Former Aurora Police Chief sues for wrongful termination

BY FREDA MIKLIN
GOVERNMENTAL REPORTER

On March 15, Vanessa Wilson, who served 25 years as a police officer in the City of Aurora, and as its chief of police from August 2020 until April 2022, filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, alleging she was terminated “without cause.” In September 2022, Wilson formally notified the city that she planned to take this action.

Former Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson

In her lawsuit, Wilson noted that she was hired as the city’s top cop, “at a time when the department was careening through a series of high-profile controversies under the former administration, many race-related, including the tragic murder of Elijah McClain at the hands of the Aurora police and fire departments.”

She also pointed to a report issued by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser a year after she became police chief, which found that, “Aurora Police Department (APD) officers had a long-standing pattern and practice of violating state and federal law through racially biased policing and the use of excessive force which disproportionately injured people of color.” 

Wilson continued, “The City of Aurora subsequently entered into a five-year Consent Decree with the Office of the Attorney General which obligated the City to finally implement necessary reforms, many of which Chief Wilson had already begun.”

According to former Chief Wilson, after being elected in November 2021, new Aurora City Council Members Danielle Jurinsky, Steve Sundberg, and Dustin Zvonek, “publicly and privately sought to halt or even reverse Wilson’s race reform efforts,” and that, “Angered by her advocacy on behalf of people of color and commitment to eradicate racism in the police department, Jurinsky repeatedly publicly called Chief Wilson ‘trash’ and falsely accused her reforms of making the City, its businesses, and its residents ‘unsafe,’” adding, “Repeatedly, Jurinsky, Sundberg, and Zvonek publicly demanded that (then) City Manager Jim Twombly fire Wilson.”

When Twombly terminated Wilson, he said she had “prioritized community involvement,” but failed to “effectively create a positive culture of stability, employee satisfaction, and engagement in the agency,” and “strategically review, assess, manage, and provide efficient oversight to the overall police department operations,” which led him to conclude that, “To provide the level of public safety that our community deserves, a change in leadership must occur.”

Former Chief Wilson’s complaint alleges she was wrongfully discharged based on discrimination and retaliation. She is asking for a jury trial that she hopes will award her economic losses, including back pay, as well as compensatory damages for non-economic losses, including emotional distress and attorneys’ fees. Wilson is represented by Paula Greisen and Scott Medlock.

Two other legal situations involving the former police chief have also been reported during the past two years.

In January 2023, Wilson, along with the City of Aurora and Adams County, was named in a 67-page lawsuit that accused her of using her position when she was police chief to have Kristen Nichols, her former partner Robin Niceta’s ex-girlfriend, arrested. The charges against Nichols were later dismissed. 

In May 2022, Robin Niceta was arrested for having invented the story when she reported on an anonymous tip line four months earlier that she had seen Aurora City Council Member Danielle Jurinsky sexually abuse her two-year old son. Jurinsky was completely exonerated after an investigation that was required due to the “anonymous” tip from Niceta, who was an employee of the Arapahoe County Department of Human Services and Wilson’s partner in January 2022, when she committed the crime. In November 2023, Niceta was found guilty of attempting to influence a public servant and filing a false child abuse report. She is awaiting sentencing. There was no evidence that Wilson was personally involved in Niceta’s criminal activities.

Jurinsky filed a civil suit against Niceta for “extreme and outrageous conduct.” Niceta did not respond to the lawsuit. On December 23, 2023, Judge Elizabeth Volz awarded Jurinsky the $3 million she had sought in actual and exemplary damages.