July 9, 2020


For this Critical Issues Report, PERF interviewed two police chiefs who recently fired officers after high-profile incidents that damaged public trust in the agency. Wilmington, NC Chief Donny Williams fired three officers who made racist remarks that were captured on video. Aurora, Colorado Interim Chief Vanessa Wilson fired three officers for taking offensive pictures depicting themselves laughing at the site where Elijah McClain was subjected to a chokehold by Aurora police in August 2019. Mr. McClain went into cardiac arrest and later died.


Wilmington, North Carolina Chief Donny Williams:

My Officers and Community Are Showing Support for Firing the Officers

Chief Williams was sworn in on June 23. The next day he held a press conference announcing that three officers had been fired for racist remarks that were heard by a supervisor during an audit of in-car video footage. 

On my first day on the job, I had to deliver some news to our community through a press conference, announcing that we had identified three officers doing some despicable behaviors, some while on duty. It was a heck of a first day.

Chuck Wexler:  How did it happen that you announced this on your first day?

Chief Williams: Events unfolded in a way that made that the best day we could do it. The prior day, we had a special city council meeting where they discussed my appointment as well as this matter, which was considered a personnel matter. In North Carolina, the personnel information we can release is very limited by a personnel privacy law. In order to demonstrate transparency and release more than we would normally release, we had to have our council briefed on everything.  They voted to approve the release the morning we released it.

We had another wrench thrown in there, because the officers’ attorney found out we were going to release more information and tried to get a temporary restraining order against it. The judge looked at everything and ruled in favor of us releasing the additional information.

Wexler: Do North Carolina laws make it difficult or easy for you to fire these officers?

Chief Williams:  We don’t have unions or collective bargaining in North Carolina, so it was very simple for us to move forward. The process consisted of me looking at the internal investigation and then making a recommendation to the city manager. The city manager gave me the go-ahead to proceed with the termination. There were steps we had to follow that are required for all City of Wilmington employees.  We meet with them in advance, do a pre-disciplinary conference, tell them the charges they were facing, and possible outcomes. I have to deal with civil service, and if they get their job back, that’s on civil service. But I’m going to do what’s right. I was not worried about whether they appeal.  I was concerned about doing what’s right for my community.

Wexler:  Has the Wilmington Police Department released this type of information in the past?

Chief Williams:  The last time we got permission from the city council to release an employee’s personnel information, beyond what we would normally release, was probably 18 or 20 years ago. We very rarely do that. But based on where we are with the national protests and mistrust of police, we felt it was important that we be as transparent as we can be, and we released as much information as we could release. We were concerned about our city and the integrity of the law enforcement profession.

The video is still pending. In North Carolina, you cannot release police video unless it’s authorized by a superior court judge. We have a hearing scheduled for later in the month, and whether the video is released will be up to the judge.

Wexler:  How has this been received internally? How about in the community?

Chief Williams:  Internally, we have a lot of officers who are hurt by what these three officers did. They had no clue that these individuals felt this way. You can see it on our people’s faces – they’re down and feel that the world is against law enforcement right now. We try to reassure them that that is not the case.

We have received a lot of support from our community. When we did the press conference, we had members of the community in the room with us. All in all, I think the community has been very supportive of us. They have not turned on the department as a whole. I think they’re going to give us an opportunity to try to earn their trust back even more.

We’ve had support from all over the county. I’ve heard from people from as far away as California and Chicago. I even had a couple from New Mexico send me a flower. The outpouring of support through emails, phone calls, and cards has been tremendous.

Wexler:  Is there anything you would’ve done differently?

Chief Williams:  No. The decision to terminate would be done the exact same way. I don’t think I did anything that any other reasonable chief or sheriff wouldn’t be willing to do. It was a very clear-cut, easy decision, and I made it perfectly clear that we do not want people with that thinking in our profession. I’ve also pushed the word out that if any other officers feel that way, they need to resign and find something else to do.

One of the things that I’m doing now is meeting individually with every single one of our 281 Wilmington police officers over the next two months, for at least 15 minutes. I’m going over my expectations with them as we move forward, and hearing feedback from them.

