Three Aurora, Colo., police officers have been fired over photos 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. Mr. McClain died several days later.
Vanessa Wilson, the interim chief of the Aurora Police Department, said she fired the officers on Friday morning for conduct unbecoming. A fourth officer resigned on Tuesday.
“While the allegations of this internal affairs case are not criminal, it is a crime against humanity and decency,” Chief Wilson said at a Friday afternoon news conference. “To even think about doing such a thing is beyond comprehension and it’s reprehensible. It shows a lack of morals, values and integrity, and a judgment that I can no longer trust to allow them to wear this badge.”
Chief Wilson shook her head as she revealed a photo of Officers Erica Marrero, Kyle Dittrich and Jaron Jones grinning in selfies they took last October near a memorial that had been set up in Mr. McClain’s memory. Another photo showed Officer Dittrich smiling widely as Officer Jones wraps his arm around his neck. Officer Marrero is grinning in the background.
The photos were then sent to Officer Jason Rosenblatt, one of the three officers who arrested Mr. McClain last summer.
He texted back “haha,” according to Chief Wilson. Officer Rosenblatt, who has been with the department for three years, was fired on Friday along with Officers Marrero and Dittrich. Officer Jones resigned on Tuesday.
“I am disgusted to my core,” said Chief Wilson, who apologized several times to Mr. McClain’s family during the news conference. She also apologized to police officers nationwide whose reputations she said were unfairly besmirched by the actions of the officers in her department.
On Aug. 24, 2019, Mr. McClain was walking home from a convenience store when someone called 911, saying he “looked sketchy” and was wearing a ski mask and waving his arms.
The police arrived and, though Mr. McClain had not been accused of a crime, they started to restrain him.
In the blurry body camera footage of the arrest, Mr. McClain can be heard telling the officers he is an introvert and wants them to leave him alone.
One of the officers is heard saying Mr. McClain reached for another officer’s weapon, but that cannot be seen in the footage.
The encounter escalates as officers threaten to use a Taser if he doesn’t stop fighting. One of the officers places him in a carotid hold, which restricts blood to the brain to render someone unconscious.
“I can’t breathe,” Mr. McClain can be heard gasping. “Please stop.”
After paramedics arrived, they injected Mr. McClain with ketamine, a powerful sedative.
On the way to a hospital, Mr. McClain went into cardiac arrest. He died three days later.
Mr. McClain’s case is one of many deadly encounters between Black people and the police that are receiving new scrutiny after the death of George Floyd in May, who gasped for breath as a Minneapolis police officer kept his knee on his neck.
After Mr. Floyd’s death, celebrities began sharing Mr. McClain’s story on social media. More than four million people have signed an online petition demanding that the officers involved in his arrest be held accountable for his death.
During the spring, Mr. McClain’s mother urged state legislators to enact sweeping changes to policing tactics, including banning the use of chokeholds. The city of Aurora banned carotid control holds last month.
The photographs, however, did not surface until last week, when Chief Wilson said she learned about them from another officer in the department who was “disgusted” by them and reported the incident to a supervisor.
That officer, who was not identified, learned of the photos in March and struggled for months over what he should do, Chief Wilson said.
She added that he came forward after talking to his wife and realizing that no one planned to say anything about the pictures.
“There are cops who have integrity,” Chief Wilson said. “They understand duty and they understand honor.”
She added: “These four don’t get it.”
Chief Wilson said the officers told her they took the photo to “cheer up” Nathan Woodyard, one of the three officers involved in Mr. McClain’s arrest.
Officers Rosenblatt, Woodyard and Randy Roedema were placed on administrative leave after Mr. McClain’s death and later reinstated. Dave Young, the district attorney for Adams County, decided not to file criminal charges against the officers, citing an autopsy report that stated the pathologist was unable to connect the officers’ actions with Mr. McClain’s death.
The F.B.I. and the Justice Department are investigating Mr. McClain’s death, and Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado has asked the state attorney general to investigate the case, Chief Wilson said.
Chief Wilson said Officer Woodyard also received a copy of the photos but did not reply and deleted them immediately.
She said Officer Woodyard told her he was “extremely disturbed” by the photos.
Chief Wilson said she met with Mr. McClain’s mother Friday morning to show her the photos before they were released to the public.
“No one has the right to see these pictures before she sees these pictures,” Chief Wilson said. “This is her son. Her son being mocked.”
Mari Newman, a lawyer for Mr. McClain’s family, compared the photos to images of people smiling next to the bodies of Black people who had been lynched.
“What we have seen is pictures of Aurora police officers taking pictures just like racists in the Jim Crow South,” she said during a news conference on Friday near the memorial site.
In an email, Ms. Newman said seeing those photos was a “gut punch” to Mr. McClain’s parents.
“They were stunned by the callousness and depravity of those officers,” Ms. Newman said.
She described the department on Friday as “rotten to the core.”
Officers Dittrich and Jones were hired in 2016. Officer Marrero joined the department in 2018.
The Aurora Police Association, which represents the department’s officers, said the “internal investigation was conducted in an unprecedented fashion.”
The union said the officers were ordered to be interviewed with short notice, had little time to prepare for their disciplinary process and had their phones confiscated.
“All of these steps ordered by Interim Chief Wilson were violations of the officer’s due process rights,” the union said in a statement. “This investigation is a rush to judgment.”
Chief Wilson said the officers voluntarily handed over their phones. She said she had every right to accelerate the disciplinary process and noted that she gave the officers three days to provide more information before she made her final decision.
“None of them sent me any additional information,” Chief Wilson said.
Chief Wilson said she was planning to meet with community leaders to get their feedback on how the department could regain the city’s trust.
She said the Police Department had changed its directive on how to respond to the kind of 911 calls that led to Mr. McClain’s death. Chief Wilson said the department was also examining its training procedures.
“I shouldn’t have to teach this,” she said. “There is no training that should have to teach human decency.”