Police released photos Friday showing three officers smiling as they re-enacted a chokehold that their colleagues used on Elijah McClain, a Black man who died after police stopped him as he walked down the street last summer in a Denver suburb.
Following an internal investigation by the Aurora Police Department, interim police chief Vanessa Wilson fired three officers, one of whom received the photos by text and responded “haha.” The officer who was seen re-enacting the chokehold resigned.
“We are ashamed, we are sickened, and we are angry,” Wilson said.
The officers may not have committed a crime, but the photographs are “a crime against humanity and decency,” she said.
McClain’s death got new attention following nationwide protests over police brutality and racial injustice. Facing increasing pressure, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis last week ordered the state attorney general to reopen the case after prosecutors last year declined to charge the three white officers who confronted McClain.
Word of the photos emerged soon afterward. Aurora police launched an investigation last week after another officer reported the photos that were taken near where the 23-year-old was stopped — a site that’s now a memorial.
An unspecified number of the officers were suspended during the investigation, and one resigned this week.
“The fact that three on-duty, in-uniform police officers thought that it was appropriate to re-enact the murder, jokingly, shows that the department is rotten to the core,” said Mari Newman, the McClain family’s lawyer who saw the photos before they were publicly released. Elijah’s mother, Sheneen McClain, also saw them.
“For her, it was just devastating to see that people were mocking the murder of her son,” Newman added.
Officials with the Aurora Police Association, the department’s police union, haven’t returned calls seeking comment Thursday or Friday.
Officers stopped McClain, a massage therapist, after a 911 call on Aug. 24, 2019, reported him as suspicious because he was wearing a ski mask and flailing his arms. Police said they had a right to stop him because he was “being suspicious,” and he begged them repeatedly to let go of him, according to body-camera video.
Police placed him in a chokehold that cuts off blood to the brain, and paramedics administered 500 milligrams of a sedative to calm him down. He suffered cardiac arrest, was later declared brain dead and taken off life support.