AURORA, Colo. — The girls cried and screamed as they lay on their stomachs on the pavement, two of them with their hands cuffed behind their backs.
“I want my mother,” one of them sobbed.
“Can I have my sister next to me?” another voice wailed. “Can I have my sister?”
What began as a fun girls’ outing for the Gilliam family of Aurora, Colorado, took a dark turn Sunday morning when Aurora police officers, responding to a report of a stolen vehicle out of Montana, mistakenly stopped Brittany Gilliam and ordered her, her daughter, her sister and two nieces facedown onto the ground at gunpoint.
The children were ages 6, 12, 14 and 17. According to The Associated Press, the 17-year-old and 12-year-old were handcuffed.
See cellphone footage of Sunday’s incident below, courtesy of KUSA in Denver. Warning: The video contains some explicit language.
A bystander who witnessed the encounter captured cellphone footage of the girls’ ordeal at the hands of Aurora police, who are already under increased scrutiny following the Aug. 24, 2019, in-custody death of Elijah McClain. The 23-year-old died after police officers stopped him as he walked home from a convenience store.
McClain, who begged the officers to leave him alone, was put in a carotid chokehold and injected with ketamine. He went into cardiac arrest and died six days later after his family removed him from life support.
McClain’s death received renewed attention following the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, prompting multiple protests in McClain’s name. Three Aurora police were fired last month after a photo surfaced of them mocking McClain’s death near one of the protests.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has ordered a new investigation into the death of McClain, who had committed no crime before he was detained last year.
In Sunday’s incident, officers were notified of a stolen vehicle near South Buckley Road and East Iliff Avenue, according to police Chief Vanessa Wilson. When they arrived at the location, they spotted an SUV that matched the license plate number of the stolen vehicle.
“The people inside of the car were ordered out onto the ground, and some were placed in handcuffs,” Wilson said in a statement.
The SUV was driven by Brittany Gilliam, who had taken the girls to find an open nail salon.
Jennifer Wurtz, the bystander who recorded the incident, is heard on camera saying the officers drew their guns as they initially approached the vehicle. She later described what she saw for KUSA and NBC News.
Watch the Gilliam family and Jennifer Wurtz speak about Sunday’s incident below, courtesy of KUSA.
“I saw a car next to me with four girls in it, feet were up on the dash; it was real cute,” Wurtz told the network. “The next thing I know, the police pull up silently and had guns drawn on the children.”A short time later, however, officers determined they had made a mistake. Gilliam’s vehicle had Colorado tags.
“There is a stolen vehicle with the same plate information, but from a different state,” said Wilson, who on Monday night was picked to become the city’s first female police chief. She served as interim chief prior to Monday’s vote.
KUSA in Denver reported that the stolen vehicle from Montana was a motorcycle, not an SUV.
“The confusion may have been due, in part, to the fact that the stopped car was reported stolen earlier in the year,” Wilson said.
Gilliam told KUSA her vehicle was stolen in February, but was found and returned the next day.
“He’s, like, something about the car being reported stolen,” Gilliam said. “And I’m, like, ‘This happened months ago. You guys cleared it, we got to pick up the car the next day, the very next day, so I’m not understanding what’s going on.’”
Gilliam said the biggest issue with Sunday’s incident is how her daughter, sister and nieces were treated.
“There’s no excuse why you didn’t handle it a different type of way,” Gilliam said of the officers. “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.”
According to the video, one of the officers attempted to roll one of the girls onto her side, but she screamed, “No!” When he asked her if she was OK, she repeated herself.
“No!” she said, sobbing.
That same officer tried again a minute later.
“Can I get you guys off the ground?” he asked.
“Yes, I want to get off,” one of the other children cried.
The two girls in handcuffs were pulled into a sitting position but the cuffs were not removed.
“This is some bull(expletive),” Wurtz can be heard muttering. “You have guns on them. They’re kids.”
A police department spokesperson told the news station every stolen car stop is considered a “high-risk stop,” which includes the drawing of weapons and ordering the vehicle’s occupants to lay prone on the ground. She said, however, there is no written policy regarding when or how the technique is used, and officers can use discretion when applying the training.
Wilson confirmed that information Monday night.
Wilson said once the mistake was identified, everyone was uncuffed and officers apologized. Nevertheless, an internal investigation has been initiated and department officials are reviewing its training and procedures.
Gilliam also filed a complaint, KUSA reported.
The officers’ actions have garnered criticism from civil rights activists, celebrities and politicians alike.
“If you’re not outraged, you aren’t paying attention,” Colorado Rep. Leslie Herod tweeted. “Note: the ‘stolen vehicle’ they were looking for was a motorcycle, not an SUV.”
Actor Daniel Stewart wrote that, even “ignoring the utter incompetence on not knowing the difference between a motorbike and an SUV, the same freaking poing needs making ever time.”
“You will NEVER see a white family coming back from soccer practice, face down on the road,” he tweeted. “Never.”
Journalist and producer also chimed in.
“Good job traumatizing these small children, @AuroraPD,” O’Brien tweeted.
Beatrice King, daughter of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., wrote that cases like this one are why public safety needs to be reimagined.
Wilson, the new permanent chief, said she called the family personally to apologize.
“I have called the family to apologize and to offer any help we can provide, especially for the children who may have been traumatized by yesterday’s events,” Wilson said. “I have reached out to our victim advocates so we can offer age-appropriate therapy that the city will cover.”
Gilliam’s 14-year-old niece told the news station she has lost trust with the city’s police force.
“It’s like they don’t care,” Teriana Thomas said. “Who am I going to call when my life is in danger?”
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