The police chief in Aurora, Colorado, apologized this week after officers handcuffed a Black family, including two children lying on the ground, in a mistaken stolen-car stop that was recorded on a widely shared video and is now under investigation.
In a statement Monday, Chief Vanessa Wilson of the Aurora Police Department said the officers made a “mistake” during the stop a day earlier, which she said had been treated as a “high-risk stop” because officers believed it involved a stolen vehicle. She said the department was investigating and reviewing training, and she offered to provide therapy for the children “who may have been traumatized.”
“I have called the family to apologize and to offer any help we can provide,” Wilson said.
At about 11 a.m. local time Sunday, police were notified of a possible stolen vehicle, she said. They stopped a car that matched the license plate number and vehicle description, ordered its occupants onto the ground and handcuffed some of them.
A bystander took a video, which quickly spread online and drove further outrage at the Aurora police, who have been the focus of large protests in the city this summer. The video shows four children lying on the ground in a parking lot, crying and screaming as several officers stand over them by an SUV.
Two of the children, a 17-year-old and 12-year-old, are on their stomachs and handcuffed, and a 14-year-old girl is lying next to a 6-year-old, The Associated Press reported. Officers can be seen leading a woman away in handcuffs.
Brittney Gilliam, who identified herself as the driver to KUSA-TV, told the outlet that she had taken her nieces, younger sister and daughter to get their nails done. The group got back into their car when they realized the salon was closed, and police surrounded them with guns drawn, she said.
“He’s like, something about the car being reported stolen,” Gilliam said. “And I’m like, ‘This happened months ago. You guys cleared it.’”
The officers were notified that there was a stolen vehicle through a license plate reader, a police department spokeswoman said Wednesday, referring to technology that can be mounted on a police vehicle.
The reader gave the officers the license plate number and a description of the SUV that was used by the family. There was also a stolen motorcycle in the system with a similar number but Montana plates, the spokeswoman said. The Internal Affairs Department is still investigating what happened, she added.
In an interview Tuesday with The Denver Post, Wilson said that the officers should have verified the information about the stolen vehicle and that they also made a mistake in allowing the children to remain on the ground during the stop.
“It was done wrong,” Wilson said.
“We’re hoping that an officer is going to make the determination and say, ‘Hmm, something’s wrong here — I’m not going to put this little kid on the ground,’” she added. “Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.”
The officers involved in the stop remain on duty, the police spokeswoman said Wednesday.
The chief said in her statement that when officers suspect a car has been stolen, they have been trained to draw their weapons and order the occupants to lie on the ground. She said officers are allowed to use “discretion and to deviate” from their training process when “different scenarios present themselves.”
Wilson said that “shortly after” the officers handcuffed the family members Sunday, they realized they had made a mistake during the stop, when they “determined” that the stolen vehicle they had been seeking had a license plate issued in another state.
“The confusion may have been due in part to the fact that the stopped car was reported stolen earlier in the year,” she said. Officers immediately removed the handcuffs, “explained what happened and apologized,” she said.
In July, three officers from the department were fired over photographs that show two of them grinning and mocking the death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist who was arrested and placed in a chokehold last August. McClain died several days later. This summer, following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, protests over his death and against police violence gained renewed energy in Aurora.
Wilson apologized several times to McClain’s family during a news conference in July.