By PATTY NIEBERG AND COLLEEN SLEVIN, Associated Press
AURORA, Colo. (AP) — One of the three White officers who stopped Elijah McClain was fired over photos showing colleagues reenacting the chokehold used on the Black man before he died last year, authorities said Friday. After getting a text message with the images, he replied, “haha.”
Police stopped McClain as he walked down the street in a ski mask last August for “being suspicious.” Aurora Officer Jason Rosenblatt tried to use a chokehold on the 23-year-old but couldn’t because of his position, so another officer did, a report from prosecutors said.
In this Saturday, June 27, 2020, file photo, demonstrators march down Sable Boulevard during a rally and march over the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain, in Aurora, Colo. One of the police officers investigated over photographs connected with McClain’s death has resigned, Aurora police said Thursday, July 2, 2020. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)
Two months later, Rosenblatt received the photos from three fellow officers who smiled as they mimicked a chokehold near where McClain was stopped, which had become a public memorial.
McClain’s death has become a rallying cry amid a national reckoning over police brutality and racial injustice, with the state reopening the case for possible criminal charges and federal officials looking into a civil rights investigation. In several places, the chokehold has been banned and other police reforms passed after nationwide protests.
A visibly shaken Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson assailed the four officers involved with the photos, saying their explanation is that they were “trying to cheer up a friend by sending that photo.”
“We are ashamed, we are sickened, and we are angry,” Wilson said. The officers may not have committed a crime, but the photographs are “a crime against humanity and decency,” she added.
After an internal investigation, Wilson fired Rosenblatt and two of the officers who appeared in the photos, Kyle Dittrich and Erica Marrero, for conduct unbecoming of an officer. Jaron Jones, the officer pictured reenacting the chokehold, resigned this week.
The Aurora Police Association called it “a rush to judgment.” The union for officers said on Facebook that the investigation took nine days, while a standard internal affairs case takes months.
Several police agencies have taken swift action to punish officers, including those involved in George Floyd’s death May 25 in Minneapolis. The case ushered in global demonstrations.
Facing increasing pressure, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis last week ordered the state attorney general to reopen McClain’s case after prosecutors last year cleared the officers who confronted him. Two of them, including the one that put McClain in a chokehold, are still on the force as authorities look into possible criminal charges.
Word of the photos emerged soon after Polis’ announcement. Aurora police launched an investigation last week after another officer reported the photos.
“The fact that three on-duty, in-uniform police officers thought that it was appropriate to reenact the murder, jokingly, shows that the department is rotten to the core,” said Mari Newman, the McClain family’s lawyer who saw the photos before they were publicly released. Elijah’s mother, Sheneen McClain, also saw them.
“For her, it was just devastating to see that people were mocking the murder of her son,” Newman added.
Family friend and activist Candice Bailey led a rally Friday at the memorial for McClain. She said that if a text message was enough to get Rosenblatt fired, then every officer involved in McClain’s death should be behind bars.
“We want life in prison — they murdered and tortured him — and we will not stop until that happens,” Bailey said.
Officers stopped McClain, a massage therapist, after a 911 call on Aug. 24, 2019, reported him as suspicious because he was wearing a ski mask and flailing his arms. Police said they had a right to stop him because he was “being suspicious,” and he begged them repeatedly to let go of him, according to body-camera video.
After the chokehold that cut off blood to his brain, paramedics administered 500 milligrams of a sedative to calm him down. He suffered cardiac arrest, was later declared brain dead and taken off life support.
A forensic pathologist could not determine what exactly led to McClain’s death but said physical exertion during the confrontation likely contributed.
A prosecutor said he didn’t pursue criminal charges against the officers because the pathologist wasn’t able to determine if their actions caused McClain’s death. District Attorney Dave Young recently called the young man’s death “tragic and unnecessary” but defended his decision.
Police body-camera video shows an officer getting out of his car, approaching McClain and saying, “Stop right there. Stop. Stop. … I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious.”
In the video, the officer turns McClain around and repeats, “Stop tensing up.” As McClain tries to escape the officer’s grip, the officer says, “Relax, or I’m going to have to change this situation.”
As other officers join to restrain McClain, he begs them to let go and says, “You guys started to arrest me, and I was stopping my music to listen.”
Aurora police have said McClain refused to stop walking and fought back when officers tried to take him into custody.
In the video, McClain tells officers: “Let go of me. I am an introvert. Please respect the boundaries that I am speaking.”
The U.S. attorney’s office, the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the FBI announced this week they are looking into whether to launch a civil rights investigation. Federal authorities said they also were considering an investigation into the photos.