Three police officers have been fired for photos showing they recreate a choke used against Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old black man who died last year after police stopped him on the street in a Denver suburb.
Officers Erica Marrero, Kyle Dittrich and Jaron Jones had imitated the choke used to subdue McClain in October last year.
In a statement posted online, the acting police chief of dawn Vanessa Wilson confirmed on Friday that Marrero and Dittrich had been fired. The third officer, Jones, resigned Tuesday, he said.
He added that he understood “the devastating impact that this incident has had on the relationship between the community and the [police] Department”.
A fourth officer, Jason Rosenblatt, was also fired on Friday, he said. One of the three sent him the photo and responded with a text message saying “haha,” local US media reported.
Rosenblatt, a white Aurora officer, had helped detain McClain in August last year for wearing a ski mask and “suspecting.”
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After the police put McClain into a choke, paramedics injected him with a sedative and then suffered cardiac arrest.
Officer Nathan Woodyard, who put McClain in the choke, also received the photos, but was not disciplined because he did not respond.
“We are ashamed, we are sick and angry,” said Wilson. Officers may not have committed a crime, but the photographs are “a crime against humanity and decency,” he said.
McClain’s death had become a rallying cry amid a national lawsuit over police brutality and racial injustice, with the state reopening the case on possible criminal charges and federal officials investigating a civil rights investigation.
In several places, strangulation has been banned and other police reforms were approved after protests nationwide.
‘Rotten to the core’
McClain’s family, friends and community activists noted during a demonstration that justice was quicker for mocking photography than the use of force that led to McClain’s death.
The other two officers who detained the young man are still in the force as authorities re-investigate possible criminal charges after they were released last year.
“Rosenblatt was fired not for killing Elijah, not for murdering Elijah, but for mocking Elijah,” said Terrence Roberts, a community organizer and friend of the family.
“That is the culture we are struggling with, where a police officer can murder a black man, a black boy, and keep his job and stay in the force so he can make fun of this boy.”
Several law enforcement agencies have taken swift action to punish officers, including those involved in the death of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis that marked the beginning of the global protests.
For Elijah McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, “It was devastating to see people making fun of her son’s murder,” said family attorney Mari Newman.
“The fact that three uniformed police officers on duty thought it was appropriate to recreate the murder, jokingly, shows that the department is rotten to the core,” he said.
Facing mounting pressure as celebrities and others on social media called for justice, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis last week ordered the state attorney general to reopen McClain’s case.
Officers detained McClain, a massage therapist, after a 911 call on August 24 denounced him as a suspect because he was wearing a ski mask and waving his arms. He repeatedly begged them to release him, according to the body camera video.
After the strangulation that cut the blood to his brain, paramedics administered 500 milligrams of a sedative to calm him. A forensic pathologist was unable to determine what exactly led to McClain’s death, but said that physical exertion during the confrontation likely contributed.
Police body camera video shows an officer getting out of his car, approaching McClain and saying, “Stop there. Stop. Stop … I have the right to stop you because you’re suspicious.”
In the video, the officer turns McClain over and repeats, “Stop tensing!” As McClain tries to escape, the officer says, “Relax or I’m going to have to change this situation.”
When other officers unite to contain McClain, he begs them to let him go and says, “You guys started arresting me and I was stopping my music to listen.”
Aurora police said McClain refused to stop walking and defended himself when officers tried to stop him.
In the video, McClain says to the officers: “Let go of me. I’m an introvert. Please respect the limits I’m speaking of.”
The US Attorney’s Office, the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice, and the FBI announced this week that they are investigating whether to start a civil rights investigation. Federal authorities said they were also considering an investigation into the photos.