The meetings I’ve already done have been very positive. Several of our officers, both senior and junior officers, have come up to me and said, “Chief, you did the right thing and we’re behind you.” So I think we’ve made the best we could have out of the situation.


Aurora, Colorado Interim Chief Vanessa Wilson:

“Chiefs Across the Nation Need to Stand Up to These Unions”

Chief Wilson, who has served as interim chief since January, fired three officers for photos taken at the site where Elijah McClain died last August after being placed in a carotid control hold by an Aurora officer. Two officers in the photos were fired, as was an officer who was sent the photos and responded. That officer had been on-scene when McClain died. The third officer in the photos resigned.

When this came to my attention, with the public outcry and grieving in my community, I started scouring the directives, city civil service rules, and city charter rules to see how I could accelerate this discipline. We have an investigative review process, where the officer is allowed to come in, see the file, read the transcripts, and they can dispute anything in the file that they disagree with.

That is usually a 14-day process, but there was a line in the directive that said the chief can expedite the process if there’s public outcry or another reason it needs to be expedited. I limited the investigative review process to two days. They got it done the first day. I ordered an emergency chief’s review board, which gives the chief a recommendation. Then I ordered them in for their pre-disciplinary hearing. Per city charter, officers get exactly 72 hours between the pre-disciplinary hearing and the final disciplinary hearing.

We have an independent review board that is made up of peer officers, a command officer, and four members of the community. They make a recommendation about whether they agree with the chief’s discipline.  But I already knew what the community was going to say, and what those officers did was absolutely reprehensible, so I denied their request for a review board. That’s why the Aurora Police Association says I violated due process, but I checked with my attorneys beforehand.

I’m trying to reset a culture here, and no chief should fear a civil service commission reversing their decision. You need to do the right thing regardless. That’s why I’m moving forward.

Two of them have requested a civil service hearing. If civil service overturns my decision, those officers won’t see a public-facing position in this agency as long as I’m here.

If civil service doesn’t overturn my decision, the fired officers can take it to district court and we can go through that battle there.

It’s a battle that I think needs to be fought. Chiefs across the nation need to stand up to these unions. Our former chief, Dan Oates, wrote that article about what chiefs are facing with unions across the nation. If you get reversed by a civil service commission, it’s not on you, it’s on them.

It’s especially bad because one of the officers was involved in the case with Elijah McClain, which is now being looked at by a special prosecutor appointed by the governor, and the FBI and DOJ are looking at possible civil rights violations. That made it that much worse. It painted our police department as rotten to the core.

I can tell you that the overwhelming response within the department has been “these officers need to get out of my department.” They support me 100%. That’s because the officers are getting beat up out on the street since last year, when we had the other embarrassment with Nate Meier. It has been 9 months of hell for these officers, and this is just one more thing to drive a wedge between us and the community. I thought it was extremely important to say, “There are good cops. One of my cops brought this to light. They understand duty, honor, and integrity. But these four don’t, and they need to get out.”

Wexler:   What was the reaction internally? What about in the community?

Chief Wilson: I have had many people across the nation, from Florida to California, sending me messages of support. And internally I’ve had a lot of support.

But I think there’s still a lot of anger in my community. People want the two remaining officers involved in Elijah McClain’s incident fired.  I’ve had to explain that they were cleared by the district attorney of any criminality and that the carotid control hold was an authorized use of force, so there was no directive violation. I’ve had to explain to the community what I have and don’t have, and tell them that the outcry has led to four separate investigations into that incident. When those come back, I will look at discipline if it’s appropriate. If they come back with no criminality again, which I feel is a high probability, then I’m going to have to face the anger of the community again. But they have to see that I’m willing to do the right thing.

Wexler:    It sounds like you’re trying to change the department’s culture. What does that mean to you, and how do you go about doing it?

Chief Wilson: You have to set expectations. I think you have to not worry about comparisons to what the last chief did. You’re the chief. You set the culture for your agency. We have to listen to what the community wants, rather than what’s historically been done. We need to meet the expectations of police in 2020.


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.

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