Two police officers who took smiling selfies at a memorial site for Elijah McClain, a black man who died in police custody last year, were fired and a third resigned before he could be terminated.
A fourth officer who saw the picture and replied “haha” in a text message also lost his job, Interim Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson announced Friday.
“There is absolutely nothing funny about this,” she told reporters at a press conference.
Wilson said photographs taken by the officers showed them smiling at McClain’s memorial. One showed them reenacting a chokehold that officers used on McClain, who died several days after he was taken into custody.
“I am disgusted to my core,” the police chief said.
Erica Marrero and Kyle Dittrich were fired for being in the photographs. Jaren Jones resigned before he could be fired, officials said. Jason Rosenblatt, one of the officers who stopped McClain last year, was terminated for receiving the picture and responding with a laugh.
All four were found in violation of conduct unbecoming of an officer.
The photographs were taken on Oct. 20, 2019, about two months after McClain perished. His death is under investigation by the FBI, the Department of Justice, and the state attorney general’s office.
A fifth officer who was sent one of the pictures spent months struggling with what to do before deciding to send it to higher-ups.
Wilson learned of the photographs on June 25 and immediately ordered an internal affairs investigation. The officers were placed on paid administrative leave as an expedited probe took place.
The officers were fired on Friday. They defended themselves by saying they were trying to cheer up a friend by sending the photographs, according to the police chief.
The officers didn’t submit any information to the chief for her consideration before she officially terminated them after the mandated 72-hour waiting period. They requested an investigative review board look at the case but Wilson denied that request.
“Nothing was going to change my mind on termination, therefore I denied their right to an investigative review board, and I am legally able to do so,” Wilson said.
Wilson described the pictures as “very disturbing” and paused throughout the press conference to gather her emotions. She said she delayed speaking about the case because she wanted to meet with McClain’s mother to show her the pictures, a meeting that took place earlier Friday.
Wilson apologized to the McClain family and law enforcement agencies across the nation, highlighting how one officer came forward with the photographs.
“We know that there are cops that have integrity. They understand duty and they understand honor. These four don’t get it,” she said.
If any officer disagrees with the decision to fire the officers, she added, she will gladly accept their resignations.
The Aurora Police Association Board of Directors said the internal investigation was conducted “in an unprecedented fashion,” with officers ordered to give interviews on short notice, making it difficult to properly prepare.
Officers’ phones were also confiscated and the file review process was abbreviated and defective, the board of the police union said in a statement, calling the probe a violation of officers’ due process rights.
“A standard internal affairs case takes several months. This case took nine days. This investigation is a rush to judgement,” the board said, calling for Wilson to be dropped from consideration for being the permanent police chief.
Asked about the criticism, Wilson told reporters, “It is my prerogative, and the public outcry and demand for justice for Elijah, and just the absolute—they don’t deserve to wear a badge anymore.”