Colorado police officers have been suspended and are under investigation over photos allegedly taken near the site of a memorial for Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist who died last year following an altercation with police.
The photos reportedly show officers from the Aurora Police Department posing inappropriately near his memorial site and reenacting the carotid restraint used on McClain before his death, sources told Fox affiliate KDVR and CBS Denver.
Interim Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson announced in a Monday statement that the officers “depicted in photographs near the site where Elijah McClain died” were “immediately” put on administrative leave when she learned of the photos last week.
The department has not confirmed how many officers were in the photos and what they were doing. Wilson said the names of the officers, photos and full investigative files will be released after the department conducts an investigation.
The Justice Department also announced Tuesday night that it is reviewing McClain's death to see if a federal civil rights probe is warranted, saying that federal authorities have been investigating the circumstances surrounding the case since last year.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado, the Denver Division of the FBI and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division said in the statement that they were “aware” of reports that officers had been placed on leave “pending an internal investigation into a photograph in which those officers appeared.”
“We are gathering further information about that incident to determine whether a federal civil rights investigation is warranted,” the statement read. “We will have no further comment until both of those reviews are completed.”
A spokesperson from the Aurora Police Department said the photos were taken in October 2019.
Wilson reportedly sent out pre-disciplinary letters to the officers involved, including her recommendations for punishment, and the officers have 72 hours to dispute, KDVR reported.
Activist Candice Bailey said the police chief told her over the phone that the photos showed three officers “re-enacting what occurred with Elijah,” but she did not see the photos herself. CBS Denver also reported that three officers were under investigation.
Curtis Gardner, the vice chair of Aurora’s Public Safety Courts and Civil Service Commission Policy Committee, said the officers’ actions were “incredibly inappropriate,” according to KDVR.
The McClain family attorney released a statement obtained by the local outlet saying, “Just when we thought the Aurora Police could not be any worse, they somehow find a new low.”
“This is a department where officers tackled an innocent young black man for no reason, inflicted outrageous force – including two carotid chokeholds – for fifteen minutes as he pled for his life, joked when he vomited, and threatened to sic a dog on him for not lying still enough as he was dying,” the statement read. “They tampered with their body cameras to hide the evidence. They exonerated the killers. They deployed riot police and spewed pepper gas on peaceful protestors at a vigil of mourners playing the violin. And now this.”
Updated 2:27 p.m.