The Aurora Police Department on Friday announced the firing of two officers — Erica Marrero and Kyle Dittrich — who posed in a photograph last year near where Elijah McClain had a fatal encounter with officers.
A third officer, Jaron Jones, who posed in the photo has resigned.
A fourth officer, Jason Rosenblatt, was also terminated after receiving the photo in a message and replying “haha.” Rosenblatt was involved in the fatal encounter involving McClain.
In the photo, the officers were smiling and reenacting a carotid hold, similar to the one performed on McClain, in which pressure is applied to someone’s neck to cut off blood flow to their head. Aurora police announced the firings and for the first time revealed the photo, which has grabbed headlines across the country for several days, during a news conference on Friday.
“I am disgusted to my core,” an emotional interim Aurora police Chief Vanessa Wilson said at the news conference. “… We are ashamed. We are sickened and we’re angry.”
Wilson offered her “heartfelt condolences and an apology” to McClain’s family. She said she met with McClain’s mother on Friday and showed her the photograph before it was publicly revealed.
Wilson said the photo was taken on Oct. 20, 2019, near a memorial for McClain. The three who were fired were found to have exhibited conduct unbecoming of an officer, she said.
McClain, 23, died after the Aug. 24, 2019, encounter, which happened after someone called 911 to report a suspicious person. McClain was not breaking any laws.
McClain’s death, in which no officers were charged, has sparked national outrage. The Colorado Attorney General’s Office is reviewing the case for possible criminal prosecution and Aurora has initiated an independent review.
The FBI and federal prosecutors are also reviewing McClain’s death for a potential federal civil rights investigation.
The news about the photo further stoked the outrage. Wilson said a fellow officer brought the photo to her attention.
According to documents from the investigation into the photo, Rosenblatt told investigators that the picture “made him very anxious and very uncomfortable and he just wanted it to go away.”
Asked why he replied to a message containing the photo with “haha,” Rosenblatt said: “People that know me know that I have a nervous laugh and I wanted to give something short and concise and no engage in any way.”
Officer Nathan Woodyard, another officer who was involved in the August encounter with McClain, was also sent the photo. He, however, did not respond and didn’t face discipline.
He told investigators that the picture made him uncomfortable. He didn’t report the photo to his supervisors and, when asked why, said he “couldn’t say.”
Officer Dittrich, who snapped the photo, told investigators that he did so to “cheer everybody up.”
“I realized afterwards that this was an incredibly — to say it was incredibly poor taste is an understatement,” Dittrich said, according to the internal affairs report.
The Aurora Police Association, the union representing the department’s officers, blasted Wilson’s handling of the photo and the officers’ discipline in a written statement. The organization accused Wilson of violating the involved officers’ due process rights.
“A police chief manages the entire police department as charged to them by the elected officials at city hall who are chosen by the community,” the association said in its statement. “By her actions today, interim Chief Wilson has demonstrated that she is unfit for the position that she currently holds and should be dropped from the final slate of candidates to be the next chief of the Aurora Police Department.”
Wilson, who said she learned about the photo last week and immediately ordered the officers involved to be placed on leave, defended her actions and called the officers’ behavior a “crime against humanity and decency.”
Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman said in a statement that he stands behind Wilson’s decisions.
“The officers’ actions in these photos are appalling and inexcusable and will not be tolerated,” he said. “This is not the end of our response. More action is needed, including the independent investigation that will soon get underway into the tragic death of Elijah McClain. We must ensure that we have the answers our community needs, city leadership needs and, most important, Elijah’s family deserves.”
On Friday night protesters swarmed Aurora’s streets calling for more action in the McClain case. They’d like to see all the officers involved in the fatal encounter with McClain fired.
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