Colorado officers won’t be charged for detaining Black girls

Suburban Denver police officers who detained four Black girls by gunpoint handcuffing two of them, after wrongly suspecting they were riding in a stolen car this summer won’t be charged, prosecutors said Friday.

It came the same day the Colorado attorney general opened a grand jury investigation into the death of Elijah McClain a 23-year-old Black man who was stopped as he walked down the street, placed in a neck hold and injected with a sedative in 2019.

Both involved officers from the Aurora Police Department and drew national attention during America’s reckoning over racism and police brutality.

Months after video of the girls laying face down in a parking lot — some in tears — spread on social media, a review by the district attorney’s office found no evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers acted unlawfully during the Aug. 2 traffic stop. But chief deputy district attorney Clinton McKinzie called it “disturbing” that children were placed face-down on the ground at gunpoint.

“It is our hope, however, that APD will immediately undertake a review of their policies to try and ensure that nothing of this sort ever happens again,” McKinzie said. “What happened to the innocent occupants is unacceptable and preventable.”

Officers eventually determined the car carrying the girls, who ranged from 6 to 17, had the same license plate number as a motorcycle they were seeking from another state.

Aurora police apologized after video taken by a bystander showed the girls lying on their stomachs, with the 17-year-old and 12-year-old handcuffed behind their backs. The 14-year-old and 6-year-old were lying next to the car.

They can be heard crying and screaming as officers stand with their backs to the camera. A woman on the other side of the car is seen being led away in handcuffs.

An officer eventually helped the handcuffed girls sit up but left them with their hands behind their backs before determining police had stopped the wrong car.

Driver Brittney Gilliam, who had taken her nieces, sister and daughter out for a day at a nail salon, has characterized the officers’ actions as police brutality.

“There’s no excuse why you didn’t handle it a different type of way,” Gilliam told KUSA-TV. “You could have even told them, ‘Step off to the side, let me ask your mom or your auntie a few questions so we can get this cleared up.’ There was different ways to handle it.”

Jennifer Wurtz, who shot the video, said on camera that the police drew guns as they initially approached the car.

Vanessa Wilson, who was named chief of the Aurora Police Department in early August after serving as its interim leader, has said she was “angry and disgusted” like others who saw the video and that she welcomed the district attorney’s investigation, which coincided with an internal police investigation she ordered.

Police are instructed to draw their guns and put people on the ground when dealing with a suspected stolen car, but Wilson has said they should have changed course after Gilliam said the car was not stolen and that she had children inside.

The officers pulled over Gilliam’s car after a license plate reader in an intersection flagged it as a possible stolen vehicle. The car had a Colorado license plate with the same number as a motorcycle registered in Montana that was stolen, Wilson has said.

Meanwhile, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser has opened a grand jury investigation into McClain’s death.

“The grand jury is an investigative tool that has the power to compel testimony from witnesses and require production of documents and other relevant information that would otherwise be unavailable,” Weiser said in a statement Friday.

On Aug. 24, 2019, Aurora police responded to a call of a suspicious person wearing a ski mask and waving his arms as he walked down a street. They say McClain refused to stop walking and fought back when officers confronted him and tried to take him into custody.

To subdue McClain, officers used a chokehold that cuts off blood to the brain, which has been banned in several places since George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis stirred nationwide protests. Paramedics arrived soon after and administered 500 milligrams of a sedative to calm down McClain down. McClain suffered cardiac arrest, was declared brain dead and taken off life support.

Weiser is still investigating the officers’ actions amid several reviews into the case and the Police Department by the city and federal government.

Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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