The interim police chief of Aurora, Colo., on Friday fired two officers who she said were in a photo reenacting the violent arrest of a 23-year-old black man, Elijah McClain, who died last summer after he was placed in a chokehold and injected with a heavy sedative by paramedics.
Interim Chief Vanessa Wilson also terminated a third officer, Jason Rosenblatt, who received the photo and participated in McClain’s arrest. Wilson said Rosenblatt replied, “ha ha,” to the image, taken last October near a memorial to McClain.
McClain’s death has been a focus of the street protests in Colorado that erupted in response to the killing of George Floyd. The Aurora officers have not been charged.
Wilson said at a news conference in the Denver suburb that she fired Officers Erica Marrero and Kyle Dittrich for posing with another officer, Jaron Jones, who resigned earlier in the week. She described the photos as a “despicable act” and an embarrassment to law enforcement.
“There are cops that have integrity. They understand duty and they understand honor,” Wilson said. “These four don’t get it,” she said, of the three officers in the photo and Rosenblatt.
“And if any officer in this police department disagrees and thinks this was acceptable, I will gladly accept your resignation today,” Wilson added.
The renewed attention on the case in the wake of Floyd’s death has prompted Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, to appoint a special prosecutor to reopen the investigation into McClain’s killing. The U.S. Department of Justice announced this week it would review the case as a possible civil rights violation.
Rosenblatt and two other Aurora officers responded last August to a 911 call reporting a suspicious person, then tackled McClain when he did not comply with orders. He may have been listening to music at the time, and it’s unclear whether he heard the officers’ commands.
McClain, who was unarmed, was handcuffed and placed in a carotid hold, a dangerous restraint technique that cuts off blood to the brain to render a person unconscious.
When paramedics arrived, they injected McClain with ketamine, a powerful sedative. Body-camera footage of the arrest recorded him pleading and complaining that he could not breathe.
After suffering a heart attack en route to the hospital, McClain died several days later.
In response to the firings, the Aurora Police Association issued a statement criticizing the investigation as a “rush to judgment” and calling Wilson “unfit.”
“All of the officers involved were ordered to give interviews on very short notice, without proper preparation, outside of their normal work hours, had their phones confiscated and downloaded, and then were given an abbreviated and defective file review process,” the union’s statement said, alleging the steps were “violations of the [officers’] due process rights.”
Wilson told reporters she met with McClain’s mother Friday morning to show her the photos of the officers, so she could see them before their public release.
“This is her son,” Wilson said. “This is her son being mocked.”