AURORA, Colo. — The terminations of three Aurora Police officers who were tied to a photo showing a carotid hold taken near the memorial for Elijah McClain were upheld, according to documents provided Tuesday by the City of Aurora.
The findings were released by the Aurora Civil Service Commission on two appeals hearings. One hearing involved former officer Jason Rosenblatt, and the other involved former officers Erica Marrero and Kyle Dittrich.
Aurora Police Department (APD) Chief Vanessa Wilson had terminated the employment of all three officers in July 2020 on the grounds of "conduct unbecoming."
"Aurora police officers are expected to serve our community with dignity, respect and a sense of humanity," Wilson said in a statement. "I am pleased with the Civil Service Commission’s decision to uphold my discipline of Mr. Dittrich, Ms. Marrero and Mr. Rosenblatt. I want to thank City Manager Twombly for his faith in me and my decisions."
McClain died on Aug. 27, 2019 – five days after he went into cardiac arrest following a confrontation with Aurora officers. He was detained after a report of a “suspicious person” in the area. McClain’s family said he had been walking to the store to get iced tea, and was wearing a ski mask because he was anemic.
Marrero, Dittrich and a third officer were in the photo that was taken on Oct. 20, 2019, in the 1700 block of Billings Street. The three officers were on-duty and had just completed a call in the area when they took the photo near McClain’s memorial. The other officer, identified as Jaron Jones in the documents released Tuesday, resigned before any disciplinary action was taken.
Dittrich and Marrero filed appeals July 8, and Rosenblatt filed an appeal on July 9, according to a spokesperson for the city.
Rosenblatt was not in the photo, but was sent the picture in a message and was fired for responding "ha ha." Rosenblatt was one of the three officers who responded the night of McClain’s encounter.
In their appeals hearing, Dittrich and Marrero apologized and testified that they were trying to help a struggling team member and didn't consider that their actions could hurt others. The commission believed they meant no harm but determined that their conduct, not their intent, was the primary consideration, the documents say.
The attorney for the two former officers suggested that they deserved suspension, rather than termination, and brought up other officers whose cases involving violations of "conduct unbecoming" did not result in termination.
While the commission acknowledged the importance of officers supporting one another, it found that none of those other cases were comparable to Marrero's and Dittrich's misconduct, the documents say.
The commission pointed out that the officer whom the photo was intended to cheer up responded by messaging, "Hey dude, that's not cool."
"None of the previous cases involved photos that, once disclosed to the public as they almost certainly would be, had this much potential to create or exacerbate a chasm between minorities and police at precisely the time Chief Wilson was undertaking substantial efforts to improve those relations," according to the hearing findings document.
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At his hearing, Rosenblatt testified that he didn't know what to do when he received the photo and that by responding "ha ha," he was trying to shut down the conversation. He said the texted photo came from a phone number that wasn't in his contacts and he didn't know who had sent it, the document says.
The commission didn't find Rosenblatt's explanation to be credible and said his "ha ha" response couldn't reasonably be interpreted as an effort to discourage the sender, according to the hearing findings.
"There was a very substantial risk that it would go to persons unknown to officer Rosenblatt, possibly including members of the public, and that the nature of the response, particularly if disclosed to the public, would be viewed as a callous disregard for the tragic loss of Elijah McClain's life," according to the hearing findings.
In light of McClain's death and the Black Lives Matter movement, the commission found that Rosenblatt's "thoughtless response caused extraordinary harm."
Candice Bailey describes herself as an "actionist" and a friend of the McClain’s. She also sits on the Aurora Police Oversight Committee. She said this is a small step towards getting justice for Elijah McClain.
"They would lose their job not for the actual murder. They would lose their job for taking a picture and making a mockery of what they had done," said Bailey. "How could you lose your job for taking a picture, but not for taking a life? So the picture was more valid than Elijah McClain?"
Mari Newman represents members of Elijah McClain’s family. She wants to see the officers involved in his death held accountable, not just the ones fired for taking a picture.
"Of course the officers who went back and mocked the murder of an innocent young man should be fired," said Newman. "All of the officers who are involved in killing Elijah McClain, who stood by idly and didn’t intervene or stop the torture, all of them should be fired. These are not people who should be carrying guns or carrying badges."
Bailey organized protests over the summer demanding justice for Elijah McClain. She says their work is not yet done.
"We have a responsibility and a requirement to get justice for Elijah McClain’s entire life, and not just a snapshot or a picture," said Bailey. "There is no way that we can ever make this feel good, but as a community we must make it right. This is not right."
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