A Black woman who was removed from her car at gunpoint with her underage family members by Aurora, Colorado, police officers last year has filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city and police officials.
The woman, Brittney Gilliam, had taken her younger sister, her daughter and her nieces for a "Sunday funday" in August when Aurora officers, their guns drawn, ordered her and the girls to lie face down, according to the lawsuit, which was filed Monday in Arapahoe County. Bystanders posted video of the incident last year that showed four girls in the group on the ground, some handcuffed, crying and screaming as officers surrounded them.
Gilliam alleges in her lawsuit that officers searched her and the girls at gunpoint without probable cause or evidence of a crime, targeting the family because they were Black.
"The deplorable fact that multiple Aurora police officers held innocent Black children handcuffed and at gunpoint, and multiple other officers did not intervene, is evidence of the profound and systematic problem of racism and brutality within APD," says the lawsuit, which also names five Aurora police officers and Police Chief Vanessa Wilson as defendants.
The Aurora Police Department said last year that officers conducted a "traffic stop" under the belief that Gilliam had stolen her car because it shared the license plate number of a stolen motorcycle. Officers later realized that the motorcycle had plates from a different state.
Gilliam was out with her 17-year-old sister, her 6-year-old daughter and two nieces, ages 12 and 14, to get their nails done and venture out for ice cream afterward, the lawsuit says. The family went to a nail salon, only to realize that it was closed, and they were sitting in the parked car looking on Gilliam's phone for another salon.
That's when officers approached the car and ordered Gilliam and the girls to get out of the vehicle, saying they would tell them what was going on after they got out, the lawsuit says. Gilliam, her sister and her 12-year-old niece were handcuffed, according to the lawsuit, but handcuffs were too big for her 6-year-old daughter.
Instead, officers asked the 6-year-old and Gilliam's 14-year-old niece to hold their hands above their heads with their faces on the pavement. The family was held for about two hours until a sergeant arrived, the lawsuit says.
Gilliam, who works at the Denver County Jail, and the girls have experienced serious emotional trauma and stress, the lawsuit says. The four minors have sought weekly therapy since they were detained in August.
David Lane, the attorney for Gilliam and the girls, said the suit was the first under Colorado's new civil rights statute, which eliminates qualified immunity for police officers.
"If the officers are deemed culpable by the department, they are also responsible for a portion of any verdict or settlement," Lane said.
The city has not been served with Gilliam's lawsuit and declined to comment on pending litigation, Ryan Luby, Aurora's deputy director of communications, said in a statement Monday. Luby said the department is "committed to ongoing reviews of the practices and procedures of the Aurora Police Department."
"City leadership and Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson have previously expressed that this incident is not reflective of their expectations for the Aurora Police Department," Luby said. "Chief Wilson has apologized to Ms. Gilliam directly and offered to cover the cost of providing age-appropriate therapy to the children involved."
The lawsuit alleges that the Aurora Police Department has a history of police brutality against Black people, citing several incidents, including the recent case of Elijah McClain, a young Black man who died in 2019 after police placed him in a chokehold.
"The lack of any reasonable suspicion or probable cause, along with APD's long history of racially biased policing, show that the seizure and search of and use of excessive force against Plaintiffs were motivated in whole or in part because they are Black," the lawsuit says.
The 18th Judicial District Attorney's Office opened a review of the family's detainment in August and said this month that officers would not face charges. In a decision letter, the prosecutor's office said there was no evidence that officers acted unlawfully despite the "disturbing fact" that children were held at gunpoint, NBC affiliate KUSA of Denver reported.
"It is our hope, however, that APD will immediately undertake a review of their policies to try and ensure that nothing of this sort ever happens again," the letter said.
The state attorney general's office said last year that it would investigate the Aurora department and whether it has a pattern of practices "that might deprive individuals of their constitutional rights under state or federal law."