AURORA | It was a photo that three Aurora Police Department cops said they thought would cheer up a fellow officer. Instead, it enraged a people in Aurora and across the nation, landed the officers jobless and disgusted department and community leaders.
In the photo, officer Jaron Jones is mockingly performing a carotid hold on fellow officer Kyle Dittrich, who appears to be taking the photo, at the memorial site of Elijah McClain, who died in August after being stopped by police in north Aurora. The arresting officers performed the same chokehold on McClain.
The duo and officer Erica Marrero smile in the dark selfie.
“How anybody could think that was going to make anybody happy is beyond me,” APD interim chief Vanessa Wilson said to reporters Friday, announcing the termination of two of the officers in the photo, Marrero and Dittrich, plus officer Jason Rosenblatt, who received the photo and responded, “HaHa,” according to the investigation. Rosenblatt was one of the officers who originally responded to the call regarding McClain in August.
The photo scandal was announced days after a controversial protest held in honor of McClain, an unarmed Black man who died six days after three officers placed him in a now-outlawed control hold during an encounter that began because the 23-year-old man was deemed “suspicious.” He was never suspected of a crime, and none of the officers involved were ever charged with a crime.
At about 6 p.m. Friday, about 1,500 protesters marched from the site in north Aurora where McClain was arrested last year to a police substation on the nearby Anschutz Campus. There, largely peaceful protesters said they would “occupy” the substation until accused officers were charged with crimes or fired.
Organizers from the Party for Socialism and Liberation read a letter at about 8 p.m. addressed to Wilson, saying, “We have no intention to storm this precinct…” They said people will “stay here” until two of the officers are fired.
The momentous day was stacked with emotion. At a press earlier conference and rally after Wilson’s announcement, McClain family members and supporters said they were especially incensed because two of the fired officers had been called to the scene when McClain was originally arrested.
Community activist Candice Bailey said the death, the mockery and months of silence among the ranks of police reveals a “corrupt culture” that demands dissolution.
She criticized police for releasing the information about the fired officers on a Friday afternoon, with little notice on a holiday. She said it’s a consistent behavior by Aurora police.
“These are white supremacy tactics,” Bailey said to a boisterous crowd of about 400 people chanting, “Time is up, APD.” The rally gathered at a makeshift memorial alongside I-225, yards from where McClain was arrested.
“This is the culture and the character of murderers,” Bailey said. “We do not need murderers calling themselves protectors.”
The latest in string of public protests and outrage over the death of McClain stemmed from the now infamous photos of three Aurora police officers mocking the choke holds and arrest that police inflicted before McClain’s death.
Jones, one of the officers in the photo, quit his job Thursday following an internal affairs investigation and days of public outcry. The firing of the others was announced Friday.
“I appreciate you realizing what you have done and what a despicable act, and what you have brought upon this nation upon, this family, and that you’ve embarrassed law enforcement yet again,” Wilson said, addressing Jones’ resignation.
Wilson said she denied an investigative review board, which by city charter she is able to do. “Nothing was going to change my mind on termination,” she said.
Nathan Woodyard, who was involved in McClain’s stop in August, was among the recipients of the photo. Wilson said Woodyard immediately deleted the photo, and so he was not terminated. There are no police directives that require officers to report events like that photo.
“He is devastated by this and disgusted,” Wilson said.
The attorney for McClain’s family, Mari Newman, said at the following rally that the photo was reminiscent of white supremacy hunts and lynching in the Jim Crow South, where white murders took pictures over slain Blacks as if they were game.
“APD has a long, sordid history of racism and brutality,” Newman said at the afternoon rally. The photo scandal was an illustration of that, not just an exceptional incident.
“This is a department with police who tackled an innocent young man and inflicted fifteen minutes of multiple kinds of excessive force, including two carotid chokeholds, who stood over him joking, ‘Don’t get that on me’ while he was vomiting from the pain, who threatened to sick a dog on him because he lying still enough while dying,” Newman had said earlier in a statement.
