AURORA, Colo. -- Three officers were fired Friday over photos showing police reenact a chokehold used on Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who died last year after police stopped him on the street in a Denver suburb.
One of those fired is Jason Rosenblatt, a white Aurora officer who helped stop McClain in August for wearing a ski mask and “being suspicious.” Police put McClain in a chokehold, paramedics injected him with a sedative and McClain suffered cardiac arrest before later being taken off life support.
Aurora Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson told reporters that officers sent the photos to Rosenblatt and others two months after McClain died to “cheer up a friend,” without explaining who that was. Rosenblatt responded with a text saying, “Haha.” Officer Nathan Woodyard, who put McClain in a chokehold, also got the photos but he was not disciplined because he didn't respond.
“We are ashamed, we are sickened, and we are angry,” Wilson said. The officers may not have committed a crime, but the photographs are “a crime against humanity and decency,” she added.
McClain’s death has become a rallying cry amid a national reckoning over police brutality and racial injustice, with the state reopening the case for possible criminal charges and federal officials looking into a civil rights investigation. In several places, the chokehold has been banned and other police reforms passed after nationwide protests.
McClain’s family, friends and community activists noted during a rally that justice was swifter for the mocking photograph than the use of force that led to McClain’s death. The two other officers who stopped the young man are still on the force as authorities look again into possible criminal charges after clearing them last year.
“Rosenblatt got fired not for killing Elijah, not for murdering Elijah, but for making fun of Elijah,” said Terrence Roberts, a community organizer and family friend. “That is the culture that we’re fighting, where a police officer can murder a black man, a black child, and keep his job and stay on the force so he can go make fun of this child.”
Officers Kyle Dittrich, Erica Marrero and Jaron Jones — none of whom confronted McClain in August — smiled and mockingly placed each other in a chokehold in the photos taken in October near a memorial for McClain.
An officer reported the photos to a sergeant late last month, and an internal investigation began.
Rosenblatt, Dittrich and Marrero were fired for conduct unbecoming of an officer. Jones resigned earlier this week.
The Aurora Police Association called the investigation “a rush to judgment.” The union for officers said on Facebook that the investigation took nine days, while a standard internal affairs case takes months.
Several police agencies have taken swift action to punish officers, including those involved in George Floyd’s death May 25 in Minneapolis that ushered in global demonstrations.
For Elijah McClain's mother, Sheneen McClain, “it was just devastating to see that people were mocking the murder of her son,” family attorney Mari Newman said.
“The fact that three on-duty, in-uniform police officers thought that it was appropriate to reenact the murder, jokingly, shows that the department is rotten to the core,” she said.
Facing increasing pressure as celebrities and others on social media called for justice, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis last week ordered the state attorney general to reopen McClain’s case.
The officers stopped McClain, a massage therapist, after a 911 call on Aug. 24 reported him as suspicious because he was wearing a ski mask and flailing his arms. He begged them repeatedly to let go of him, according to body-camera video.
After the chokehold that cut off blood to his brain, paramedics administered 500 milligrams of a sedative to calm him down. A forensic pathologist could not determine what exactly led to McClain’s death but said physical exertion during the confrontation likely contributed.
A prosecutor said he didn't pursue criminal charges against the officers because the pathologist wasn’t able to determine if their actions caused McClain’s death. District Attorney Dave Young recently called the young man’s death “tragic and unnecessary” but defended his decision.
Police body-camera video shows an officer getting out of his car, approaching McClain and saying, “Stop right there. Stop. Stop. ... I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious.”
In the video, the officer turns McClain around and repeats, “Stop tensing up.” As McClain tries to escape the officer’s grip, the officer says, “Relax, or I’m going to have to change this situation.”
As other officers join to restrain McClain, he begs them to let go and says, “You guys started to arrest me, and I was stopping my music to listen.”
Aurora police have said McClain refused to stop walking and fought back when officers tried to take him into custody.
In the video, McClain tells officers: “Let go of me. I am an introvert. Please respect the boundaries that I am speaking.”
The U.S. attorney’s office, the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the FBI announced this week they are looking into whether to launch a civil rights investigation. Federal authorities said they also were considering an investigation into the photos.
Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.