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Police briefly detain family after vehicle mistakenly identified as stolen

Officers detained a driver and four children, ages 6-17, inside a vehicle that was mistakenly identified as stolen, APD said.

AURORA, Colo. — The Aurora Police Department (APD) said officers detained a family – a driver and multiple children – on Sunday after the vehicle they were in was mistakenly identified as stolen.

APD said officers were notified around 10:55 a.m. of a possible stolen vehicle in the area of an ARC Thrift Store at 16801 E. Iliff Ave. Then, officers identified a vehicle that matched the license plate number and description they were given.

The officers conducted a traffic stop, and the adult driver and young passengers were ordered onto the ground – some were placed in handcuffs, APD said.

A video taken by a witness shows four children, ages 6-17, face down on the ground. Officers handcuffed at least two of the children. 

Brittney Gilliam, who identified herself as the driver, told 9NEWS she had taken her nieces, younger sister and daughter to get their nails done, and when they realized the salon was closed, they got back in their car. That's when she said police surrounded their car with guns drawn. 

APD said a motorcycle with the same license plate number from a different state was actually the vehicle reported stolen.

"He’s like something about the car being reported stolen," Gilliam said. "And I’m like, 'This happened months ago, you guys cleared it. We got to pick up the car the next day, the very next day, so I’m not understanding what’s going on.'" 

Gilliam said her car was stolen back in February but was found the next day.

APD said confusion may have come from the fact that the vehicle mistakenly stopped was reported stolen earlier this year.

“There’s no excuse why you didn’t handle it a different type of way," Gilliam said about APD. "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 was different ways to handle it." 

> A witness shared a video of the incident below:

Officers unhandcuffed everyone, apologized and explained the situation. The family asked to make a complaint, so a lieutenant responded to the scene to handle the request, APD said.

But Gilliam's 14-year-old niece said APD already severed their trust with her. 

“It’s like they don’t care," said Teriana Thomas. "Who am I going to call when my life is in danger?”

An internal investigation has been opened, according to APD.

"The Aurora Police Department understands that this is concerning and traumatic for those involved and we again offer our apologies," APD said in a statement.

A spokesperson for the department said officers are trained when contacting a stolen car to do what is called "a high-risk stop," which is also used when officers know or suspect the occupants are armed.

"In a high-risk stop, weapons are drawn, and occupants are told to exit the car and lie prone on the ground," Agent Faith Goodrich with APD told 9NEWS. "There is not a written policy regarding when/how we use this stop. Officers can use discretion based on the information they have at the time."

In her own statement on Monday night, Interim Chief Vanessa Wilson said officers need to have the ability to deviate from this type of stop when the situation permits.

Kevin Smith, a former police officer who is now a professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU Denver), said the officers were following protocol, but could have acted a little quicker to get the children off the hot concrete.

“It’s a little troublesome," he said. "It looks bad because there were kids on the ground, and it sounds even worse.”

Smith also said until officers know what they're dealing with, they have to use that kind of force.

"But then you have a 6-year-old on the ground, I think the decision, in this case, could've been done a little quicker to get them off the ground," he said.

Wilson said officers are, as Smith said, trained to do a high-risk stop when they contact a suspected stolen vehicle.

"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."

Colorado State Representative Leslie Herod expressed concern over the family's treatment.

"This common practice of treating Black people, people of color, low-income people as folks who are disposable of can just be thrown down – it needs to end," Herod said. "And it's pervasive. More pervasive than I think some people realize.

"In a perfect world, in a greater world, a better world, the response would be exactly the same no matter if the people in the car are Black, white or other."

Herod said officers should get more diversity and inclusion training.

Wilson said she personally called the family to apologize, and the city will cover the costs of any age-appropriate therapy the children may need.

Gilliam is now represented by David Lane, a prominent Denver lawyer and law partner of Mari Newman, who represents Elijah McClain's family.

Lane said when police handcuff people without reasonable suspicion to believe they've committed a crime, it's a violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment says: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

"And now a 6-year-old is forced to the pavement under the threat of an Aurora police officer's gun? That is as wrong as wrong can be," Lane said of the situation. "When you point guns at small children, the U.S. Supreme Court says that is an unreasonable seizure."

The family has since filed a formal complaint against APD and Lane said he has requested body camera footage of the incident.

APD has been under fire for several different incidents over the last year including its involvement in the death of McClain, a photo scandal involving officers connected to the McClain case and an officer allegedly found drunk and slumped over the seat of his patrol car.

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