Three officers have been fired over photos showing them re-enact a chokehold used on a 23-year-old black man who died after he was stopped by police on a street in Denver.
One of those sacked is Jason Rosenblatt, a white officer who helped stop Elijah McClain in August last year for wearing a ski mask and “being suspicious”.
Police put Mr McClain in a chokehold, paramedics injected him with a sedative and he suffered cardiac arrest before later being taken off life support.
Aurora interim police chief Vanessa Wilson told reporters that officers sent the photos to Rosenblatt and others two months after Mr McClain died to “cheer up a friend”, without explaining who that was.
Rosenblatt responded with a text saying, “Haha”.
Officer Nathan Woodyard, who put McClain in a 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,” 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 chokehold 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 that led to Mr 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 confronted Mr McClain in August — smiled and mockingly placed each other in a chokehold in the photos 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.
Rosenblatt, Dittrich and Marrero were fired for conduct unbecoming of an officer. Jones resigned earlier this week.
The Aurora Police Association called the investigation “a rush to judgment”. The union for officers said on Facebook that the investigation took nine days, while a standard internal affairs case takes months.
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 Mr McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, “it was just devastating to see that people were mocking the murder of her son”, family attorney Mari Newman said.
“The fact that three on-duty, in-uniform police officers thought that it was appropriate to reenact 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 Mr McClain’s case.
The officers stopped Mr 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.