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'Sick To My Core': Aurora, Colo., Chief Apologizes After Black Family Is Handcuffed

The police chief in Aurora, Colo., has apologized after officers handcuffed children and reportedly drew their weapons on a Black family — an incident captured on video this week that renewed criticism the department is racially insensitive and disconnected from its community.

A woman and four girls were wrongly detained, police later acknowledged.

"I want to reach out and just tell the family I am terribly sorry. I am sick to my core that these children were traumatized the way they were," Chief Vanessa Wilson said in an interview Tuesday withNPR member station KUNC.

Police said officers approached Brittney Gilliam's car under the belief that it had been reported stolen.Gilliam was taking her daughter, 6, and her sister, 12, and two nieces, ages 14 and 17, to get their nails done at a salon Sunday morning. When police approached, they were sitting in a parking lot where the salon is located.

The car had not been stolen – but before police made that determination, officers handcuffed Gilliam and two of the girls. Nearby, a woman recorded the encounter on her phone, showing the officers standing over the children.

"The video shows four children, ages 6 to 17, face down on asphalt surrounded by police officers," Colorado Public Radio's Hayley Sanchez reported for NPR. "Two are handcuffed and a child is crying for her mother. The witness who recorded the video says the officers surrounded the family's vehicle and drew their guns."

In an interview with local TV outlet 9News, Gilliam said of the officers, "There's no excuse why you didn't handle it a different type of way."

Referring to the children who were present, she added, "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 [were] different ways to handle it."

The officers were following the Aurora department's policy for approaching suspected stolen vehicles, Wilson said in an apology she issued Monday night. Wilson said there was confusion over the vehicle's status because its license plate matched a stolen vehicle's information. But she acknowledged the officers should have used their discretion to determine that it did not qualify as a "high-risk stop."

The video of the encounter, the chief said, is disturbing.

"It's very hard to watch and listen to," Wilson told KUNC.

"It shouldn't have happened," she added. "Someone should have said, 'Time out, let's stop what we're doing. Yes, we normally do felony stops, but this is not the time or the place and it's not appropriate in this instance.' And that didn't happen."

Wilson apologized for the encounter on the same day the Aurora City Council voted to approve her appointment as Aurora's full-time chief. She had been serving on an interim basis since January, leading an agency that has faced months of protests and ongoing investigations into the death of Elijah McClain, a young Black man who died after police detained him.

Discussing the changes she would like to see the department adopt, Wilson said she wants training classes to be adjusted to help officers be sensitive to implicit bias and treat people "with the dignity and respect they deserve."

Saying she wants officers to "not be robotic" in following procedures, Wilson added, "I hope the community knows that I'm serious about change, and I'm serious about moving this agency forward, and hopefully healing in the community as best we can."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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