McClain was walking home in August 2019 when he was detained by police who were responding to a 911 call reporting the 23-year-old massage therapist, who is Black, as “sketchy.” McClain was wearing headphones and a ski mask over his face because of a chronic health condition and did not immediately stop for police. Officers later tackled him and placed him in a carotid chokehold, a restraint maneuver that restricts blood flow to the brain. Responding paramedics injected him with a powerful sedative, and McClain went into cardiac arrest en route to the hospital. He died several days later.
The fired officers could not immediately be reached for comment.
In a statement Tuesday, Wilson applauded the commission’s decision and said officers in Aurora’s department are expected to “serve our community with dignity, respect and a sense of humanity.”
Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly similarly welcomed the decision, saying in a statement, “I fully supported Chief Wilson’s firing of Officers Dittrich, Marrero and Rosenblatt, and am encouraged that the Civil Service Commission agreed and upheld her decision.”
Tuesday’s decision closes the disciplinary case against the three officers, who had appealed their 2020 firings over what the department described as conduct unbecoming an officer.
At the center of the conduct issue was a photo Marrero and Dittrich posed for (along with a third officer, who has since resigned) in October 2019, two months after McClain’s death. In the photo, the officers are smiling as they reenact a chokehold while standing in front of a memorial for McClain.
Dittrich texted the photo to Nathan Woodyard, one of the officers who had originally detained McClain and was on administrative leave following the incident. The commission’s report states that the fired officers later defended their actions as an effort to cheer up Woodyard, who had been in a group chat with other officers but grew withdrawn after McClain’s death.
Woodyard did not respond to the photo, but Dittrich later sent it to Rosenblatt, who also had taken part in detaining McClain. Rosenblatt responded to the picture, texting “ha ha.”
Woodyard never replied to the photo but later told Dittrich in person he found the picture inappropriate, saying, “Hey, that’s not cool dude.”
The commission’s chairman, Jim Weeks, underscored Woodyard’s comment to Dittrich as he rejected the fired officers’ claim that the photo was meant to cheer up their colleague.
“There were numerous other methods officers Marrero and Dittrich could have used or photos they could have sent to offer support for Officer Woodyard,” Weeks wrote in findings. “The commission simply does not understand how a photo depicting a chokehold at the Elijah McClain memorial could possibly be expected to help officer Woodyard.”
The photo remained out of public view for eight months until Rosenblatt mentioned it to another officer who then notified a superior, according to the Aurora Civil Service Commission’s report.
In their testimony to the commission, which was summarized in Tuesday’s reports, the fired officers did not dispute the facts of the incident. Instead they argued that firing them was a disproportionately harsh punishment compared with other incidents of misconduct within the department, where officers “made horrific statements” but retained their jobs. An attorney representing Marrero and Dittrich, whose hearing was separate from that of Rosenblatt, proposed they be reinstated and disciplined with a 10- to 160-hour suspension.
The commission swatted down those arguments, writing that Dittrich and Marrero’s case was not comparable to other incidents.
“None of the cases involved officers taking smiling photos at the site of the tragic death of an Aurora citizen,” the commissioners wrote. They noted that other cases also did not “exacerbate the chasm between minorities and police” — an issue the department is still grappling with more than year after McClain’s death.
The commission rejected a similar claim made by Rosenblatt, who had said his brief reply of “ha ha” was meant to avoid awkwardness and shut down the interaction. The commission found that although his reply was brief, it ultimately had “a massive impact on his fellow officers” once it was revealed to the public.
Attention now will shift to the multiple ongoing probes into McClain’s death, which initially received little attention outside Colorado. In 2019, prosecutors declined to bring criminal charges related to the death.
It was not until George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers months later that McClain’s case saw renewed attention and a national profile. Last summer, Gov. Jared Polis (D) opened a new probe into the case; the city of Aurora announced an independent investigation and the Justice Department said it will re-examine the case for possible civil rights violations.
Since McClain was killed, the city has banned the use of chokeholds by police and approved a temporary ban on first responders’ use of ketamine, the powerful sedative that was administered to McClain before he died.