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Police had no legal reason to place Elijah McClain in chokehold, probe of death finds

Two people hold posters showing images depicting Elijah McClain during a candlelight vigil outside the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles on Aug. 24, 2020. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

From the initial police stop to the subsequent police investigation, Elijah McClain’s fatal encounter with Aurora, Colo., officers in August 2019 was marked by failure.

Officers had no legally justified reason to stop, frisk or use multiple chokeholds on McClain, according to a 157-page report released Monday by city officials. The report on Aurora’s investigation into McClain’s death extensively details a raft of errors by not only the officers who stopped McClain, but also by the paramedics who went to the scene and the police investigators who helped to cover for the responding officers.

Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson, who was appointed after McClain’s death, offered her blunt assessment in a news conference Tuesday.

“The bottom line is, Elijah McClain should still be here today,” Wilson said.

The publication of the report is an important moment in a case that initially received little notice beyond Colorado. Months later, it emerged into the national spotlight when the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May sparked a nationwide reckoning over racism and police brutality and triggered fresh scrutiny of what went wrong on the night of Aug. 24, 2019.

An unwarranted stop and an effort to exonerate

In the roughly 18 minutes between the time officers stopped McClain and paramedics placed his slack body onto a gurney headed for the hospital “some level of force or the threat of force was used nearly constantly against him,” the report concluded.

In response to a 911 call about a “sketchy” individual, police stopped McClain, a Black man, as he was walking home. McClain was wearing headphones and a ski mask over his face because of a chronic health condition and did not stop when police called to him.

Investigators determined that officers had no legal justification for stopping McClain on the basis of the 911 call, nor did they have a constitutional basis for searching him, forcing him to the ground and eventually restraining him with multiple carotid holds, a maneuver that restricts blood flow to the brain.

Elijah McClain’s death reflects failures of White, suburban police departments

Officers sat and knelt on McClain and placed him in various restraint holds; at one point an officer even threatened to have his dog bite McClain even as the 23-year-old became more compliant and started to lose consciousness.

“[McClain’s] words were apologetic and confused, not angry or threatening,” the report states.

“Alright! I can’t breathe, please stop!” McClain said, according to body camera footage.

Investigators also faulted Aurora Fire Department paramedics for not evaluating McClain when they arrived. Paramedics accepted without question the police assessment that McClain’s condition was a syndrome known as “excited delirium.” The controversial diagnosis is one recognized by Aurora first responders, though a growing number of experts are disputing its scientific legitimacy, with critics calling it junk science invoked to justify excessive use of force.

McClain had not moved or made a noise in over a minute when paramedics injected him with the powerful sedative ketamine, the report states. First responders also overestimated McClain’s weight by 40 to 80 pounds and administered too large a dose.

The city’s probe found the officers were shielded from accountability when the investigation was handled by the Aurora Police Department’s Major Crimes Unit rather than Internal Affairs. The MCU report “stretched the record to exonerate the officers rather than present a neutral version of the facts.”

MCU investigators did not press the officers on key questions or justifications about their actions and at times pitched their questions in a way that would elicit “specific, exonerating ‘magic language’ from the case law,” the report found.

A ‘cascade’ of unlawful actions

Monday’s report “details a cascade of unlawful actions committed by Aurora police officers,” the McClain family’s attorney, Qusair Mohamedbhai, said in a statement.

To McClain’s relatives, the report validates the concerns raised by civil rights advocates about how police and paramedics behaved. Sheneen McClain, Elijah’s mother, said the report affirms her son was not a suspect but an innocent victim.

McClain, who would have turned 25 on Thursday, worked as a massage therapist and was described by family as gentle and an “oddball.” The Colorado Sentinel reported McClain would sometimes spend his lunch break playing his violin to cats and dogs at the local animal shelter to soothe their anxiety.

“Elijah believed in humanity and that humanity mattered,” Sheneen McClain said in a statement through family lawyers. “Inhumane humans are a problem and we must stop unjust laws.”

Firing upheld for officers who mocked Elijah McClain’s chokehold death

But Sheneen McClain wants more than affirmation: She is calling for the police and the paramedics to be fired and prosecuted. The family is also pursuing a lawsuit against the city. While they praised the report’s findings, Mohamedbhai said it is based on evidence the city has had in its possession “all along.”

“Yet, at every stage, Aurora has defended its officials for their blatantly unlawful actions and refused to discipline anyone involved in Elijah’s death,” Mohamedbhai said.

Between 2003 and 2018, the city settled at least 11 police brutality cases for a total of $4.6 million.

Two of the officers and all of the paramedics involved in the incident remain on the job. One of the officers was later fired, not because of the McClain stop but because he and several colleagues posed for a photo mocking McClain’s death. The officers had posed in front of a memorial to McClain.

Prosecutors declined to bring criminal charges related to McClain’s death in 2019, a decision that concerned the authors of Monday’s report and was attributed to faulty investigational work within the department and a lack of rigor by the district attorney’s office.

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