"It's reprehensible, and that is why they no longer work here."
Those were the words of Aurora's interim police chief, Vanessa Wilson Friday, announcing that she had fired three officers involved with taking and distributing a photo reenacting a stranglehold near the site of where Elijah McClain died nearly a year ago. A fourth officer resigned earlier this week.
"They don't deserve to wear a badge any more," Wilson said.
The photo was taken on Oct. 20th, 2019, near a memorial set up for McClain. It was brought to the department's attention eight days ago. Officer Kyle Dittrich took the photo, which shows fellow officer Jaron Jones with an arm hooked around Dittrich's neck, mimicking a carotid control hold. Both men joined the APD in 2016. Officer Erica Marrero, a two-year employee of the force, stands next to them. All three are smiling.
Police confronted McClain last August after receiving reports of a "suspicious person." In the following interaction, officers placed McClain in two chokeholds and EMTs injected him with ketamine as a sedative, leaving him unconscious and vomiting. He was declared brain-dead several days later.
Wilson said the officers who took the photo claimed they were "trying to cheer up a friend," an explanation she rejected. The photo was sent to two of the officers involved in McClain's death .
One of those officers, Jason Rosenblatt, was part of the group that stopped Elijah McClain on August 24, 2019. He received the photo and replied "haha."
"He is being fired for his...utter lack of ability to do the right thing here. And his ability to say 'haha' when he was involved in the incident with Elijah McClain is reprehensible," Wilson said.
An attorney representing the McClain family compared the former officers' photo to images of lynchings in which white people posed with the bodies of murdered Black people.
"Taking pictures, just like racists in the Jim Crow South. And that is not acceptable. It was not acceptable then and it is not acceptable now," said lawyer Mari Newman. "The Aurora Police Department has a long, sordid horrible history of both racism and brutality. That needs to stop today."
McClain's family viewed the photo before it was publicly released Friday. A march is also planned for Friday evening, from the place where officers stopped McClain, to Aurora's police headquarters. Demonstrators are demanding fundamental reforms to the department.
"Do not allow Elijah McClain's life to be in vain. Do not," said family friend Candice Bailey at a small rally earlier in the day.
Support, pushback for officer firings
The Aurora Police Association has objected to how Wilson handled the investigation and firing of the officers, in particular Rosenblatt, saying their due process rights were violated.
"A standard internal affairs case takes several months. This case took 9 days. This investigation is a rush to judgement," the association said in a statement. It accused Wilson of acting quickly to bolster her chances of being hired permanently as the department's chief.
But Wilson defended the firings, saying she acted within her prerogative, noting "the public outcry and demand for justice for Elijah." She said, "I accelerated [the process] and I was able to do that legally and I felt it was the right thing for this community."
Aurora mayor Mike Coffman voiced his support for Wilson's actions, calling the photos "appalling and inexcusable" and said the city will go farther in its response.
"More action is needed, including the independent investigation that will soon get underway into the tragic death of Elijah McClain," Coffman said in a statement. "We must ensure that we have the answers our community needs, city leadership needs, and most importantly, Elijah’s family deserves."
Wilson asserted the the Aurora police department has gone through a culture "reset" in the ten months since McClain's death, and pointed to the terminations as an example of that.
"These four don't get it," said Wilson of the officers involved in the photo incident. "And if any officer in this department disagrees and thinks that this was acceptable, I will gladly accept your resignation."