Three US police officers have been fired over photos showing police re-enact a choke-hold used on Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old black man who died last year after police stopped him on the street in a Denver suburb.
One of those fired is Jason Rosenblatt, a white Aurora officer who helped stop Mr McClain in August for wearing a ski mask and “being suspicious.”
Police put Mr McClain in a choke-hold, paramedics injected him with a sedative and Mr McClain suffered cardiac arrest before later being taken off life support.
Aurora Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson looked visibly shaken as she told reporters that officers sent the photos to Mr Rosenblatt two months after Mr McClain died.
Mr Rosenblatt responded with a text saying “haha.”
“We are ashamed, we are sickened, and we are angry,” Ms Wilson said.
The officers may not have committed a crime, but the photographs are “a crime against humanity and decency,” she added.
Mr McClain’s death has become a rallying cry amid a national reckoning over police brutality and racial injustice, with the state reopening the case for possible criminal charges and federal officials looking into a civil rights investigation. In several places, the choke-hold has been banned and other police reforms passed after nationwide protests.
Mr McClain’s family, friends and community activists noted during a rally that justice was swifter for the mocking photograph than the use of force against McClain’s death. The two other officers who stopped the young man are still on the force as authorities look again into possible criminal charges after clearing them last year.
“Rosenblatt got fired not for killing Elijah, not for murdering Elijah, but for making fun of Elijah,” said Terrence Roberts, a community organiser and family friend.
“That is the culture that we’re fighting, where a police officer can murder a black man, a black child, and keep his job and stay on the force so he can go make fun of this child.”
Officers Kyle Dittrich, Erica Marrero and Jaron Jones – none of whom were among the officers who confronted Mr McClain in August – smiled and mockingly placed each other in a chokehold in the photographs taken in October near a memorial for Mr McClain.
An officer reported the photos to a sergeant late last month, and an internal investigation began.
Mr Rosenblatt, Mr Dittrich and Ms Marrero were fired for conduct unbecoming an officer. Mr Jones resigned earlier this week.
“The fact that three on-duty, in-uniform police officers thought that it was appropriate to re-enact the murder, jokingly, shows that the department is rotten to the core,” said Mari Newman, the McClain family’s lawyer, who saw the photos before they were publicly released.
Elijah’s mother, Sheneen McClain, also viewed them.
“For her, it was just devastating to see that people were mocking the murder of her son,” Ms Newman added.
Last weekend police used pepper spray to break up a peaceful violin vigil honouring Mr McClain.
The US lawyer’s office, the US Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the FBI announced this week they are looking into whether to launch a civil rights investigation.
Federal authorities said they also were considering an investigation into the photos.