AURORA, Colo. — Three Aurora police officers under investigation for a photograph taken near the site where Elijah McClain struggled with officers were seen in the picture imitating the carotid hold used on McClain by police before the 23-year-old Black man died last August, two sources with knowledge of the situation told Contact7 Investigates on Tuesday.
Neither source had personally seen the photograph of the officers as of Tuesday afternoon, though they were aware of what the photograph showed.
Aurora Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson on Monday night announced the officers were being investigated for a photograph but declined to say what the photograph showed.
Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman on Tuesday tweeted that he was "deeply concerned over the facts surrounding the photographs," but Coffman also did not detail what was shown in the photographs.
The officers were notified of their disciplines on Tuesday morning, the sources told Contact7 Investigates, but the punishments were not yet public. Officers have a three-day period to appeal the discipline, the sources said.
The picture depicting the involved officers was sent in a group text to other officers before it was reported to police officials, the sources said. Aurora police confirmed the photos were exchanged in October 2019.
Earlier Tuesday, Aurora police spokesperson Officer Matthew Longshore said the photos were reported to the department by a fellow Aurora officer, which the sources said occurred last Thursday. He said the police chief review board – comprised of the department’s three division chiefs and the deputy police chief – were reviewing the photos and will make a decision on whether, or how to, punish the officers.
Longshore said that the officers could potentially be terminated depending on the review board’s decision. Officers would also be able to appeal the decision.
The investigation will be “publicly released in its entirety promptly upon its conclusion,” said Wilson, adding the investigation will include reports, photographic evidence, officer’s names, “and my final determination which can rise to the level of termination.”
Mari Newman, the attorney for McClain’s family, said in a statement Tuesday morning that APD found “a new low.”
“This is a department where officers tackled an innocent young black man for no reason, inflicted outrageous force - including two carotid chokeholds - for fifteen minutes as he pled for his life, joked when he vomited, and threatened to sic a dog on him for not lying still enough as he was dying,” Newman said in a statement. “They tampered with their body cameras to hide the evidence. They exonerated the killers. They deployed riot police and spewed pepper gas on peaceful protestors at a vigil of mourners playing the violin. And now this.”
Newman said after news broke of the federal investigators looking into the case that she was surprised and pleased.
“I am both surprised and pleased to hear that a civil rights investigation is being considered by the FBI, U.S. Attorney's Office, and the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division,” Newman said. “The Aurora Police Department has a long and sordid history of both brutality and racism, and a comprehensive civil rights investigation is long overdue. I invite these agencies to reach out and will happily provide information to assist in this critically important investigation.”
Omar Montgomery, president of the Aurora branch of the NAACP, said Tuesday afternoon that he had not seen the photographs in question but said the issue "is something that further erodes that relationship" between Aurora police and the community.
Monday’s announcement was the latest in a series of public relations disasters over the past year for the embattled police department.
Earlier Monday, Wilson spoke to Denver7 and other local news outlets after her officers pepper-sprayed protesters during a Saturday demonstration in which hundreds gathered to demand justice in the death of the 23-year-old, who died after the encounter with police in August of last year. Wilson made no mention of this internal affairs investigation Monday evening, despite pledging to show transparency and rebuild trust in the department when she took on the job at the beginning of the year.
Wilson defended the actions of the officers, claiming agitators were throwing rocks at officers and were trying to breach fences protecting the Aurora Police Department headquarters.
Coffman has called for a special city council meeting Tuesday to hear from police about their response to Saturday's protests over the death of Elijah McClain. Attorney General Phil Weiser was named as the state's independent investigator in the case last week.
Gov. Jared Polis said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon that it was important for law enforcement agencies across the state to develop trust with the communities they serve.
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.”
The federal officials also said they were aware of the reports regarding the three APD officers placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into a photo in which they were pictured mimicking the carotid hold in which McClain was placed prior to his death, as sources told Denver7 earlier Tuesday.
“We are gathering further information about that incident to determine whether a federal civil rights investigation is warranted,” the federal officials said.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Colorado, DOJ Civil Rights Division and Denver Division of the FBI said they “will have no further comment until both of those reviews are completed.”
Denver7's Adi Guajardo and Óscar Contreras contributed to this report