DA raises specter of charges against Aurora cops who handcuffed, pointed guns at Black children

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Screen grab from a video taken by Jennifer Wurtz depicting Aurora police wrongfully arresting a family with children.

AURORA | The district attorney for Aurora’s largest judicial jurisdiction has launched a probe to determine if criminal charges are warranted against Aurora police officers who erroneously detained and handcuffed several members of a Black family last weekend.

District Attorney George Brauchler issued a statement on Friday saying that he has ordered his staffers to review all available evidence related to the Aug. 2 incident. The incident prompted an international outcry from public officials, media personalities and athletes in recent days.

“If our investigation determines that the officers involved committed a crime, I will not hesitate to file charges and prosecute them,” Brauchler said in a statement. “I intend to investigate this matter thoroughly and with appropriate haste. I will announce the outcome of our investigation to the public upon its conclusion.”

Brauchler’s office has prosecuted at least 37 law enforcement officials across a smattering of agencies and municipalities in the past eight years, including multiple Aurora officers found guilty of drunken driving.

As first reported by KUSA, several Aurora officers detained and drew guns on Brittney Gilliam and several of her family members while they were on an outing to a local salon last Sunday. The officers stopped Gilliam and her passengers — four girls ages 6, 12, 14 and 17 — near the corner of East Iliff Avenue and South Buckley Road after suspecting her of driving a vehicle that had been reported stolen.

 

The officers laid the children face down on the asphalt of a nearby parking lot as they screamed and cried, as captured in a video of the encounter filmed by an onlooker.

That was in line with department protocols, recently named Police Chief Vanessa Wilson said in a statement issued a day after the encounter. But she joined the chorus of critics, saying the officer could have handled the call differently.

“We have been training our officers that when they contact a suspected stolen car, they should do what is called a high-risk stop,” Wilson wrote in a statement issued via Twitter. “This involves drawing their weapons and ordering all occupants to exit the car and lie prone on the ground. But we must allow our officers to have discretion and to deviate from this process when different scenarios present themselves. I have already directed my team to look at new practices and training.”

Officers eventually realized they had made a mistake, apologized and released the group from custody, police said.

The blunder was tied to a license plate reader that snapped a photo of Gilliam’s license plate and listed the vehicle as stolen, Wilson later explained. She said the readers only search by plate numbers — not by state or vehicle make and model.

There are about 20 such license plate readers in Aurora, according to Detective Faith Goodrich, spokesperson for Aurora police.

Gilliam’s plate shared the same numbers as an out-of-state motorcycle that had been reported stolen in the area. Officers did not cross reference Gilliam’s plate in a national database, which would have shown that her vehicle did not match the registered state or make of the stolen bike in question.

“They don’t know if it’s a motorcycle, or dealer plates, or what state; it just runs the numbers,” Wilson said. “And if the numbers match, which unfortunately they did with this vehicle, it gives a hit … They didn’t confirm the hit. They should have confirmed it with (the National Crime Information Center), and that wasn’t done.”

Wilson has also opened an internal affairs investigation into the incident.

The new chief has issued a public apology to Gilliam and her family and is coordinating with the city’s victim advocates to get the children free therapy.

“I don’t want these kids to be fearful of the police,” Wilson said. “I know this is a systemic problem across our nation, especially with people of color, and it needs to change.”

An octet of Democratic state lawmakers who cover various portions of Aurora released a statement condemning the incident Friday.

“Words cannot describe the outrage we, particularly as state legislators here in Aurora, felt watching APD, with their firearms drawn, handcuff Black children and detain them on the hot pavement,” the group wrote in a joint statement issued on the Colorado House Democrats’ Twitter page. “Our hearts break for Ms. Gilliam and her family. This should never have happened.”

Reps. Dominique Jackson, Janet Buckner, Mike Weissman, Jovan Melton, Dafna Michaelson Jenet and Sens. Nancy Todd, Rhonda Fields and Jeff Bridges also called on Wilson to overhaul the culture of the department.

“The Aurora Police department needs a fresh start, and we are encouraged by the partnership we have started to build with Chief Wilson,” the lawmakers wrote. “We urge her to move quickly to transform the culture of the force, hold officers accountable, and bring much-needed reform to the department.”

Shortly after Brauchler issued his statement, Wilson responded with a missive of her own, saying that she supports the criminal inquiry.

“I have promised transparency to a community who not only demands it, but deserves it,” she wrote. “I not only welcome this review, but am fully cooperating with the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.”

The scrutiny comes on the heels of a renewed wave of criticism regarding how Aurora police have handled the case of Elijah McClain, the 23-year-old Black man who died days after officers stopped him on his way home from a convenience store and placed him in a now-banned control hold.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser opened a new investigation to evaluate the possibility of criminal charges against officers involved in that incident earlier this summer.