Brittney Gilliam took her family out for an afternoon of relaxation last August as businesses in Aurora, Colorado, began to re-open following months of COVID-19 shutdowns.
Gilliam, her 6-year-old daughter, 17-year-old sister and two nieces, ages 12 and 14, gathered into her SUV and ventured out for a day of family bonding that they dubbed “Sunday funday.”
Gilliam’s plan was to take her young relatives to get their nails done and go for some ice cream afterward. But local police shattered the attempt at a return to normalcy.
Officers literally took aim at the Black family in the parking lot of the nail salon they visited. Police ordered them out of Gilliam’s SUV at gunpoint, forced the children to lie facedown on the hot pavement, handcuffed Gilliam and two of the teens, and wrongfully detained them for more than two hours.
It proved to be a case of mistaken identity. Officers wrongly believed Gilliam’s SUV was stolen.
According to a civil rights lawsuit filed this week against the city of Aurora and the police officers who detained the family, race was a motivating factor in the ordeal.
“Basically Aurora police have a long, despicable history of using excessive force against African Americans, and we give chapter and verse in the complaint with examples of all that,” Gilliam’s attorney David Lane told Atlanta Black Star.
The suit claims the officers had no probable cause to stop and detain the family. Video of the harrowing encounter went viral on social media last year. It showed the four children sobbing and screaming as they laid on the ground with officers standing over them.
Police held even Gilliam’s 6-year-old daughter at gunpoint and forced her to lie on the ground, according to the lawsuit. Officers tried to handcuff the little girl, whose wrists were actually too small for the cuffs to fit.
The child laid next to her 14-year-old cousin, both with their hands sprawled out in front of them, palms face down. The teen held the distraught little girl’s hand and tried to comfort her as she sobbed and called for her mother.
Those sounds of terror continue to haunt the 14-year-old girl nearly six months later.
“I can’t get the screams from my cousins out of my mind. What these police officers did to us changed our life,” the teen states in the lawsuit.
The complaint, filed Monday, Jan. 25, in Arapahoe County District Court, was lodged against the city of Aurora, Police Chief Vanessa Wilson, and five police officers involved in last summer’s episode. None of the children was identified by name in the suit.
Aurora spokesman Ryan Luby said the city had not yet been served the complaint by Tuesday. He noted that the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office reviewed the incident and earlier this month declined to file charges against the officers involved. He also cited an apology from Wilson last year and noted city leaders have stated the incident was “not reflective of their expectations for the Aurora Police.”
“Though the officers followed protocol and adhered to their training at the time of the incident, Chief Wilson and city leadership recognized officers need to have discretion and the ability to deviate from that process when different scenarios present themselves,” Luby said in an emailed statement. “Aurora has since adjusted its training practices by allowing officers to have more discretion when contacting suspected stolen vehicles.”
The incident occurred Aug. 2 in the parking lot of an Aurora nail salon in the suburb just east of Denver. Gilliam and company’s leisurely outing was violently interrupted when police drew down on the family.
The salon that the family visited was closed and as Gilliam sat inside her SUV searching her cell phone to find a nail shop that was open, a police cruiser pulled up behind her.
Gilliam’s SUV had the same license plate number of a missing motorcycle that had been reported stolen. However, the missing vehicle had Montana plates while Gilliam’s SUV had a Colorado tag.
That detail was lost on the two patrol officers who spotted Gilliam’s SUV. They got out with their weapons drawn and ordered the family out of the vehicle one by one. They did not holster their guns until after Gilliam, her 17-year-old sister and 12-year-old niece were handcuffed.
The civil suit contends officers failed to verify the state of the stolen vehicle’s license plate, even though Gilliam continually asked to show her registration to prove her vehicle wasn’t stolen.
“There’s no excuse why you didn’t handle it a different type of way,” Gilliam told a local TV station at the time.
The two teens remained handcuffed more than 15 minutes. Gilliam was frisked and separated from the children. Officers put her in the back seat of a police cruiser for several minutes.
