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When Brittney Gilliam left her house in Aurora, Colorado, one day last August, all the 29-year-old wanted to do was take her daughter, younger sister, and two teenage nieces to get their nails done. They’d been cooped up for months because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and when businesses finally started to open up, she planned a “Sunday funday.”
But the family soon found themselves in a strip mall parking lot surrounded by police officers with guns drawn, demanding they get out of Gilliam’s vehicle. The girls—ages 17, 14, 12, and 6—all ended up facedown on the pavement of a local parking lot, while Gilliam was handcuffed and put in the back of a squad car. It would be another two hours before officers realized they’d wrongly identified the family’s SUV as stolen.
“I want my mommy,” Gilliam’s 6-year-old daughter, wearing a pink crown, repeatedly cried out, according to a bystander video that went viral. Police allegedly tried to handcuff her, but her wrists were too small.
Five months later, Gilliam has sued the five officers who conducted the stop that day, putting each cop on the hook for up to $20,000. And she just might win; Colorado recently became the first state to get rid of its “qualified immunity” statute, which made it nearly impossible to hold individual officers accountable for wrongdoing.
If Gilliam’s suit succeeds—and the officers have to pay out of their own pockets—the case could signal to other states and lawmakers that reforming protections for cops is worth their time.
“I believe that this case is going to be an immediate concern for police departments and officers,” Gloria Browne-Marshall, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told VICE News. “People are not talking about it, but they’re waiting at the edge of their seat waiting to see what’s going to happen.”
More states adopting a version of Colorado’s decision would mean qualified immunity beginning to fade from use and a new dawn for police accountability, one where cops could face consequences more frequently—and directly—rather than from behind the shield of their employer and city government.
“In Colorado, the actual cops could lose a check, or two, or three, or a car, or a house. And if anything will change police misconduct quickly, it’s the possibility of a cop losing personal property.”
Qualified immunity has been the most critical protection standing between police officers accused of wrongdoing while on duty and consequences like prison time or hefty settlements. The rule, which is meant to free cops of legal shackles while on the job, also sets up insurmountable conditions for people pursuing legal action: To show wrongdoing, victims are forced to prove systemic shortcomings of the entire department rather than the individuals on the job. And that means the institution is responsible—and pays for the civil damages if applicable.
It’s how police officers were protected in the shooting of a 10-year-old child and the chokehold death of Eric Garner in 2014.
“We file civil rights cases every day, and in federal court we are constantly facing qualified immunity,” civil rights attorney David Lane, who is representing the Gilliam family, told VICE News. “In Colorado, the actual cops could lose a check, or two, or three, or a car, or a house. And if anything will change police misconduct quickly, it’s the possibility of a cop losing personal property.”
After the Supreme Court invented qualified immunity in the early ’80s, a majority of states adopted their version of the within a short time. While states have tried to broadly tweak legal protections adopted and offered to police officers, Colorado is the first state to pass legislation that got rid of the qualified immunity defense, leaving no room for court-granted exceptions as typically happens, according to Keith Neely, an attorney with The Institute for Justice.
The Aurora Police Department was also involved in the 2019 death of Elijiah McClain. Officers had identified the 23-year-old as a “suspicious person” and tried to calm him down while they detained him with an injection of ketamine. Like a number of other high-profile fatal police incidents involving people of color, McClain’s death helped spark a wave of police reforms in the state last year, including its decision to do away with qualified immunity.
“The reasons why not a lot of states have dealt with this kind of reform is because the public appetite wasn’t there,” Neely said. “A lot of the current interest can be attributed to the political activism in the last couple of years and the visibility of police misconduct.”
In the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, several Democratic candidates, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, all proposed amending the rule in some way early on in their campaigns. Last year, Sanders and his Senate colleagues Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren proposed legislation to end its use in court, and its reform was a big part of the proposed “George Floyd Protections in Police Act.”
Even conservatives, Trump-appointed judges, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas have questioned its usefulness.
“It goes to show you that even people you wouldn’t expect are starting to come around and say, ‘Yeah, this is bullshit,’” Lane said.
In Gilliam’s case, after the family pulled up and found the nail salon closed, Gilliam started searching for other salons on her phone. Police swarmed the vehicle because the license plate number matched that of a stolen motorcycle, although it was from a different state. Gilliam also later explained that her car was reported stolen earlier in the year but had been returned the following day.
But instead of being allowed to show the officers her registration right away, which would have clarified the confusion, the family was detained and frisked. Gilliam's lawsuit argues the officers violated their constitutional rights, used excessive force, and committed an unlawful seizure.
“City leadership and Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson have previously expressed that this incident is not reflective of their expectations for the Aurora Police Department,” Aurora City spokesman Ryan Luby said. “Chief Wilson has apologized to Ms. Gilliam directly and offered to cover the cost of providing age-appropriate therapy to the children involved. Though the officers followed protocol and adhered to their training at the time of the incident, Chief Wilson and city leadership recognized officers need to have discretion and the ability to deviate from that process when different scenarios present themselves.”
For Gilliam, that’s not enough.
“All I hear at night is my kids’ screams—12 minutes of screaming. How do you shut that out? And you say therapy is going to help? I need more than just a bit of therapy. These kids need more than just a bit of therapy,” Gilliam said at a press conference days after the incident.