DENVER (AP) — Prosecutors are investigating whether suburban Denver police officers should face criminal charges for putting four Black girls on the ground and handcuffing two of them after mistakenly suspecting they were riding in a stolen car, a district attorney said Friday.
The incident Sunday attracted national attention after a video of the girls — some in tears — being detained in a parking lot spread on social media.
The traffic stop happened in Aurora, where officers are also being investigated following the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain after he was placed in a chokehold last year.
In the Sunday incident, officers eventually determined the car carrying the girls, ranging in age from 6 to 17, had the same license plate number as the one they were seeking from another state.
Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson and the department are cooperating with the investigation, 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler said in his announcement. He called the public accounts of the confrontation “very concerning.”
“Everyone is entitled to be treated equally under the law,” he said. “No one is above the law. If our investigation determines that the officers involved committed a crime, I will not hesitate to file charges and prosecute them.”
Brauchler is a Republican and a vocal defender of law enforcement, but earlier this year he criticized members of Aurora’s police department for helping shield an officer found passed out in his patrol car from criminal prosecution for suspected drinking and driving.
Aurora police apologized after the video taken by a bystander showed the girls, with the 17-year-old and a 12-year-old lying on their stomachs with their hands cuffed behind their backs. A 14-year-old girl was lying next to the 6-year-old, also on their stomachs next to the car.
They can be heard crying and screaming as officers stand with their backs to the camera. A woman on the other side of the car is seen being led away in handcuffs.
An officer eventually helped the handcuffed girls sit up but left them with their hands behind their backs, and police eventually determined they had stopped the wrong car. Part of the reason for the mix-up might have been that the car had been reported as stolen earlier in the year, police said.
Driver Brittney Gilliam, who had taken her nieces, sister and daughter out for a day at a nail salon, has characterized the officers’ actions as police brutality.
“There’s no excuse why you didn’t handle it a different type of way,” Gilliam told KUSA-TV. “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.”
Jennifer Wurtz, who shot the video, said on camera that the police drew guns as they initially approached the car.
Wilson, who was named chief of the Aurora Police Department this week after serving as its interim leader, told The Associated Press earlier this week she was “angry and disgusted” like others who have seen the video and said Friday she welcomed the investigation, which coincides with an internal investigation she ordered.
“I have promised transparency to a community who not only demands it, but deserves it,” she said.
Police are instructed to draw their guns and put occupants on the ground when dealing with a suspected stolen car, but Wilson has said they should have changed course after Gilliam said the car was not stolen and that she had children inside.
McClain died after he was stopped by police who put him in a chokehold before paramedics gave him a drug to calm him down. McClain suffered cardiac arrest and was later taken off life support.
The Colorado attorney general is investigating after a county prosecutor said last year there wasn’t enough evidence to charge the officers.