AURORA | The three members of Aurora’s Civil Service Commission on Tuesday unanimously agreed to uphold Police Chief Vanessa Wilson’s decision to fire a trio of former Aurora officers who posed for and texted one another a photo mocking the death of Elijah McClain last summer.
Commissioners Jim Weeks, Barbara Shannon-Banister and AJ McDonald rebuked recent appeals from former officers Jason Rosenblatt, Erica Marrero and Kyle Dittrich asking the commission to reverse their terminations, which Wilson handed down on July 3.
In a pair of decision letters signed by Weeks, who currently serves as chairman of the commission, the commissioners wrote that the officers “violated virtually every subsection” of the department rule Wilson cited in her firing decision, entitled “conduct unbecoming.”
Commissioners batted down apparently lengthy testimony the former cops gave at hearings in late January and early February. All of the proceedings were closed to the public at the officers’ request.
Rosenblatt, who did not appear in the photo but responded “ha ha” upon receiving it in a text message from an unknown number, told the commissioners his missive was an attempt to tamp down the conversation — not openly mock McClain’s death.
The commissioners disagreed.
“The likely interpretation of someone who saw the photo and officer Rosenblatt’s ‘Ha ha’ response was that officer Rosenblatt was laughing at Elijah McClain’s death,” Weeks wrote. “ … Officer Rosenblatt’s response to the photo was, at best, incredibly thoughtless, with no consideration for its impact on a wide range of other people.”
The photo in question was taken Oct. 19, 2019 in front of a memorial commemorating McClain’s life and features former officer Jaron Jones imitating a now-banned carotid hold on Dittrich’s neck while Marrero smiles. The hold was applied to McClain’s carotid artery the night a trio of officers, including Rosenblatt, subdued him in the 1900 block of Billings Street in August 2019.
He was eventually given a dose of ketamine and went into cardiac arrest in an ambulance en route to a nearby hospital. The unarmed, 23-year-old massage therapist was declared brain dead on Aug. 27, and he was taken off life support three days later.
Jones resigned from the department days before Wilson levied her disciplinary decisions against those involved in the photo scandal, a decision the chief later praised.
At their appeal hearings Feb. 1 and Feb. 2, Marrero and Dittrich repeatedly told commissioners that by sending the photo, they were trying to “assist a fellow team member who was struggling.” Specifically, they said they were attempting to buoy the spirits of Officer Nathan Woodyard, another one of the three officers who originally detained McClain.
Woodyard received the photo, but never responded and later told peers that he thought the image was “inappropriate,” according to Weeks’ memo. He was never disciplined for receiving the photo and remains on the force, as does the third officer involved in stopping McClain, Randy Roedema.
“There were numerous other methods officers Marrero and Dittrich could have used or photos they could have sent to offer support for Officer Woodyard,” Weeks wrote. “The commission simply does not understand how a photo depicting a choke hold at the Elijah McClain memorial could possibly be expected to help officer Woodyard.”
Wilson, who ordered an expedited internal investigation into the photo after it was brought to her attention in June, commended the commissioner’s sign-off on her previous decision.
“Aurora police officers are expected to serve our community with dignity, respect and a sense of humanity,” she said in a statement. “I am pleased with the Civil Service Commission’s decision to uphold my discipline of Mr. Dittrich, Ms. Marrero and Mr. Rosenblatt … This supportive decision of the Civil Service Commission enables us to take another step forward on our path to a new way in rebuilding trust with our community through transparency and accountability.”
Former Aurora police chief Nick Metz publicly butted heads with previous civil service commissioners after in 2018 they overturned his decision to fire an officer who was caught using a racial slur.
City Manager Jim Twombly, who tabbed Wilson to become the full-time chief of police after she served on an interim basis late last year, also applauded the commissioner’s decision.
“I fully supported Chief Wilson’s firing of Officers Dittrich, Marrero and Rosenblatt, and am encouraged that the Civil Service Commission agreed and upheld her decision,” he said in a statement.
Per city charter, the three fired officers could still technically appeal the commission’s decision to state district court, though a judge there could only rule whether the panel overstepped its jurisdiction or abused its discretion, according to a city spokesperson. The officers would not be able to again lay out their cases or further explain evidence or testimony.
The decisions Tuesday solidify the first discipline any of the officers involved in detaining McClain have publicly received since his death, much to the chagrin of activists across the globe. Former Adams County District Attorney Dave Young in November 2019 declined to pursue any criminal charges against any of the involved first responders, citing the unlikely success of obtaining convictions at trial.
But the recent civil service commission conclusions are expected to be the first of several announcements related to McClain’s death this year as several ongoing investigations grind on. Later this month, the Aurora City Council is expected to receive a briefing from a consultant tasked with evaluating how local police handled McClain’s death and the subsequent investigation.
Other state and federal investigations, including a probe by the state grand jury, remain ongoing.