“This (is) a department that exonerated all of the officers who killed Elijah and those who failed to intervene to stop the torture. This is a department that spewed pepper spray on peaceful protesters and mourners playing their violins as a tribute to Elijah’s life,” she said. “And now we learn that this is a department where uniformed police officers feel empowered to make a mockery of killing an innocent young man, taking reenactment photos at the site where he was murdered. This is a department that is rotten to the core.”
Wilson said the photo was taken in October, but the anonymous reporting officer didn’t know about it until March. Wilson said he said he battled with the decision to report it, but ultimately did. According to the investigation, it was believed another officer may have received the photo, but the probe revealed there was no involvement in the incident.
“The officers’ actions in these photos are appalling and inexcusable and will not be tolerated by the (Wilson) or by me,” Mayor Mike Coffman said. “I agree with…Wilson’s decisions, but this is not the end of our response. More action is needed, including the independent investigation that will soon get underway into the tragic death of Elijah McClain. We must ensure that we have the answers our community needs, city leadership needs, and most importantly, Elijah’s family deserves.
“We will have a police department that reflects our community’s demographics, values and culture. We cannot and will not accept anything less. This is an important step in that process, and it’s a process that will continue in order to restore trust.”
Added Allison Hiltz, chair of the public safety committee: “The mockery of Elijah McClain’s death depicted in the photographs demonstrates an utter lack of human decency, and I wholeheartedly support Chief Wilson’s decision to terminate the officers involved.
“I hope officers see this for the warning that it is: a lack of empathy and compassion for the community we serve will not be tolerated,” Wilson said. “If you are not disturbed by this photo, then you are welcome to leave at any time.”
Even before the press conference began, an Aurora police union called for Wilson to take herself out of the running for permanent chief.
“Today, Interim Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson terminated one of our members in the case related to the photos taken near the Elijah McClain memorial,” the Aurora Police Association said in a statement. “Though this Officer had no part in the taking or distribution of the photos, and was sent the photos months after they were first taken, he was terminated from his job as an Aurora Police Officer effective immediately.”
APA officials said accused officers were rushed through a disciplinary process and refused “due process rights.”
“It appears that Interim Chief Wilson’s participation in the chief selection process drove her decision making in this case. The appearance of impropriety is obvious,” the statement said. “By her actions today, Interim Chief Wilson has demonstrated that she is unfit for the position that she currently holds and should be dropped from the final slate of candidates to be the next Chief of the Aurora Police Department.”
Told that news at the family’s afternoon rally, Aurora NAACP President Omar Montgomery said the APA move was disturbing and showed unnerving hypocrisy on the part of the union.
He said that despite a great deal of hurt and harm police have inflicted on McClain, his family and the community, he sees a way forward with a nascent task force created to recommend police reforms to city lawmakers.
He said the city will be able to create a trusted police department by embracing and adopting the reforms. The city must also hire a chief who champions structural reforms and can still “multitask.”
Montgomery pointed to a wave of recent Aurora shootings and violence, much of among city youth, that seems to be lost in rush of racial tension between the community and police.”
“All of this must be addressed,” Montgomery said. “And much of this depends on the police chief.”
Statewide activist Elisabeth Epps told the crowd that she has little faith the current regime can enact needed changes.
“You can’t reform your way out of this,” Epps told the crowd at the afternoon rally, referring to McClain death and recent scandal. “We don’t need more black officers, we need more black elected officials.”
Wilson said she first learned of the photos last week when an internal employee alerted her office of their existence. She fast-tracked an internal affairs investigation into the incident and placed multiple involved officers on paid leave.
The internal affairs process wrapped earlier this week, but the timeline regarding when Wilson may impose discipline against any of the remaining officers is ambiguous and could be further stymied if the involved officers appeal any of her decisions. Officers have 10 days to appeal any decision Wilson makes with the Civil Service Commission, which could then move forward with months of its own investigations and considerations.
— Sentinel reporter Quincy Snowdon and Editor Dave Perry contributed to this report.
Full Aurora Police Bodycam Video of Elijah McClain Encounter
Past Sentinel Colorado Coverage of Elijah McClain: