Elijah McClain: Aurora, Colorado, reportedly hiring an independent police monitor following investigation into death
“I believe the investigation team has identified the problem underlying the case: the failure of a system of accountability,” City Manager Jim Twombly told reporters.
The 157-page report, released on Monday, was extremely critical of the Denver suburban police and fire department.
“I will work with the mayor and council to follow the establishment of an independent monitor to improve the accountability and transparency of the police force and to gain public trust,” said Twombly.
The report challenged officers ‘statements about McClain’s “superior strength”, criticized the rescue workers’ decision to inject him with the sedative, and cautioned law enforcement officials not to question officers seriously.
“At the time of the (ketamine) injection, Mr. McClain hadn’t moved or made any noise for about a minute,” the report said. “In addition, EMS administered a dose of ketamine based on a grossly inaccurate and inflated estimate of Mr. McClain’s height.”
Twombly praised Police Chief Vanessa Wilson for her “great strides” in implementing new guidelines and improving training, but said, “A system of accountability should not depend on who is in the chair of the chief.”
“It needs to be set up so that it works and represents the community’s desire for constitutional, unbiased and respectable policing that holds officers accountable,” he said in a video conference call with reporters. “I think an independent monitor can help us with that.”
Wilson acknowledged the “extreme anger and sadness” McClain’s family and friends endured and said she consented to the hiring of an independent monitor.
“The bottom line is that Elijah McClain should still be here today,” she said.
“I know that trust is broken and I know we still have a long way to go.”
On Monday, Sheneen McClain wept while reading the independent investigative report that Colorado police officers involved in her son’s death had no legal basis to stop, search, or restrain him.
“It was overwhelming to know that my son was innocent all along, just waiting for the facts and evidence to back it up,” Sheneen McClain told CNN. “My son’s name is now clear. He is no longer referred to as a suspect. He is, in fact, a victim.”
Sheneen McClain tearfully admitted that she kept looking at the body camera of her son’s death because she never had to say goodbye.
“I’ve looked at everything that happened to him because it’s my responsibility,” she said. “Even in death he is still my son. His name, his inheritance. All that matters.”
McClain’s mother’s lawyers released a statement Monday praising the investigation report and criticizing the police agency’s “bogus investigation.”
“Aurora is responsible for Elijah’s tragic death as a result of the illegal and irresponsible actions of its employees,” the lawyers said.
“Elijah believed in humanity and that humanity was important,” Sheneen McClain said in the statement. “Inhuman people are a problem and we have to stop unjust laws.”
“This report confirms what we said from the start,” McClain’s father, LaWayne Mosley, said in a statement. “The Aurora Police and the paramedics who murdered my son must be held accountable.”
Aurora City Council paid for the independent review of McClain’s case. The investigation was conducted by a panel comprised of Jonathan Smith, the executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Roberto Villaseñor, former Tucson, Arizona Police Chief; and Dr. Melissa Costello, an emergency medical practitioner and medical director for EMS based in Mobile, Alabama.
The panel relied on the 911 call, body camera recordings, reports and narratives, and medical records. The panel also drew on seven filmed interviews with officers and first responders conducted by an Aurora Police Major Crime / Homicide Unit detective. These seven witnesses declined to be interviewed by the jury.
McClain’s days of death following his interactions with the police prompted a re-examination of the use of carotid handles and the sedative ketamine during law enforcement freezes. His case gained renewed attention during the protests against Black Lives Matter that summer following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
A phone call about someone in a ski mask
McClain, a massage therapist, musician, and animal lover, was walking home from a supermarket with an iced tea when confronted by three Aurora police officers who responded to a call about a person in a ski mask.
The caller described the person as “sketchy” but added that he “could be a good person or a bad person”. A police press release said McClain “resisted” contact with officials before a fight broke out.
The investigation report released on Monday found that an officer must have “reasonable” suspicions of criminal activity in order to conduct a stop. However, the decision to stop McClain did not appear to be supported by an official’s reasonable suspicion that McClain was involved in criminal activity.
