Family of Black girls handcuffed by Colorado police, held at gunpoint reach $1.9M settlement

Associated Press | 2/8/2024, 6 p.m.
The four Black girls lay facedown in a parking lot, crying “no” and “mommy” as a police officer who had …

DENVER- The four Black girls lay facedown in a parking lot, crying “no” and “mommy” as a police officer who had pointed her gun at them then bent down to handcuff two of their wrists. The youngest wore a pink tiara as she held onto her teenage cousin’s hand.

The 6-year-old Lovely watched as her mother, Brittney Gilliam, was led to a patrol car in handcuffs after she shouted in frustration at the police, who mistakenly believed the car Ms. Gilliam was driving was stolen.

Over three years later, the Denver suburb of Aurora has agreed to a $1.9 million settlement with Ms. Gilliam and the girls to resolve a lawsuit that claimed the police officers’ actions were evidence of “profound and systematic” racism, a lawyer for the family, David Lane, announced Monday.

The settlement saved the girls the trauma of having to relive what happened during a trial, Mr. Lane said. The money will be evenly divided among Ms. Gilliam and the four girls, with the girls’ portions being placed into annuities so the money will grow by the time they access it when they turn 18, Mr. Lane said.

In a written statement, the city confirmed a deal had been reached.

“The Aurora Police Department remains committed to strengthening the relationship with the community through accountability and continuously improving how it serves the public,” it said.

That summer day in 2020 was supposed to be a fun girls’ day out for Ms. Gilliam, her daughter, her sister and two nieces. It instead became a traumatic ordeal.

An investigation by prosecutors found no evidence the officers committed any crimes, in part because they found they were following their training for conducting a high-risk stop of what they suspected was a stolen vehicle. However, they said the incident was “unacceptable and preventable” and urged police to review their policies to ensure nothing like it happens again.

One of the officers who stopped the car, Darian Dasko, was suspended for 160 hours.

He and the other officer, Madisen Moen, still work for the department.

Video of the young girls lying facedown and being put in handcuffs triggered outrage following protests over racial injustice earlier this decade sparked by the killing of George Floyd.

This settlement also marks the latest Aurora has been forced to pay out over police misconduct. The city settled for $15 million in 2021 with the parents of Elijah McClain. The 23-year-old Black man was killed in 2019 after he was stopped as he walked down the street, placed in a neck hold and injected with a sedative. One police officer also was convicted in his death and two others were acquitted. Two paramedics also were convicted.

A state civil rights investigation — launched amid outrage over Mr. McClain’s death and released after Ms. Gilliam’s lawsuit was filed — found a deeply engrained culture of racially biased policing in the department.

Mr. Lane said he hopes the settlement sends a message to law enforcement nationwide that they need to use discretion in how they respond to situations.

“You can’t be robocop and be an effective cop. You have to use common sense,” he said.

Ms. Gilliam’s girls’ day out had started with a trip to a nail salon, but they arrived to find it closed. As Ms. Gilliam sat in her car searching her phone for another salon to visit, officers approached with their guns drawn and ordered her and a passenger to roll down their windows and put their hands out.

The officers could not see who else was inside because the SUV had tinted windows, according to the prosecutors’ investigation. But eventually, everyone was ordered out and put on the ground.

Ms. Gilliam shouted, “You don’t have to do all that. You don’t have to do all that,” body camera video shows.

“OK. OK, we’ll deal with that,” Officer Dasko replied.

“Don’t tell me it’s OK!” Ms. Gilliam shot back.

About a dozen bystanders gathered to watch, some taking out phones to record it.

The video showed police seeming confused about how to handle the situation when they realized children were inside the SUV. Officer Moen had graduated from the police academy two days before. She hesitated about what to do after the girls were on the ground, asking other officers who arrived later if she should handcuff them all. Another officer advised her to handcuff some of them.

Soon after, another officer seen in the footage said it was time to de-escalate the situation, telling one of the handcuffed girls, “You’re going to be with your momma. You’re going to be OK.

Alright? Alright? We’ll get you out in a second, sweetheart. It’s for our safety.” The body camera

footage then shows Ms. Gilliam being led to a patrol car, hands cuffed behind her back.

Amid shouting and crying, police soon realized their mistake. While the department’s system notified them that Ms. Gilliam’s Dodge with Colorado license plates was stolen, the vehicle that was actually stolen was a motorcycle with the same license plate number in Montana.

Officers kept their guns drawn for about three-and-a-half minutes, and they removed the girls’ handcuffs after about eight-and-a-half minutes, once they realized the car wasn’t stolen, according to prosecutors.

For the first year, Ms. Gilliam said the encounter with police left her full of rage, angry she could not do anything to help the girls.

“Mentally, it destroyed me because I felt like not only am I not safe, these kids aren’t safe,” she said in an interview before the settlement was announced, recalling how it felt to be held on the ground in handcuffs.

Her daughter, whom she said was previously a “joyous” child, began acting out and became

withdrawn. Lovely would not talk about what had happened. Ms. Gilliam eventually realized her daughter was afraid of upsetting her further.

But exactly a year later almost to the minute, Ms. Gilliam gave birth to another daughter. She said she felt God was trying to wake her up and that she needed to let go of her anger.

“I felt like I wanted justice, but at the same point, I couldn’t be angry,” she said. “All I wanted to do was heal.”