Aurora police chief explains mistakes that led to officers handcuffing children

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Aurora police officers failed to double check information from a license plate scanner before detaining an innocent woman and four children at gunpoint, forcing the girls to lie facedown on the pavement for minutes, the city’s police chief said.

“Had they taken the before making that stop to double check that, they would have seen that there was no hit on that specific Colorado plate,” Aurora police Chief Vanessa Wilson said.

In an interview with in her first day as the city’s permanent chief, Wilson explained how officers bungled the Sunday incident that has, once again, drawn national attention and criticism to the Aurora Police Department. The chief described several errors made by the officers on scene and said she recognized the officers’ actions were traumatic to the children.

The officers involved are not on administrative leave and continue to work their assignments while an internal investigation continues, Wilson said.

The incident began about 10:55 a.m. Sunday when the woman, Brittney Gilliam, drove through an intersection with a license plate reader, which automatically scans the plates of passing vehicles and runs the plate numbers against a database of stolen or wanted vehicles. If the number matches with the database, the machine takes a picture of the passing car.

The reader, however, does not read the state of the license plate or record what type of plate it is. The license plate number on Gilliam’s car matched the number of a motorcycle reported stolen, though the motorcycle had Montana plates, Wilson said.

The license plate number and the photo of Gilliam’s car were then sent to officers, who failed to look up the plate number in the National Crime Information Center to double check the information. If they had, they would have realized Gilliam’s SUV was not the stolen motorcycle.

“There was a mistake there,” Wilson said. “I would have expected that they should have followed training and verified that prior to the stop.”

The officers then pulled up next to the parked SUV, drew their guns and ordered everyone out of the car. Gilliam and the four children she had taken to a nail salon got out of the car and followed officers’ orders. The four children — ages 6, 12, 14 and 17 — lay face down on the pavement, crying and screaming while at least five officers stood there watching. Officers handcuffed the 12-year-old and the 17-year-old and kept the children facedown for at least two minutes.

Allowing the children to remain on the ground was a second mistake, Wilson said. It is department policy to treat interactions with reported stolen vehicles as high-risk, but officers should have changed their tactics as soon as they realized something was wrong, Wilson said.