Police in suburban Denver have apologized after a group of Black girls was detained, and at least two handcuffed during a weekend investigation of a stolen car. Officers later determined that the vehicle they were seeking had the same license plate number but was from out-of-state.
A video taken Sunday by a bystander shows the children, ranging in age from 6 to 17 years old, in a parking lot in Aurora, where there have recently been protests over the death of a Black man stopped by police last year, KUSA-TV reported.
The video shows the 17-year-old and 12-year-old lying on their stomachs with their hands cuffed behind their backs and a 14-year-old girl lying next to the 6-year-old also on their stomachs in a parking lot next to the car.
They can be heard crying and screaming as officers stand with their back to the camera. A woman on the other side of the car is shown being led away in handcuffs.
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An officer eventually helps the handcuffed 17-year-old and 12-year-old sit up but leaves them sitting with their hands behind their backs.
Police then determined they had stopped the wrong car. It had Colorado license plates but a motorcycle with the same license plate number from Montana was the vehicle that had been reported as stolen on Sunday.
Driver Brittney Gilliam, who had taken her nieces, sister and daughter out for a girls’ day at the nail salon, called the officers’ actions a case of police brutality.
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“There’s no excuse why you didn’t handle it a different type of way,” Gilliam told the station. “You could have even told them ‘step off to the side let me ask your mom or your auntie a few questions so we can get this cleared up.’ There was different ways to handle it.”
Jennifer Wurtz, who shot the video, said on camera that the police drew guns as they initially approached the car.
After she told the officers that the children were scared and asked to be able to speak to them, she was told to back up 25 feet (7.6 meters) because she was interfering in their investigation.
In a statement Monday, police said officers are trained to do a “high-risk stop” when stopping a stolen car, which involves drawing weapons, telling occupants to exit the car and lie prone on the ground.
However, interim police chief Vanessa Wilson said officers must be allowed to have discretion to deviate from that procedure based on different scenarios they encounter. She said she had directed her team to look into new practices and training as a result of what happened.
“I have called the family to apologize and to offer any help we can provide, especially for the children who may have been traumatized by yesterday’s events. I have reached out to our victim advocates so we can offer age-appropriate therapy that the city will cover," she said.
Part of the reason for the mixup may have been that the car was reported as stolen earlier in the year, police said.
The department is under scrutiny for the death of Elijah McClain, a Black man stopped by officers as he walked home from the store last August after someone reported he was suspicious.
Police put him in a chokehold that cuts off blood to the brain and paramedics injected him with ketamine, a sedative. He had a heart attack and was later declared brain dead and taken off life support at a hospital.
Aurora city councilors were scheduled to vote Monday night on who should become the next police chief. Wilson is among the finalists.