As many as 14 Aurora police officers converged upon the scene and about 15 onlookers gathered in the parking lot and watched in horror as officers corralled the children. Many of the bystanders filmed the incident, beckoning the officers to relent. The Black family had to wait more than two hours for a sergeant to respond before police allowed them to leave.
“The deplorable fact that multiple Aurora police officers held innocent Black children handcuffed and at gunpoint, and multiple other officers did not intervene, is evidence of the profound and systematic problem of racism and brutality within Aurora Police Department,” the lawsuit stated.
Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson apologized the following day, explaining that the stolen vehicle call was considered a “high-risk stop” that required officers to draw their weapons and order all occupants to lie face down on the ground, according to department procedures.
“But we must allow our officers to have discretion and to deviate from this process when different scenarios present themselves,” she acknowledged in an Aug. 3 statement.
Wilson offered the children counseling for any trauma they experienced during the encounter. She also ordered new practices and training for officers.
Yet none of the officers has been disciplined or placed on leave, the lawsuit claims.
Meanwhile, the girls have expressed that they struggle to eat and sleep, and they have a fear if law enforcement. Lane said they attend weekly therapy sessions. It was not clear if that’s part of the counseling for which Wilson offered to pay. Gilliam attends counseling twice a week as she continues to grapple with the encounter.
“She’s said she’s never felt so helpless in her life as having her close family members begging her to help them and do something, and she couldn’t do anything,” Lane said.
When the incident took place, Wilson had been the city’s interim police chief for seven months. The controversial traffic stop wasn’t enough to keep her from landing the top cop job on a permanent basis. City leaders tapped her to become Aurora’s first woman police chief just hours after she issued her apology. She beat out three Black men who were national finalists for the position, The Colorado Sun reported.
Wilson took over a police department that has been marred by multiple scandals over the past 18 months.
Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black massage therapist, was killed by Aurora police in August 2019. Officers dispatched to calls about a masked man behaving erratically stopped McClain. He sobbed and vomited as three officers tried to take him into custody. The officers used a carotid control hold, which caused McClain to briefly lose consciousness before he continued struggling with the officers. The chokehold has since been banned.
First responders arrived and gave McClain a ketamine sedative. He never regained consciousness. McClain suffered two heart attacks on the way to the hospital and was declared brain dead three days later. He died after being taken off life support Aug. 30, six days after the initial stop.
The Adams County District Attorney’s Office investigated that incident and found no criminal wrongdoing by the three officers involved. Months after McClain’s death, news of his death spread across social media in the wake of the May 25 death of another Black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis. Under public scrutiny, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order appointing a special prosecutor to investigate McClain’s death.
Photos of several Aurora police officers posing near the site of McClain’s death surfaced in June. The uniformed officers reenacted the cartoid chokehold used to restrain McClain. Wilson fired three of the officers in July and a fourth resigned.
The lawsuit asserted that lack of training in the Aurora Police Department has created a culture of “racially biased policing and aggression,” noting that wrongful arrests, excessive force and unlawful searches and seizures are particularly aimed at Black people. Lane likened it to the “racist tradition of white people taking photos of themselves at the scenes of lynchings.”The suit cited a national database that tracks police violence in claiming APD ranked eighth among the nation’s largest 100 cities for per-capita police killings between January 2013 and December 2019.
Lane used 25 different cases of police brutality dating back to December 2003, many of which ended fatally, as examples of the police department’s track record of violence against Black people.
Lane explained that Colorado lawmakers passed a sweeping police reform bill last year, which went into effect July 1. The new law banned chokeholds and removed qualified immunity for law enforcement officers found guilty of infringing on a citizen’s civil rights. That means those officers can be held personally liable and sued for up to $25,000 in damages.
“The Colorado law should be a model for legislators all over the country to pass similar laws in their states,” Lane said. “What we’re doing is this is the first lawsuit filed in state court under that brand new law. So it’s going to set the tone for future cases that get filed all over the state now.”