DENVER – Three suburban Denver officers fired over a photo reenacting a neckhold like the one police used on Elijah McClain before the 23-year-old Black man died in 2019 will not get their jobs back, officials said Tuesday.
In decisions upholding the terminations of Aurora Officers Erica Marrero, Kyle Dittrich and Jason Rosenblatt, the Aurora Civil Service Commission noted that the photo, which became public about a month after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, caused pain for McClain's family and hurt already-strained relations between police and the community.
McClain’s death drew renewed attention last year amid the national reckoning over police brutality and racial injustice, prompting investigations by the city, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI.
Police Chief Vanessa Wilson fired the three officers last year over two photos taken at a memorial to McClain two months after his death. Marrero, Dittrich and another officer who resigned, Jaron Jones, are shown smiling in one photo taken on Oct. 20, 2019, and in another, Jones has his arm around Dittrich’s neck in a fake neckhold like the one used on McClain.
Dittrich texted the photos to two officers who stopped McClain — Rosenblatt and Nathan Woodyard — to try to cheer up Woodyard, authorities said. Rosenblatt responded “ha ha,” while Woodyard didn't reply and deleted the photos. Woodyard wasn't disciplined.
Officers stopped McClain as he walked down the street on Aug. 24, 2019, after a 911 caller reported that he looked suspicious. Besides the neckhold, McClain was injected with the sedative ketamine. He suffered cardiac arrest and was taken off life support.
Rosenblatt initially tried to put McClain in the neckhold but couldn’t because of his position, so Woodyard did, authorities said. The maneuver, called a carotid control hold, restricts the flow of blood to a person’s brain, rendering them unconscious. It has been banned in several places following the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.
According to a lawsuit the McClain family filed against police and paramedics, Marrero and Dietrich were among the officers who arrived after McClain was restrained on the ground.
McClain's father, Lawayne Mosley, was glad the officers' firings were upheld but he wants all those involved in his son's death to be held accountable, the family's lawyer, Mari Newman, said.
“Aurora needs to fire all the officers and medics who killed him and those who failed to intervene and stop their fellow officers,” she said.
Police leaders didn't learn of the photos until last June, and after an accelerated internal affairs investigation, Jones resigned and Marrero, Dittrich and Rosenblatt were fired for conduct unbecoming of an officer.
Those three had appealed their terminations and can still sue to get their jobs back. Their lawyers didn't respond to requests seeking comment.
The commission said Marrero and Dittrich faulted the speed of the investigation, which normally takes weeks, but Police Chief Wilson said she had to make a decision quickly to protect the department and its officers from public outcry over the photos.
Wilson said Tuesday that Aurora officers must serve the community with “dignity, respect and a sense of humanity.”
“This supportive decision of the Civil Service Commission enables us to take another step forward on our path to a new way in rebuilding trust with our community through transparency and accountability,” she said in a statement.
Last year, the commission upheld Wilson's firing of an officer for failing to help a restrained Black woman begging for help after she became lodged upside down in the back of his patrol car.