AURORA, Colo. — Three Aurora police officers have been fired and one has resigned in the fallout over a photograph imitating the carotid hold used on Elijah McClain, interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson announced in a news conference Friday afternoon.
One of the involved officers, Jason Rosenblatt, was also involved in the arrest of McClain, who suffered a heart attack and died several days after the August 2019 encounter.
Rosenblatt was not in the photograph but received the photo and replied, "HaHa," Wilson said.
"We're ashamed, we're sickened and we're angry," Wilson said at the news conference Friday.
Aurora police on Friday released the pictures of the officers: Erica Marrero, Kyle Dittrich and Jaron Jones. Jones resigned before he was disciplined in the matter. Marrero and Dittrich were fired, along with Rosenblatt.
The Aurora Police Association union called the investigation into the photo "a rush to judgment" and said Wilson violated the involved officers' due process rights.
"It is my prerogative," Wilson said. "And the public outcry and demand for justice for Elijah — they don't deserve to wear a badge anymore. I accelerated [the discipline process], and I was able to do that legally and I felt it was the right thing for this community."
The fired officers have 10 days to file an appeal.
Wilson called the photograph "reprehensible" and said Rosenblatt's involvement in the incident by replying to the picture was "absolutely unacceptable."
Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman in a statement called the officers' photographs "appalling and inexcusable."
“The officers’ actions in these photos are appalling and inexcusable and will not be tolerated by the Interim Chief or by me," Coffman said. "I agree with Interim Chief Wilson’s decisions, but 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 importantly, Elijah’s family deserves."
The photos were taken Oct. 20, 2019, nearly two months after McClain's violent encounter with police. Dittrich, Marrero and Jones were on duty and had completed a service call in the 1700 block of North Billings Street, near where McClain was arrested in August.
The three officers posed for a selfie, with Dittrich taking the photo and Jones putting his arm around Dittrich's neck, according to department investigative documents released Friday.
Dittrich then texted the photo to two officers, Rosenblatt and Nathan Woodyard, who was also involved in McClain's arrest.
Woodyard did not respond and deleted the photo, Wilson said. Woodyard was not disciplined in the incident.
Rosenblatt responded, "ha ha," according to the investigation.
When asked during the investigation what "ha ha" meant to him, Rosenblatt, according to investigation documents, said: "People that know me know that I have a nervous laugh and I 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."
Dittrich said he took the picture to send to the other officers because he thought "it would cheer everybody up, if we took a selfie," the documents said.
"It was just a quick, you know one photo, um, we had Officer Jaron Jones put his arm around my head kind of in a half buddy-buddy but also sort of as a homage to the carotid control hold," Dittrich said.
Dittrich said he later realized "that this was an incredibly, to say it was incredibly poor taste is an understatement," according to the investigative documents.
When Jones was asked by investigators if he was trying to simulate the carotid control hold, he said, "I believe that to be accurate, sir."
Jones said it was his idea to put his arm around Dittrich's neck. He said the officers were trying to cheer up Woodyard.
"My sole intention was to help a brother out," Jones told investigators. "Whether I used correct judgment or not is on me."
Marrero said the photo was a "hey look where we are, like thinking of you kind of thing" for Woodyard.
Marrero said they took two pictures — one in front of a grassy area and a second photo in front of the memorial for McClain, so the officers would know where they were taking the picture from.
"We were like, 'Oh he is not going to recognize where it was' and then we saw like the lights of the memorial and so we turned around and we had it like the far distant," Marrero said, according to the investigation documents.
The chief's review board recommended that the officers be fired, and Wilson upheld the rulings.
McClain's death became the subject of renewed scrutiny in recent weeks, following the killing of George Floyd and widespread calls for social racial justice across the country.
McClain, 23, was unarmed when he was encountered by Aurora police on Aug. 24, 2019. Police put McClain in a carotid hold, which limits blood flow to the brain, after stopping him while he was walking home. When he became unresponsive, paramedics gave him ketamine, police have said.
McClain had a heart attack and died six days later.
The officers involved in McClain's death were not arrested or charged, despite continued calls for justice from McClain's family and supporters.
In June, as McClain's death garnered national interest, Gov. Jared Polis appointed Attorney General Phil Weiser to investigate the officers' actions.
Federal law enforcement investigators said Tuesday evening that they have been reviewing the facts of the McClain case for a possible civil rights investigation and said they were aware of the latest photo allegations involving Aurora police officers and were gathering more information.
In a rare joint statement regarding an ongoing investigation, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Denver Division confirmed they had been looking into McClain’s case.
“The standard practice of the Department of justice is to not discuss the existence or progress of ongoing investigations. However, there are specific cases in which doing so is warranted if such information is in the best interest of the public and public safety. Recent attention on the death of Elijah McClain warrants such disclosure,” the joint statement issued around 5:45 p.m. Tuesday read.
The federal offices said that the FBI Denver Division and U.S. Attorney’s Office for Colorado started reviewing the facts of the McClain case last year “for a potential federal civil rights investigation.”
The federal officials said that “[t]o date, the city of Aurora has been cooperating.”
Hundreds of protesters are expected to gather Friday evening to demand that three officers involved in the in-custody death of Elijah McClain be fired by the Aurora Police Department. They're also calling for the officers to face murder charges.