Aurora police detain Black family after mistaking their vehicle as stolen

Posted at 6:44 PM, Aug 03, 2020

AURORA, Colo. — Police detained and handcuffed a Black mother and several children after mistaking their SUV for a stolen motorcycle from another state.

It happened in the parking lot of a shopping center off of Buckley Road and E. Iliff Avenue Sunday morning.

“Why are you now placing these children on the ground face into the concrete? It's hot! In front of all of us? Screaming at them. They are telling you they are hurt,” witness Jenni Wurtz said.

Aurora police detain Black family after mistaking their vehicle as stolen

Wurtz recorded the incident along with several other witnesses.

She says a police car slowly pulled behind the family. The officer drew their weapon on the family and ordered them out of the car. Several of the children were handcuffed.

“That makes me very mad, because I am not anti-police. I’m anti what happened yesterday, and that was ridiculous,” Wurtz said.

The car the family was driving was not stolen. Police used a license plate scanner to gather information on vehicles in the area. They should have been looking for a motorcycle with the same plate from another state.

Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson said she blames the license plate reader but could not explain why the dozens of officers who responded did not confirm the vehicle description.

“I totally understand that anger, and don’t want to diminish that anger, but I will say it wasn’t a profiling incident. It was a hit that came through the system, and they have a picture of the vehicle the officers saw,” Wilson said, defending her officers actions.

After officers realized the mistake, the family was uncuffed but more officers continued to arrive. Video shows over a dozen officers standing around the traumatized family.

“I do not think a stolen vehicle is worth traumatizing the lives of children. On top of that, I was 20-feet away with a drawn gun. They didn’t even tell me to move, secure the scene. They didn’t do anything,” Wurtz said.

Wurtz filed a complaint with internal affairs. She believes the police department's policy needs to change.

By Monday evening, an internal investigation was underway following the incident, according to Wilson.

"We first want to offer our apologies to the family involved in the traumatic incident involving a police stop of their vehicle yesterday.

"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. I have already directed my team to look at new practices and training," Wilson said in a prepared statement. "I have called the family to apologize and to offer any help we can provide, especially for the children who may have been traumatized by yesterday's events. I have reached out to our victim advocates so we can offer age-appropriate therapy that the city will cover."

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Wilson, who was named police chief on Monday night, said in an interview Tuesday she wished again to apologize to the family and that she believes officers should have changed their tactics when they realized children were in the car.

“I wish someone would have stepped in and said, ‘OK, let’s change what they are doing,’” Wilson said.

She said that she had already spoken with the division chief about needing better training surrounding the protocol on detaining children and said he had already spoken with academy staff about how to train differently for different scenarios.

“It’s just uncalled for. It shouldn’t have happened, and I wish we could take it back,” Wilson said. “Just hearing those young children crying, it tears at your heart strings. I felt sick to my stomach.”

Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman issued a statement Tuesday morning about the incident: “I have spoken with Interim Chief Wilson about this unfortunate incident, and we both believe this was improper and traumatizing to the children. What happened is being thoroughly investigated, and I will continue to follow up to make sure changes in training and procedures take place. I am sorry for the pain, fear and confusion this family unnecessarily faced.”

Omar Montgomery, the president of the NAACP’s Aurora chapter, said Tuesday he felt “heartache” over what happened to the family.

“I don’t think common-sense policing was used in that particular scenario; I don’t think common-sense policing was used when it came to Elijah McClain,” he said. “So we need to see changes in the decision-making at moments like that.”