The Cops Who Drew Guns and Forced an Innocent Family To Lie on the Pavement Were Dismayed by the Angry Response
After police in Aurora, Colorado, mistook a blue SUV with Colorado plates for a stolen yellow motorcycle with Montana plates, they pulled up behind the parked car, ordered the driver and the passengers out at gunpoint, and forced them to lie facedown on the pavement. Neither the driver, Brittney Gilliam, nor her passengers—four girls ranging in age from 6 to 17—had done anything wrong. But the terrified, wailing girls were still detained for about 10 minutes, with two of them in handcuffs, until after the cops realized their mistake.
The 2020 incident, much of which was recorded by a bystander, provoked international outrage at the gratuitous trauma inflicted on Gilliam and the girls. But newly released internal reports and body camera videos suggest that the cops at the scene were more upset by Gilliam’s anger and onlookers’ criticism. The evidence, which Chicago defense attorney Mike Buresh obtained under Colorado’s Criminal Justice Records Act, reveals a chasm between ordinary people who are appalled by police abuse and cops who think they are simply doing their jobs.
‘This Is a Stolen Vehicle’
On a Sunday morning last August, Gilliam, a 29-year-old food service worker at the Denver County Jail, drove her sister’s 2009 Dodge Journey to a nail salon. She was accompanied by her 6-year-old daughter, Gilliam’s 17-year-old sister, and two nieces, ages 12 and 14. They planned to have their nails done and get ice cream afterward. But when they arrived at the nail salon, they found it was closed. Gilliam and the girls were sitting in the parked SUV as she used her smartphone to find an open salon when a police car pulled up behind them and two officers, Darian Dasko and Madisen Moen, got out with their guns drawn.
The officers ordered Gilliam and the girls to put their hands out the windows, which they did. Dasko told Gilliam to put her keys on the roof of the car. Dasko’s body camera, which began recording at 10:54 a.m., captured this exchange while Gilliam was still sitting in the driver’s seat:
Gilliam: What’s the reason for this stop?
Dasko: This is a stolen vehicle.
Gilliam: This is a stolen vehicle?
Gilliam: My sister’s car is a stolen vehicle?
Dasko: It’s a stolen vehicle.
Gilliam: I’m going to prove your ass wrong. This was a stolen vehicle a long time ago…
Dasko: It’s a stolen vehicle.
Contrary to Dasko’s mantra, it was not a stolen vehicle. As he later acknowledged, police records indicated that the SUV was reported stolen on February 2, 2020, and recovered three days later. Yet a license plate reader had erroneously flagged the car as stolen, and the record Dasko initially received included a photo matching the car Gilliam was driving. Dasko said he checked with a dispatcher to confirm that the car was stolen, and he was told it was.
It turned out that hit was actually for a stolen motorcycle registered in Montana. If Dasko had run the plate number through the National Crime Information Center’s database, he would have discovered the error, and this whole encounter could have been avoided. But he did not do that.
Dasko nevertheless was immediately on notice that something was amiss with his information. He disregarded Gilliam when she repeatedly told him the car was her sister’s, even when she offered to prove it by showing him the registration. Instead, Dasko and Moen, a trainee he was supervising, proceeded to treat Gilliam and the girls like dangerous criminals.
‘We Never Put Any Underaged Children in Handcuffs’
According to a state lawsuit that Gilliam filed in January, the cops patted down everyone, including the 6-year-old. With guns drawn, they made everyone lie on the pavement. They handcuffed Gilliam, the 12-year-old, and the 17-year-old. The complaint says “Defendant Officer 4 tried to handcuff six-year-old L.T. [Gilliam’s daughter], but the handcuffs were too big to fit around her wrists.”
Exactly who was handcuffed, and how those individuals should be described, became a point of contention. “They put handcuffs on the babies,” a male bystander can be heard saying in Dasko’s video. “That’s not true,” an angry female officer replies. “That’s a lie. No handcuffs went on that child…There were no handcuffs on the small child.” That much is true, but it elides the question of whether the cops tried to cuff her, as the lawsuit alleges.
Although Moen’s body camera video should cast light on that issue, 10 crucial minutes are missing from the version released by the district attorney’s office. Buresh has asked the office to explain the legal justification for that redaction but has not heard back yet.
In his video, Dasko tells a sergeant: “No little, underaged kids were put in handcuffs. There was a little tyke…and she just sat there with her sister [actually, her cousin]. We never put any underaged children in handcuffs. All were proned out here, besides the driver, [who] was over here because she was uncooperative.” Dasko seems unfazed by the impact that being “proned out,” with or without handcuffs, might have on a little girl. Furthermore, the bystander video confirms that the 12-year-old and the 17-year-old were handcuffed. Dasko’s definition of “underaged children” evidently excludes anyone past puberty.
According to a report from Officer Travis Hanson, the 14-year-old, whom he describes as “the third woman with the small child,” would have been handcuffed too, but he decided that was unwise, because “a large crowd [had] developed, was extremely agitated, and [was] encroaching on our position.” In other words, the problem with handcuffing an innocent 14-year-old girl was not that it was patently wrong but that witnesses might perceive it that way.
Dasko likewise tries to minimize the threat of deadly force against the girls. “At no time did any Officer on scene run up to the juvenile female or child and point their duty weapon in their face,” he writes. Yes, the officers pulled out their guns and forced a 6-year-old to lie on the ground. But they did not point their guns in her face, which to Dasko’s mind apparently makes it OK.
‘Gilliam Began Screaming and Yelling’
Unsurprisingly, the girls were terrified by this sudden and inexplicable use of force. They can be heard crying and whimpering in the bystander video. “I want my mother!” the 6-year-old says. “Can I have my sister next to me?
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