“It was done wrong”: Aurora police chief explains mistakes that led to officers handcuffing children

Aurora police officers failed to double check information from a license plate scanner before detaining an innocent woman and four children at gunpoint, forcing the girls to lie facedown on the pavement for minutes, the city’s police chief said.

“Had they taken the time before making that stop to double check that, they would have seen that there was no hit on that specific Colorado plate,” Aurora police Chief Vanessa Wilson said.

In an interview with The Denver Post in her first day as the city’s permanent chief, Wilson explained how officers bungled the Sunday incident that has, once again, drawn national attention and criticism to the Aurora Police Department. The chief described several errors made by the officers on scene and said she recognized the officers’ actions were traumatic to the children.

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The officers involved are not on administrative leave and continue to work their assignments while an internal investigation continues, Wilson said.

“That six year old is going to carry that image of her family and herself on the ground for the rest of her life,” said Omar Montgomery, president of the Aurora branch of the NAACP. “I can only imagine the nightmares that 6-year-old is going to have because of this incident.”

The detainment of the children is the latest in a year-long string of controversies for the Aurora Police Department. Since the Aug. 30 death of Elijah McClain after a violent arrest by officers, the department has also reckoned with the case of an officer who escaped criminal investigation and kept his job though he passed out drunk in his police car while armed and on duty; the conviction of a former officer for stealing from a nonprofit; fallout from the department’s decision to forcefully disperse a largely peaceful crowd at a vigil for McClain; multiple officers charged with DUIs; and a scandal where officers posed for smiling selfies at the site of McClain’s arrest while mimicking the chokehold used on McClain, among others issues.

The Sunday incident began about 10:55 a.m. when the woman, Brittney Gilliam, drove through an intersection with a license plate reader, which automatically scans the plates of passing vehicles and runs the plate numbers against a database of stolen or wanted vehicles. If the number matches with the database, the machine takes a picture of the passing car.

The reader, however, does not read the state of the license plate or record what type of plate it is. The license plate number on Gilliam’s car matched the number of a motorcycle reported stolen, though the motorcycle had Montana plates, Wilson said.

The license plate number and the photo of Gilliam’s car were then sent to officers, who failed to look up the plate number in the National Crime Information Center to double check the information. If they had, they would have realized Gilliam’s SUV was not the stolen motorcycle.

“There was a mistake there,” Wilson said. “I would have expected that they should have followed training and verified that prior to the stop.”

The officers then pulled up next to the parked SUV, drew their guns and ordered everyone out of the car. Gilliam and the four children she had taken to a nail salon got out of the car and followed officers’ orders. The four children — ages 6, 12, 14 and 17 — lay face down on the pavement, crying and screaming while at least five officers stood there watching. Officers handcuffed the 12-year-old and the 17-year-old and kept the children facedown for at least two minutes.

Allowing the children to remain on the ground was a second mistake, Wilson said. It is department policy to treat interactions with reported stolen vehicles as high-risk, but officers should have changed their tactics as soon as they realized something was wrong, Wilson said.

“We’re hoping that an officer is going to make the determination and say, “Hm, something’s wrong here — I’m not going to put this little kid on the ground,’” Wilson said. “Unfortunately that didn’t happen.”

In the middle of the stop, confused officers called dispatch to double check that they had the correct car, Wilson said. Dispatch affirmed they did.

“It was done wrong,” she said. “That’s the bottom line.”

Wilson reached out to the family to apologize and offer counseling resources, she said, but has not heard back. The internal affairs investigation into officers’ actions will go on with or without the family’s involvement, she said.

The botched detainment showcases a department that continues to display a culture of violence, David Lane, a civil rights attorney representing Gilliam, said.

“If there is a police agency in the country — certainly in the state — that needs to be defunded, abolished and built from the ground up, it’s the Aurora police department,” he said.

Sunday’s events serve as an example of how extensive policies often get in the way of creative problem solving by officers in the field, said Paul Taylor, a former University of Colorado Boulder cop who researches and teaches police officers’ decision-making at CU Denver.

“Departments are trying to specify decision-making processes down the line, and sometimes that can inhibit good decision-making that’s best for the public and for the officers, he said. “When they rely on written instruction to guide practices, sometimes those lead to bad outcomes.”

Instead of focusing on writing new policies after every bad outcome, Taylor said, departments should be investigating the root of why that decision was made in the first place.

The department also needs to look into whether any of the officers on scene questioned what was happening and, if so, why that officer didn’t speak up, Montgomery said.

“This incident is hitting the core of people on all levels — apologies are okay,” Montgomery said. “But I need a stronger statement, followed by action. Not just from police chief but from our mayor, our council and our city manager.”

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