The confrontation in a restaurant car park in Michigan had escalated Wednesday night.
Three police officers have been fired over photos showing them re-enact a chokehold 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.
Officers Erica Marrero, Kyle Dittrich and Jaron Jones had imitated the chokehold used to subdue McClain in October last year.
In a statement posted online, interim police chief of Aurora Vanessa Wilson confirmed on Friday that Marrero and Dittrich had been fired. The third officer, Jones, resigned on Tuesday, she said.
She added that she understood “the devastating impact this incident has had on the relationship between the community and the [police] department”.
A fourth officer, Jason Rosenblatt, was also fired on Friday, she said. He was sent the photo by one of the three and had responded with a text saying “haha”, local US media reported.
Rosenblatt, a white Aurora officer, had helped stop McClain in August last year for wearing a ski mask and “being suspicious”.
After police put McClain in a chokehold, paramedics injected him with a sedative and he later suffered cardiac arrest.
Officer Nathan Woodyard, who put McClain in the chokehold, also got the photos but he was not disciplined because he did not respond.
“We are ashamed, we are sickened, and we are angry,” Wilson said. The officers may not have committed a crime, but the photographs are “a crime against humanity and decency”, she said.
McClain’s death had 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 chokehold has been banned and other police reforms passed after nationwide protests.
McClain’s family, friends and community activists noted during a rally that justice was swifter for the mocking photograph than the use of force that led to 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.
Several police agencies have taken swift action to punish officers, including those involved in George Floyd’s death on May 25 in Minneapolis that ushered in global demonstrations.
For Elijah McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, “it was just devastating to see that people were mocking the murder of her son”, family lawyer Mari Newman said.
“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,” she said.
Facing increasing pressure as celebrities and others on social media called for justice, Colorado Governor Jared Polis last week ordered the state attorney general to reopen McClain’s case.
The officers stopped McClain, a massage therapist, after a 911 call on August 24 reported him as suspicious because he was wearing a ski mask and flailing his arms. He begged them repeatedly to let go of him, according to body-camera video.
After the chokehold that cut off blood to his brain, paramedics administered 500 milligrams of a sedative to calm him down. A forensic pathologist could not determine what exactly led to McClain’s death but said physical exertion during the confrontation likely contributed.
Police body-camera video shows an officer getting out of his car, approaching McClain and saying, “Stop right there. Stop. Stop … I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious.”
In the video, the officer turns McClain around and repeats, “Stop tensing up!” As McClain tries to escape the grip, the officer says, “Relax or I’m going to have to change this situation.”
As other officers join to restrain McClain, he begs them to let go and says, “You guys started to arrest me, and I was stopping my music to listen.”
Aurora police have said McClain refused to stop walking and fought back when officers tried to take him into custody.
In the video, McClain tells officers: “Let go of me. I am an introvert. Please respect the boundaries that I am speaking.”
The US attorney’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 were also considering an investigation into the photos.