Next, the three officers decided to search McClain for weapons, which is only allowed by law if there is a belief that security is at risk, the report said. The panel could not find sufficient evidence that he was armed and dangerous to warrant a search.
“The panel also notes that an official’s statement that Aurora officials are trained to take action before they escalate does not meet the constitutional requirements of reasoned suspicion,” the report said.
The officers continued to hold his arms and tried to physically get him onto the grass, which can only be legal if there is a probable cause for a crime, the report said.
In the officers’ body camera, McClain tells the officers, “I’m an introvert, please respect the boundaries I speak.”
“Relax,” said one officer at one point, “or I have to change this situation.”
Before an officer wrestles him to the ground, McClain can be heard telling the officers that he tried to stop his music so he could listen to them.
At some point an officer says to another, “He just grabbed your gun, dude.” One officer tells McClain that if McClain continues to “play around” he will “take my dog out and bite you”. The video shows an officer who wrestles McClain to the ground.
While on the ground, an officer attempted to give McClain a carotid grip, which restricts blood flow to the brain for an indefinite period, the report said. The cargo space is not clearly recorded in the footage.
“The recording therefore provides no evidence of the officers’ perception of a threat that would justify the carotid stop (the officer) which resulted in Mr McClain being partially or completely unconscious,” the panel writes.
The report also notes the sharp contrast between the officials’ comments on McClain’s strength and the audio and video of the incident.
“The statements of the officials on the ground and in the subsequent recorded interviews indicate a violent and relentless struggle,” said the report. “The limited video and audio from the body-worn cameras show that Mr. McClain is surrounded by officers who are all taller than him. They scream in pain, apologize, explain themselves, and plead with the officers.”
Paramedics with the Aurora Fire Rescue arrived at the scene but did not immediately provide assistance or investigate McClain, the report said. Instead, paramedics found McClain’s behavior compatible with “excited delirium” and decided to give him ketamine to calm him down.
The lieutenant on the Aurora Fire advised paramedics to take a dose of ketamine based on an estimate that McClain weighed about 190 pounds, the report said. In fact, he weighed 140 pounds.
McClain was rushed to hospital but suffered a heart attack along the way and was pronounced brain dead three days later, the report said.
The report criticized the police investigation against the people on the spot. No basic critical questions justifying the use of force were asked in the investigators’ interviews, and the incident was never referred to law enforcement officers.
“The Aurora Police Department’s investigation into the death of Mr. McClain into the Serious Crime / Murder Division has raised serious concerns for the panel and exposed significant weaknesses in the division’s accountability systems,” the report said.
The coroner’s autopsy did not determine the cause of death, but found that “intense physical exertion and a narrow left coronary artery” contributed.
The autopsy report recorded McClain’s history of asthma and the carotid arrest, although the autopsy did not determine whether it contributed to McClain’s death. The concentration of ketamine in his system was at “therapeutic levels,” the report said.
McClain’s family attorney, Mari Newman, has described the autopsy as “very strange.” She said it “ignores the most obvious factor, which is that a perfectly healthy young man goes home from the drugstore with a bottle of iced tea in a bag and ends up dead.”
In November 2019, the prosecutor declined to bring charges against the officers involved, citing the autopsy. “I can’t bring a case to the jury where I don’t know what the cause of death in a murder case is,” Young told CNN’s Chris Cuomo in June 2020. However, the protests against Black Lives Matter drew attention to the case again, and Gov. Jared Polis appointed Attorney General Phil Weiser to serve as a special attorney. Weiser opened a grand jury investigation into McClain’s death last month. Three Aurora police officers were fired and one resigned in July after leaked photos of police officers taking smiling selfies and reenacting the carotid grip at a memorial dedicated to McClain. The death also brought a closer look at the sedative ketamine, which is increasingly used for law enforcement purposes in people with “excited delirium”. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is reviewing its program of allowing ketamine to be administered outside of hospital settings.
The city has put in place a 30-day moratorium on ketamine use.
CNN’s Omar Jimenez, Amir Vera and Eric Levenson contributed to this report.