Brittney Gilliam was on a girls' trip with her nieces, sister and daughter to get their nails done Sunday morning when suddenly, in a parking lot, they were surrounded by police.
The officers, according to a bystander and Gilliam's lawyer, had their guns drawn, ordered the group of Black women and girls to lay face down while handcuffing some of them, police and the family said.
Video of the scene taken by the bystander and obtained by NBC Denver affiliate KUSA shows the four girls in the group on the ground, some of them handcuffed, crying and screaming as officers surround them.
Aurora police said in a statement to NBC News that officers conducted a "traffic stop" of Gilliam’s car on the belief it was stolen because it shared the plate number of a stolen motorcycle.
“The people in the car were ordered out onto the ground and placed in handcuffs,” public information officer Faith Goodrich said in the statement.
When the officers in the Denver suburb determined the stolen motorcycle had plates from a different state, they “unhandcuffed everyone involved, made efforts to explain what happened, and apologized,” Goodrich said.
In the video, one of the girls can be heard crying, “I want my mother,” as her hands are restrained behind her.
“Can I have my sister next to me?” another in the group who was restrained says. The girls are 6 to 17 years old, KUSA reported.
The children were at some point allowed to sit up while two of them still appear to have their hands restrained behind their backs. David Lane, a civil rights attorney representing the family, told NBC News that two of the girls were handcuffed, as was Gilliam, 29, who was put in a police car.
Jennifer Wurtz, the bystander who captured the incident on video, described what she saw to KUSA.
“I saw a car next to me with four girls in it, feet were up on the dash; it was real cute,” she said. “And next thing I know, the police pull up silently and had guns drawn on the children.”
Efforts to reach Wurtz were not immediately successful.
The police statement said the officers' confusion may have been due in part to the fact that the car Gilliam was driving had been reported stolen earlier this year.
But Gilliam told KUSA that the car was recovered a day after it had been reported stolen and that there is no reason why the girls needed to be handcuffed and forced to the ground.
“There’s no excuse why you didn’t handle it a different type of way," said Gilliam, who filed a complaint over the incident Sunday. "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."
Teriana Thomas, Gilliam’s 14-year-old niece who was among the family members who had guns drawn on her, said the incident made her question if police value her life and safety.
“It’s like they don’t care," she said. "Who am I going to call when my life is in danger?”
The Aurora police statement said its officers are trained to do a “high-risk stop" when stopping vehicles thought to be stolen.
"In a high-risk stop, weapons are drawn, and occupants are told to exit the car and lie prone on the ground," the statement said. But police acknowledged there is no written policy on such stops and "officers can use discretion based on the information they have at the time."
In an interview with KUSA, Aurora's police chief, Vanessa Wilson, apologized for the incident, saying she understood that it was "traumatic and horrific" for the teens.
"It’s unfortunate that it happened," she said, adding that the department needs to look at new training to "drive change" and give officers "the ability to say, 'Hey we need to stop this, and feel okay to do that.'"
"I'm really deeply troubled about what those children went through," she said. "I hope that the family will allow me to do what I can to make it right."
Lane said the experience was deeply traumatic for the family, and criticized the Aurora police, which he said have a "culture of violence."
"We have sued the Aurora police over the years dozens and dozens of times for this exact same type of behavior," Lane said of his civil rights firm, Killmer, Lane, and Newman. "They are there to occupy and intimidate. They are not there to serve and protect."
Aurora police drew attention this summer when it came to light that three officers had taken selfies that mocked the death of Elijah McClain, a young Black massage therapist who died last summer after police in the city placed him in a chokehold and injected him with ketamine while he was handcuffed.
The selfie photos were taken in October, according to KUSA. The three officers were fired on July 3 over the incident.