Law Enforcement

Why Aurora Police Stop Complaint Is a "Game-Changer"

A witness video shows members of Brittney Gilliam's family lying down in a parking lot under orders from Aurora police officers.
A witness video shows members of Brittney Gilliam's family lying down in a parking lot under orders from Aurora police officers. Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP
On August 2, 2020, Brittney Gilliam and four members of her family ranging in age from six to seventeen were rousted by Aurora police officers who mistakenly thought the parked vehicle in which they were sitting had been stolen. Video of the incident, dominated by images of Black children splayed out face-down in a parking lot after having guns pointed in their faces, soon went national.

The result was more embarrassment for Aurora, which was already dealing with brutal publicity related to the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, the focus of renewed attention following protests over the murder of Minneapolis's George Floyd.

Now, Gilliam is suing the City of Aurora, Chief of Police Vanessa Wilson and five named officers over the incident, and attorney David Lane of Denver-based Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP, which also represents McClain's family, says the complaint is a "game-changer."

The reason? It's the first suit of its sort filed since the passage of Colorado's groundbreaking police-reform legislation last year. That law changes many of the rules that previously governed such court actions and allows adjudication to be moved from the federal system to one rooted in Colorado — in this case, Arapahoe County District Court.

"It eliminates the defense of qualified immunity," Lane explains, "where a federal judge can say, 'Well, there's a constitutional violation here, but there's no similar case that's ever been litigated, so therefore the police get immunity.' That won't happen here. And it gives us an Aurora jury to try the case in front of, rather than a federal jury. That means the pool will be much more reflective of the racial makeup of Arapahoe County than a federal jury would be. Because federal juries come from all over the state, there is an abundance of white people. In Aurora, we should get a jury that's much more diverse."

On August 2, Gilliam, a food-service worker at Denver County Jail, was taking part in what the lawsuit describes as a "fun family outing" to a nail salon at Iliff Crossing in Aurora with her daughter, age six, her sister, age seventeen, and two nieces, ages twelve and fourteen. When they discovered the salon was closed, Gilliam parked their sport utility vehicle and began searching on her phone for a similar establishment nearby.

Before they could head to a new destination, though, an Aurora police cruiser pulled up behind Gilliam's SUV and two officers emerged with guns drawn. Before long, Gilliam and the kids were ordered out of the car and made to lie on their stomachs "with their hands outstretched and flat in front of them," the complaint says.

Here's a look at witness video from the scene:

Everyone was searched, after which Gilliam was handcuffed and placed in the back of the squad car while the children freaked out. She wasn't freed until the officers discovered that the license plate they were looking for actually corresponded to a motorcycle in Montana.

In Lane's view, the incident epitomizes everything that's wrong with current policing.

"You have to put it into context of what's going on in America today," he says. "You are an African-American kid, and you know that the police routinely kill unarmed African-American kids. So when the Aurora Police Department pulls guns on you for doing absolutely nothing other than sitting in your car, laughing with your family, and you're six or twelve or fourteen or seventeen, this is a cause for extreme concern."

He stresses, "These kids are all in therapy now. They were traumatized enormously. They thought they were going to get shot and die, all because these cops were too lazy to run a check to make sure this car had been stolen. And even if it had been stolen, who puts a six-year-old kid on the ground at gunpoint? That's why this is such an egregious case. Parents I've talked to are as outraged by this case as any I've had in recent memory."

Gilliam "was damaged by this, also," Lane stresses. "She felt extremely helpless. Her family was crying and screaming for help, and she was unable to do anything to short-circuit this. She tried to show the cops her registration, to show that the license plate and the car matched, but they didn't want to see it. So she was traumatized and the kids were traumatized. This was a life-changer for all of them."

In response to the lawsuit, City of Aurora spokesperson Ryan Luby highlights "ongoing reviews of the practices and procedures of the Aurora Police Department" and adds that "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."

Click to read Brittney Gilliam, et al., v. City of Aurora, et al.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts