Family sues Aurora police over traumatizing traffic stop

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AURORA, Colo. (KDVR) — You could hear the children crying across an Aurora parking lot on a hot August afternoon, as officers held a Black family down at gun point in an encounter that was caught on camera and went viral.

Turns out, officers had the wrong car, and now the family is suing the city of Aurora, five officers and Chief Vanessa Wilson for violating their civil rights.

“It’s no mystery here, I mean these kids are traumatized,” said attorney David Lane with Kilmer, Lane & Newman, LLP. “They tried to handcuff a 6-year-old, but her hands were too small. I mean what kind of cops do this?”

According to the lawsuit, Brittney Gilliam, her 6-year-old daughter, sister and two nieces were going to a nail salon in Aurora, but found out the location was closed. As Gilliam was looking up other salons on her phone, police approached the car.

“These little girls get pulled out of a car by white cops at gunpoint and put on a hot parking lot floor in August at gunpoint, having done absolutely nothing, they are traumatized for life,” Lane said. “That is a life-changing event for those kids.”

Turns out, officers confused Gilliam’s car with plates they believed to be stolen. The license plate recognition system used reads the numbers, and not the state. The real stolen vehicle associated with the license plate was actually a motorcycle from Montana. Chief Vanessa Wilson apologized the day after for the mixup.

“All these cops had to do was check their data,” Lane said. “The plate that they were running was registered to a Montana motorcycle. All they had to do was take an extra step.”

The lawsuit claims race was a motivating factor in Aurora Police’s decision that day, and argue the encounter violated Gilliam and her family’s civil rights. A new Colorado police accountability law that passed over the summer in the wake of the George Floyd protests, stripped officers of qualified immunity in the state, opening the door for them to be held legally liable in civil suits.

Lane says this is the first case filed in district court under this new law, claiming a violation of the state’s constitution. 

“They can be on the hook for up to $20,000 of any settlement or judgement,” Lane said.

District Attorney George Brauchler’s office reviewed the case, and cleared the officers of criminal charges

In a letter to Chief Wilson, Chief Deputy District Attorney Clinton McKinzie wrote:

“Despite the disturbing fact that terrified children were ordered out of a vehicle at gunpoint and placed face-down on the ground, our conclusion is that there is not evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the APD officers involved unlawfully, intentionally, knowingly, or negligently violated any Colorado criminal law. It is our hope, however, that APD will immediately undertake a review of their policies to try and ensure that nothing of this sort ever happens again.

What happened to the innocent occupants is unacceptable and preventable, but that alone is an insufficient basis to affix criminal culpability to the two officers involved in the initial contact.”

– Chief Deputy District Attorney Clinton McKinzie

A spokesperson for the city of Aurora says the city has yet to be served with this lawsuit, and says it would be improper to comment on pending litigation. The spokesperson issued the following statement: 

“City leadership and Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson have previously expressed that this incident is not reflective of their expectations for the Aurora Police Department.  Chief Wilson has apologized to Ms. Gilliam directly and offered to cover the cost of providing age-appropriate therapy to the children involved.  Though the officers followed protocol and adhered to their training at the time of the incident, Chief Wilson and city leadership recognized officers need to have discretion and the ability to deviate from that process when different scenarios present themselves.  Aurora has since adjusted its training practices by allowing officers to have more discretion when contacting suspected stolen vehicles.

The city of Aurora is committed to ongoing reviews of the practices and procedures of the Aurora Police Department (APD).  City leadership and APD command staff have undertaken a plan to restore public trust in the department, called “A New Way.”  The plan encourages residents to continue to provide feedback. As such, it is a living document and will be updated periodically.”

– spokesperson for the City of Aurora

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