here that former Police Chief Nick Metz also holds a bachelor’s degree and attended SMIP and the FBI National Academy (19). However, while Wilson has demonstrably put her education to use facilitating meaningful community outreach and project initiatives, Metz’s professional interests and emphases have centered on the internal administration and human resources side of police work, making his passion for serving the mental health of police officers commendable, though it overlooks the potential source of mental health issues within police departments: the functions officers carry out within the framework of America’s racist policing government structure.
What appears to be needed in Aurora’s next police chief is someone with a proven track record of meeting adversity and tough situations with an empathetic and community-oriented response that simultaneously supports the officers under their charge. Someone who will both have the difficult conversations and actually implement a desperately needed change. Fortunately, the woman for the job seems to already be in position.
Vanessa is the only woman up for consideration alongside three men: a fellow member of the APD as well as officers from Baltimore and Dallas. While it’s the Aurora City Council that will ultimately decide who becomes the new permanent police chief, you can generate discussion on social media that encourages support for an accomplished policewoman who is heeding the call for comprehensive change and community dialogue around policing in America.