Police in a suburb of Denver, Colorado, have apologized after a black family, with children ranging in age from six to 17, were detained at gunpoint and some handcuffed during a traffic stop that targeted the wrong car.
“After realizing the mistake, officers immediately unhandcuffed everyone involved, explained what happened and apologized,” said Aurora Police Department Interim Chief Vanessa Wilson, prefacing her explanation of the incident by saying, “We first want to offer our apologies to the family involved.”
Aurora police on Sunday stopped the wrong vehicle, Wilson explained, and since they believed it had been stolen, followed “high-risk stop” procedures that involve drawing their guns and ordering occupants to get out of the car and lie prone on the ground.
A video taken Sunday by a bystander shows the children in a parking lot in Aurora, with 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 next to the car.
The children can be heard crying and screaming as several officers stand to the side, while a woman on the other side of the car is seen being led away in handcuffs. One of the officers then says to the children, “Can I get you guys off the ground?” to which one of the children can be heard saying, “Yes, I want to get up!” The officer is seen helping the handcuffed 17-year-old and 12-year-old sit up, leaving them sitting with their hands behind their backs.
In remarks to 9news, the driver of the stopped vehicle, Brittney Gilliam, called the officers’ actions a case of police brutality.
“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.”
“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,” Wilson said in a statement.
Wilson said officers were notified of a possible stolen vehicle on Sunday morning and when they identified a car that matched the license plate number and description, they proceeded to conduct the traffic stop.
“The people inside of the car were ordered out onto the ground, and some were placed in handcuffs,” Wilson said, adding that shortly afterwards officers discovered that they had the wrong car. Their mistake was due, in part, to the fact that the car with the family had the same plate information, but was from a different state, she said. Wilson added that what made the confusion worse is that the vehicle that was stopped was reported stolen earlier this year.
Besides acknowledging the mistake and issuing an apology, Wilson said she has directed her team to consider new practices and training because “we must allow our officers to have discretion and to deviate from this process when different scenarios present themselves,” referring to the standard operating procedures police are required to follow when conducting a high-risk traffic stop. Wilson also said an internal investigation has been launched into the officers’ conduct during the incident.
The Aurora Police Department is also 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 him as suspicious.
Police placed him in a chokehold that cuts off blood to the brain and paramedics injected him with ketamine, a sedative. McClain suffered a heart attack and was later declared brain dead and taken off life support at a hospital.
It comes as protests around the country, sparked by the police custody death of George Floyd, have called for a review of police methods.