AURORA, Colo. — The Aurora Civil Service Commission on Tuesday upheld the firings of three Aurora police officers involved in a scandal over a picture taken at the site of Elijah McClain's memorial, showing officers mocking the carotid hold used on McClain before he died in August 2019.
Officers Jason Rosenblatt — who was involved in the initial incident with McClain, the young Black man whose death sparked nationwide outrage and calls for justice — Erica Marrero and Kyle Dittrich were fired by Police Chief Vanessa Wilson after the picture surfaced last year.
Marrero, Dittrich and officer Jaron Jones were seen in the photo, with one officer wrapping his arm around another officer's throat, mocking a carotid hold. Jones resigned before he could be fired.
The picture was exchanged in a group text and Rosenblatt responded "haha."
Police officials last summer confirmed the photos were reported to the department by a fellow Aurora officer.
Rosenblatt, Marrero and Dittrich all appealed their terminations and Rosenblatt later sued the city over his firing. However, the the civil service commission upheld all three firings.
The officers in their hearing argued that previous incidents involving other officers who violated department code did not result in firings. Still, the commission ruled that none of those cases "were comparable to Officer Marrero's and Dittrich's misconduct."
"None of the cases involved officers taking smiling photos at the site of the tragic death of an Aurora citizen," the commission wrote. "None of the previous cases involved photos that, once disclosed to the public as they almost certainly would be, had this much potential to create or exacerbate a chasm between minorities and police at precisely the time Chief Wilson was undertaking substantial efforts to improve those relations."
Rosenblatt argued that his response of "haha" was him "trying to be polite and yet not engage the sender."
The commission didn't buy his reasoning, calling it "simply not credible."
"On the contrary, the Commission concludes that when Officer Rosenblatt sent his "ha ha" response, there was a very substantial risk that it would go to persons unknown to Officer Rosenblatt, possibly including members of the public, and that the nature of the response, particularly if disclosed to the public, would be viewed as a callous disregard for the tragic loss of Elijah McClain's life," the commission wrote.
Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly said he "fully supported" the officers' firings.
Wilson said she was pleased with the commission's decision.
"We are aligned in our commitment to providing our community the police department they deserve," Wilson said in a statement. "This supportive decision of the Civil Service Commission enables us to take another step forward on our path to a new way in rebuilding trust with our community through transparency and accountability.”
McClain’s father, Lawayne Mosley, was glad to hear the three officers would no longer be on the streets in Aurora, according to the family attorney, Mari Newman. Newman added that Mosley believes all the officers and paramedics involved in McClain’s death should be fired.
The photo surfaced last summer, as outrage built across the nation over McClain's death and the death of George Floyd in Minnesota.
While McClain's family and supporters have pushed for justice since McClain died in 2019, the outrage over Floyd's death shed new light on the McClain case, bringing national attention to Aurora, where the officers involved in McClain's death were cleared.
The calls for justice resulted in Aurora city officials to launch an independent review of the case, which the city council will discuss on Feb. 22.
Last month Aurora city officials barred the public from attending Rosenblatt's hearing "out of an abundance of caution" because of the possibility of protests.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced last month he was launching a grand jury investigation into McClain’s death as well. Weiser was appointed by Gov. Jared Polis to be the special prosecutor in a state investigation into McClain’s death, though no charges have been announced stemming from that investigation.
There are several other investigations underway at the state, local and federal levels, including a top-down review of the Aurora Police Department by the state attorney general, an independent investigation by Chicago-based 21CP Solutions to conduct a comprehensive review of the police department, and a review in the Colorado U.S. Attorney’s Office alongside the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.