Black family handcuffed at gunpoint by Aurora police files suit against city

A Black woman who was removed from her car at gunpoint with her underage family members by Aurora, Colorado, police officers last year has filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city.

Brittney Gilliam had taken her younger sister, daughter and nieces for a “Sunday funday” in August when Aurora officers, their guns drawn, ordered her and the underage girls to lie face down, according to the lawsuit filed Monday. Bystanders posted video of the incident last year that showed four girls in the group on the ground, some handcuffed, crying and screaming as officers surrounded them.

Now, Gilliam alleges in her lawsuit that officers searched her and the girls at gunpoint without probable cause or evidence of crime, targeting the family because they were Black.

“The deplorable fact that multiple Aurora police officers held innocent Black children handcuffed and at gunpoint, and multiple other officers did not intervene, is evidence of the profound and systematic problem of racism and brutality within APD,” the lawsuit said.

Aurora Police Department told NBC News last year that officers conducted a “traffic stop” under the belief Gilliam stole her car because it shared the plate number of a stolen motorcycle. Officers later realized the motorcycle had plates from a different state.

Gilliam was out with her 17-year-old sister, 6-year-old daughter, and two nieces, ages 12 and 14, to get their nails done and venture out for ice cream after, the lawsuit said. The family went to a local nail salon only to realize it was closed and were sitting in the parked car looking on Gilliam’s phone for another salon.

That’s when officers approached the car and ordered Gilliam and the girls to exit the car, saying they would tell them what was going on after they got out, the lawsuit said. Gilliam, her sister and 12-year-old niece were handcuffed, according to the lawsuit, but handcuffs were too small for her 6-year-old daughter.

Instead, officers asked the 6-year-old and Gilliam’s 14-year-old niece to hold their hands above their hands with their faces down on the pavement. The family was held for about two hours until a sergeant arrived on the scene, the lawsuit said.

Gilliam, who works at the Denver County Jail, and the girls have experienced serious emotional trauma and stress in the wake of the incident, the lawsuit said. The four minors in the case have sought weekly therapy since the August detainment.

Attorney David Lane, who represents Gilliam and the girls, said the case filed Monday was the first under the state’s new civil rights statute, which eliminates qualified immunity for police officers.

“If the officers are deemed culpable by the department, they are also responsible for a portion of any verdict or settlement,” Lane said.

The city has not been served with Gilliam’s lawsuit and declined to comment on pending litigation, Ryan Luby, Aurora’s deputy director of communications, said in a statement Monday. Luby said that the department is “committed to ongoing reviews of the practices and procedures of the Aurora Police Department.”

“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,” Luby said. “Chief Wilson has apologized to Ms. Gilliam directly and offered to cover the cost of providing age-appropriate therapy to the children involved.

Gilliam’s lawsuit alleges that the Aurora Police Department has a history of police brutality against Black people, naming several incidents including the recent case of Elijah McClain, a young Black man who died in 2019 after Colorado police placed him in a chokehold.

“The lack of any reasonable suspicion or probable cause, along with APD’s long history of racially biased policing, show that the seizure and search of and use of excessive force against Plaintiffs were motivated in whole or in part because they are Black,” the lawsuit said.

The 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office opened a review of the family’s detainment in August but said earlier this month that officers would not face charges. In a decision letter, the prosecutor’s office said there was no evidence officers acted unlawfully despite the “disturbing fact” that children were held at gunpoint, NBC affiliate KUSA reported.

“It is our hope, however, that APD will immediately undertake a review of their policies to try and ensure that nothing of this sort ever happens again,” the letter said.

Colorado Attorney General’s office said last year it was opening an investigation into the Aurora department and whether it has a pattern of practices “that might deprive individuals of their constitutional rights under state or federal law.”

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