Three officers from the Aurora Police Department have been fired over a photo reenacting the chokehold that occurred before the death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who died in police custody last summer, the interim police chief announced Friday. The officer who mimicked the chokehold, Jaron Jones, resigned earlier this week.
Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson showed the two photos that led to the officers' termination at a news conference. One photo shows three officers — identified as Jones, Erica Marrero and Kyle Dittrich — smiling near what Wilson described as the site of McClain's memorial. The other shows Jones reenacting a carotid hold on Dittrich, with the officers still smiling.
"It is a crime against humanity and decency," Wilson said, adding that the photos show "a lack of morals, values and integrity."
McClain was killed in August of last year after he was confronted by officers on the street. He was put in a carotid control hold after an officer said he was reaching for one of their guns. He fell unconscious but woke up before he was sedated with ketamine for allegedly resisting arrest. He suffered cardiac arrest and died three days later.
Wilson said she had held off publicly releasing the photos until she could first share them with McClain's mother, Sheneen McClain. She said she met with Sheneen and the family's attorney Friday morning and allowed them to see the images.
The family's lawyer, Mari Newman, spoke out against the photos earlier in the day. "The callousness for human life, appalling," Newman told CBS Denver.
Wilson said she first became aware of the photos last Thursday after an officer came forward to his sergeant, and immediately ordered an expedited investigation. After receiving the results, she held pre-disciplinary hearings with the officers on Tuesday — which she said was required by due process.
Wilson added that she had no choice but to put the officers on paid leave because she was only legally able to suspend their pay if they were accused of a felony.
Wilson said she terminated the officers 72 hours after their hearings, the soonest that she was able to legally do so. Since Jones resigned, Marrero and Dittrich were fired for appearing in the photos. But Wilson said she also fired Jason Rosenblatt — one of the officers involved in McClain's death — for responding "ha ha" when he received the images.
In an interview with investigators, Rosenblatt said he'd responded with "ha ha" because "I have a nervous laugh and wanted to give something short and concise and not engage in anyway and just let them know and kind of just be done with it," according to the full investigative report.
The Aurora Police Association spoke out against Rosenblatt's firing, claiming Wilson violated the officers' due process rights in a "rush to judgement."
Nathan Woodyard, one of the other officers involved in McClain's death, also received the images — but he deleted them, did not respond, and was "devastated" and "disgusted," Wilson said. He was not terminated.
When interviewed by investigators, Dittrich said the photo was intended to "cheer everybody up," according to the report.
"l thought it would be, it would cheer everybody up, if we took a selfie, um, we had uh Officer Jaron Jones who just came back to team 30 after he was on a suspension, um, and I just wanted to show Officer Woodyard that we were together, um, in solidarity thinking of him," Dittrich said, according to the report. "So, I thought it would be funny if we took a photo there, and uh the three of us took a photo at the scene. It was just a quick, you know one photo, urn, we had Officer Jaron Jones put his arm around my head kind of in a half buddy-buddy but also sort of as homage to the carotid control hold."
"l realized afterwards that this was in incredibly — to say it was incredibly poor taste is an understatement," he added.
McClain's family decried the photos in a statement. "This is a department where uniformed police officers feel empowered to make a mockery of killing an innocent young black man by returning to the scene of Elijah's murder at the hands of fellow APD officers to take photos of themselves laughingly reenacting the chokehold used to murder Elijah. They then shared their mimicry of Elijah's murder with their fellow APD officers as a department-wide joke," the family said.
"APD's conduct is no different than that of white supremacists of at the height of the Jim Crow South who snapped smiling pictures of themselves at the scenes of brutal, lethal lynchings of black men, keeping the images of torture as souvenirs or even turning them into postcards to send to friends," the family added.
Although the officers involved in McClain's death have not been charged, Colorado Governor Jared Polis appointed a special prosecutor to review the case.