Four children are traumatized days after officers in Aurora, Colorado, drew guns on them in a mix-up over a stolen vehicle, the woman driving the vehicle said.
“They’re barely eating. They’re barely sleeping,” Brittney Gilliam told CNN on Wednesday. “They’re not doing good at all … Who would? What kid would? What child would? What parent would?”
Brittney Gilliam was going to a nail salon Sunday with her 6-year-old daughter, 12-year-old sister and 14- and 17-year-old nieces when police drew their weapons on them. Gilliam said she, her sister and 17-year-old niece were handcuffed while police verified that the car Gilliam was driving was not stolen.
Gilliam and all four girls are Black.
Gilliam said her life flashed before her eyes and she worried that someone was going to get seriously hurt as officers ordered her family out of the car and onto the ground. And though the experience was traumatizing for her, too, she said the worst part was feeling like she couldn’t protect the girls.
“As a parent, you try to protect your child at every cost, and those were my kids – in that particular moment, those were my kids – and I felt powerless, I felt dehumanized, and I couldn’t protect them from anything that was going on,” she said.
The episode unfolded amid a nationwide examination of how police treat Black people, spurred partly by the May death in police custody of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Aurora police also have been under scrutiny for the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, a Black man who suffered a heart attack after police detained him.
“I have called (Gilliam’s) family to apologize and to offer any help we can provide, especially for the children who may have been traumatized by yesterday’s events,” newly appointed Chief of Police Vanessa Wilson said late Monday. “I have reached out to our victim advocates so we can offer age-appropriate therapy that the city will cover.”
Stolen car and Gilliam’s shared description and tag
Gilliam was taking the girls to get their nails done the day of the incident, she told CNN. Her niece had just gotten back in the vehicle after looking to see whether the nail salon was open, and she and the girls were parked in a parking lot with the car turned off, Gilliam said, when Aurora police pulled up behind her vehicle with guns drawn and yelled for them to put their hands out of the window and to get out of the car.
Gilliam and the girls got out of the vehicle and were told to lie face down on the ground, she said. Though she asked more than once, Gilliam said the police wouldn’t tell her why she was pulled over until she was handcuffed.
Aurora police then told Gilliam her vehicle was stolen, she said. Gilliam said she told them her vehicle had been stolen in February, but that it was cleared up. She said she offered to show them the vehicle registration and insurance paperwork.
Gilliam’s attorney emphasized to CNN that after the vehicle was stolen in February, it was returned to her the next day by the Aurora Police.
Officers had been alerted to a stolen vehicle, and though Gilliam’s car matched the license plate and description, the vehicle reported stolen was from another state, police said in a statement.
“The confusion may have been due, in part, to the fact that the stopped car was reported stolen earlier in the year,” the statement said. “After realizing the mistake, officers immediately unhandcuffed everyone involved, explained what happened and apologized.”
But the apology was too little, too late, Gilliam told CNN on Wednesday.
Training and procedure under examination
Drawing weapons is in the department’s policy when police believe a car has been stolen, Wilson said in a statement.
“We have been training our officers that when they contact a suspected stolen car, they should do what is called a high-risk stop. This involves drawing their weapons and ordering all occupants to exit the car and lie prone on the ground. But we must allow our officers to have discretion and to deviate from this process when different scenarios present themselves,” Wilson said. “I have already directed my team to look at new practices and training.”
But Gilliam believes the incident would have gone differently had the officers not approached a car of Black women and girls, she said Wednesday.
“It would never happen if there were four White girls in the car; they would have treated it as a regular traffic stop,” she told CNN.
An internal investigation has been opened, according to the statement.
Meantime, Colorado’s health department has launched an investigation into paramedics’ use of the drug ketamine to sedate McClain, the 23-year-old Black man who was stopped by three White officers of the Aurora Police Department as he walked home last year from a convenience store.
McClain was placed in a chokehold and briefly lost consciousness, according to a report from police. When paramedics arrived, they administered the ketamine, the report said. McClain suffered a heart attack while in an ambulance and was declared brain dead three days later, the district attorney said in a letter.
The police department fired the three officers involved.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis called on Aurora’s new police chief to work ahead in transparency and rebuilding community trust.
“We need to do everything in our power to foster confidence and trust in law enforcement and for law enforcement to take that step to regain the trust of communities that events like this further erode,” Polis added.
CNN’s Jennifer Henderson contributed to this report.