Standing with guns drawn over a carload of four minors and one adult, police forced a Black family to lie on their bellies Sunday morning while they checked whether the family’s vehicle was stolen.
Brittney Gilliam, the car’s driver, had hoped to take her 6-year-old daughter, her 12-year-old sister and her 14- and 17-year-old nieces to a nail salon in Aurora, Colorado on Sunday, she told CNN. One of her nieces had just reentered the car after briefly exiting to see if the salon was open when a police car pulled up behind them.
Gilliam said officers piled out of the cruiser with guns drawn and shouted at the family to exit their vehicle.
In bystander footage of the incident, the four minors can be seen lying face-down in the parking lot while police stand over them. Two of the officers have pistols out. The girls are heard screaming and crying loudly, and two of them have their hands cuffed behind their backs.
“I want my mother,” one of them wails.
Gilliam sits off to the side, also restrained. She told CNN that police originally forced her to lie on her belly, too, and she wasn't told why she was being detained until she had been handcuffed.
Just before 11 a.m. that day, authorities received a report of a stolen vehicle near the lot where Gilliam and her family were parked, Police Chief Vanessa Wilson said in a Monday statement. Gilliam’s car “matched the license plate number and vehicle description” of the one that had been stolen, and officers responded the way they’d been trained to, according to the statement.
But the vehicle reported stolen wasn’t a car at all – it was a motorcycle, the Associated Press reported. And while it had the same license plate number as Gilliam’s car, it was registered in a different state, according to the police statement.
Bystanders can be heard criticizing the officers’ response in the footage taken. Jenni Wurtz, the woman filming, asks police if she can try to comfort the screaming children. An officer responds that she's “interfering with [the] investigation,” and she's given “a lawful order” to move back at least 25 feet.
About a minute and a half into the video, police allow the girls to sit upright. The footage becomes obstructed shortly after that and officers are not shown releasing them.
After authorities realized their mistake, they “immediately unhandcuffed everyone involved, explained what happened and apologized,” according to the police statement. Chief Wilson said she doesn't believe the incident was an example of racial profiling, and pointed out that a photo of Gilliam’s car did in fact show up when officers entered the plate number into their system, KMGH-TV, a Denver station, reports.
Gilliam’s car really had been stolen – from her, several months ago. It was recovered the next day, she told Denver station KUSA.
Wilson didn't offer an explanation for why it took officers so long to realize what had happened, KMGH reports.
An internal investigation has been opened, and the police department is currently reexamining their procedures for suspected stolen vehicle stops, according to the statement. Chief Wilson called Gilliam’s family to apologize and has offered city-sponsored therapy for the victims.
But Gilliam doesn't appear to be backing down. Her attorney said they’re planning on filing a federal lawsuit for excessive force, Denver outlet KCNC-TV reported.
“I don’t want your apology, I want change,” Gilliam told the station. “Better protocol, better procedures because the way you did it yesterday was not it.”
The Aurora Police Department has been the focus of heavy criticism for the death last year of Elijah McLain, a Black man who was stopped by authorities for "being suspicious." He was placed in a chokehold and injected with the sedative ketamine during his arrest and later suffered a heart attack and was declared brain dead at the hospital. He was ultimately taken off life support and died.
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