One of the three white police officers who stopped Elijah McClain in Colorado was fired over photos showing colleagues re-enacting the chokehold used on the Black man before he died last year, authorities said on Friday.
After getting a text message with the images, he replied, “haha”.
Police stopped McClain as he walked down the street last August for “being suspicious”, and the Aurora officer Jason Rosenblatt tried to use a chokehold on the 23-year-old but couldn’t because of his position, so another officer did, a report from prosecutors said.
Two months later, Rosenblatt received the photos from three fellow officers who smiled as they mimicked a chokehold near where McClain was stopped, which had become a public memorial.
A visibly shaken interim police chief Vanessa Wilson assailed the four officers involved with the photos, saying their explanation was that they were “trying to cheer up a friend by sending that photo”.
“We are ashamed, we are sickened, and we are angry,” Wilson said. The officers may not have committed a crime, but the photographs are “a crime against humanity and decency”, she added.
After an internal investigation, Wilson fired Rosenblatt and two of the officers who appeared in the photos for conduct unbecoming of an officer. The officer who re-enacted the chokehold in the photos resigned this week.
The Aurora Police Association, the union for officers, called it “a rush to judgment”. It said on Facebook that the investigation took nine days, while a standard internal affairs case takes months.
McClain’s death got new attention following recent nationwide protests over police brutality and racial injustice, and several police agencies have taken swift action to punish and in some cases charge officers, including those involved in George Floyd’s death on 25 May in Minneapolis.
Facing increasing pressure, Colorado’s Democratic governor, Jared Polis, last week ordered the state attorney general to reopen McClain’s case after prosecutors last year cleared the officers who confronted him.
Two officers, including the one that put McClain in a chokehold, are still on the force as authorities look into possible criminal charges. Federal officials also are looking into a possible civil rights investigation.
Word of the photos emerged soon after Polis’s announcement. Aurora police launched an investigation last week after another officer reported the photos.
“The fact that three on-duty, in-uniform police officers thought that it was appropriate to re-enact the murder, jokingly, shows that the department is rotten to the core,” said Mari Newman, the McClain family’s lawyer, who saw the photos before they were publicly released. Elijah’s mother, Sheneen McClain, also saw them.
“For her, it was just devastating to see that people were mocking the murder of her son,” Newman added.
Last weekend police used pepper spray to break up a peaceful violin vigil honoring McClain.