The Aurora Police Department in Colorado is blaming its license plate reader for misidentifying a “stolen” vehicle after video went viral showing a Black family with young children being menaced and traumatized by several cops. It’s just the latest example of police terror that likely wouldn’t have drawn much attention if a bystander hadn’t recorded video.
The video, which was published to Twitter and is incredibly distressing to watch, shows four children between the ages of 6 and 17 facedown on the hot pavement, some of them in handcuffs. A woman who just happened to be in the parking lot at the time, Jennifer Wurtz, started recording the encounter on her phone.
“The next thing I know, the police pull up silently behind them and had guns drawn on the children,” Wurtz told local NBC TV affiliate 9News.
The child on the far left is just six years old, with a 14-year-old girl to the right of her, a 17-year-old after that, and a 12-year-old on the far right. The 12-year-old was handcuffed but the 6-year-old girl was not, at least by the time Wurtz had started filming. The children can be heard on the video wailing and crying, wondering what’s happening to them. At least one of the children screams, “I want my mommy.”
The cops can be heard on the video telling onlookers to step back, a common police tactic that was also deployed when a white police officer killed George Floyd by pushing his knee against Floyd’s neck until he was dead, while horrified onlookers begged him to stop.
The Aurora police claim the license plate of the family’s minivan matched the license plate of a motorcycle from Montana that had been reported as stolen, according to 9News. Gizmodo could not independently verify that claim and Aurora PD did not respond to a request for comment early Tuesday morning.
“I totally understand that anger, and don’t want to diminish that anger, but I will say it wasn’t a profiling incident. It was a hit that came through the system, and they have a picture of the vehicle the officers saw,” Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson told ABC7.
But that explanation doesn’t make any sense, given the fact that the stolen vehicle was a motorcycle and the family was driving a minivan. If police saw a “picture of the vehicle” through their license plate reader software, it should have shown a motorcycle. And at the very least, common sense should’ve taken over.
The adult driver of the car, Brittney Gilliam, was reportedly taking her kids and nieces to get their nails done when police approached with their guns drawn. Gilliam had her car stolen back in February but it was reportedly recovered the next day, another element that may have led to incompetent policing in this case.
The cops issued a written apology online, but their letter included a lengthy portion that tried to justify pulling weapons on kids.
“We have been training our officers that when they contact a suspected stolen car, they should do what is a called a high-risk stop,” the statement said. “But we must allow our officers to have discretion and to deviate from this process when different scenarios present themselves. I have already directed my team to look at new practices and training.”
The police department has offered to pay for any therapy sessions the children may need from the trauma of their encounter with so many cops, which eventually included over a dozen officers, according to local news reports.
Aurora PD have had numerous incidents of extreme behavior in recent months. In one incident from March, a cop pulled his gun on a man of color who was driving into his own parking garage at a medical clinic.
Aurora police also killed Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man, last summer because someone had reported that a man who “looked sketchy” was in the area, according to the New York Times. Cops restricted the blood to McClain’s brain in an effort to make him unconscious during the arrest, and they injected him with the drug ketamine. McClain went into cardiac arrest and died but the coroner didn’t rule it homicide, leading to protests. Those peaceful protests, including one last month, have been violently put down by Aurora Police dressed in full riot gear.
Update, 10:20 a.m. ET: The Aurora Police Department just got back to us with a statement, insisting that the family they terrorized was operating a vehicle that “matched the license plate number and vehicle description” they were looking for.
Just before 11 a.m. Aug. 2, 2020, Aurora Police Officers were notified of a possible stolen vehicle near South Buckley Road and East Iliff Avenue. Finding a vehicle that matched the license plate number and vehicle description, officers conducted a traffic stop. The people inside of the car were ordered out onto the ground, and some were placed in handcuffs.
Shortly after that, Officers determined that the car was not stolen. There is a stolen vehicle with the same plate information, but from a different state. The confusion may have been due, in part, to the fact that the stopped car was reported stolen earlier in the year.
After realizing the mistake, officers immediately unhandcuffed everyone involved, explained what happened and apologized. An internal investigation has been opened, and an examination of training and procedures is underway.
There are still a lot of questions about the incident but the department tells Gizmodo they’ve opened an Internal Affairs investigation and can’t give us any further information.