Three police officers in this large Denver suburb tackled the unarmed McClain, who they later said looked “suspicious,” and choked him unconscious. Paramedics then shot him up with a sedative, a dose later found to be too much for his 143 pounds.
Struggling for air through his own vomit, the 23-year-old called out, “I can’t breathe,” as he lost consciousness.
McClain never woke up. He died in the hospital nine months before George Floyd uttered the same dying refrain in Minneapolis when a police officer held a knee to his neck on the street.
Being Black in Aurora has proved dangerous. The same is true across many of the nation’s suburbs where predominantly White, male police departments, once a fair facsimile of their communities, have failed to change as rapidly as the places they are charged with protecting.
President Trump’s campaign appeals to suburban women with dramatic characterizations of urban crime have fed into a racist legacy of White flight from large cities, which filled these communities over the past half century and yielded sometimes-fatal consequences for residents of color.
In recent years, Black men have been killed by suburban police officers in Ferguson, Mo., in Falcon Heights, Minn., and in Vallejo, Calif., where police officers are being investigated for allegedly bending a prong on their star badges to proudly signify that they have killed someone on duty. There are more and, police watchdog groups, data analysts and law enforcement experts say, the number of cases is growing: In the Denver suburbs alone, the number of police shootings has tripled since 2015.
Last month, police officers in Kenosha, Wis. — about 30 miles from Milwaukee — shot an unarmed Black man at least seven times in the back after they were called to a dispute at an apartment complex. Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old security guard, has been in a Milwaukee hospital since then, recovering with a severed spine and shattered vertebrae. His three young sons were in the car’s back seat when he was shot.
Police reform and accountability have been hard to develop in suburban areas. The Colorado legislature passed a law in June that seeks to hold police officers personally liable for civil rights violations, a financial punishment meant to discourage reckless action. The following month, the city council of Greenwood Village, another Denver suburb, voted to indemnify any officer on the hook for such a penalty. The state attorney general criticized the vote as undermining the spirit of the law.
Here in Aurora, a tradition of impunity for police officers, a cumbersome hiring process and a changing population have resulted in deep public mistrust of the police force and numerous legal complaints against the department in recent years. A White majority endures in this city of 386,000 people, but it has shrunk from 70 percent of the population to 61 percent since 2000. Every other racial category has grown.
The city paid out $6.5 million in officer-involved lawsuits between 2010 and 2017, nearly as much as Denver, which has twice the number of sworn officers. One Denver law firm alone has five active civil rights cases against the Aurora Police Department, including one filed last month concerning the killing of Elijah McClain.
“We don’t have the trust of the community, and we lost the trust because of the actions of the police department,” said City Council member Allison Hiltz, chairman of the council’s public safety committee. “Racist policing is not unique to Aurora, but unfortunately, here we have a largely White police department in one of the most diverse cities in the country.”
A chokehold and ketamine
Aurora grew from the post-World War II building boom, a city where building and business were the primary civic ambitions for decades. Two Air Force bases bordered the emerging city, and many veterans were among Aurora’s early residents.
The city is low and wide with no single landmark rising above the many pines. It is still largely a commuter town, although it has its own thriving aerospace and health-care employment base with the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus towering along Colfax Avenue.
In July 2012, the city made a notorious appearance nationally when James Holmes, a 24-year-old White man, opened fire in a movie theater screening “The Dark Knight Rises.” He killed 12 people, including a 6-year-old girl, and wounded more than 50 others.
Aurora police officers managed to capture the heavily armed Holmes alive. To this day, the city’s Black residents wonder how that was managed given the fatal violence that has been used against unarmed men of their race. Holmes is serving a life sentence.
Nothing, though, has interrupted the city’s growth and change, a process that has accelerated in recent decades. Suburban diversification is taking place nationally, but City Manager Jim Twombly said that here it “has been on steroids.”
Since the turn of the century, Aurora’s population has grown by 40 percent, making it Colorado’s third biggest municipality. The influx has comprised many immigrants. One in five Aurora residents was born abroad. El Salvador has opened a consulate here. City officials say more than 100 languages are spoken among residents.
Over that time, the Black community has increased as a proportion of the population, now accounting for 16 percent of city residents.
The police department, which has more than 700 sworn officers, has remained largely static in its racial composition over that time.
According to the 106-page McClain lawsuit against the city, the Aurora Police Department ranked eighth among the nation’s 100 largest cities for most police killings per capita. The department killed Black people at four times the rate of Whites.
In a statement, Mayor Mike Coffman, a former Republican congressman who narrowly defeated a Black candidate for the city office last year, said, “I do not believe that these few incidents, as egregious as they may be, define the nature of our city, which has always been welcoming, diverse and cooperative.”
“We will be tireless in our pursuit of a community-oriented police department that has the full support of our residents and reflects the city’s people, values and culture,” he said.
The racial disparity in the department’s use of force echoes in other American suburbs. It has led to what Chris Burbank, the former Salt Lake City police chief, calls a “crisis of legitimacy” facing law enforcement agencies.
The “defund the police” movement, which gained new energy after Floyd’s videotaped killing in May, is an expression of that sentiment.
“What we are seeing now is a complete change in what the public expects of its police force,” said Burbank, now the vice president for law enforcement strategy at the Center for Policing Equity, a think tank. “What we have not taken into account is the fact there is no connection between arrests and crime rates, between search and seizure operations and crime rates. But there is connection between those methods and the racial disparity we see so clearly now.”
The McClain killing, which was marked late last month on the first anniversary of his death with a thousands-strong rally at the Capitol, represents the most egregious case of violence that residents and some elected officials say is too-often employed by Aurora police.
After two internal inquiries into the officers’ use of force, none were disciplined, even though several of them shut off, tampered with or altered the positions of their body cameras as they engaged a terrified McClain, according to the lawsuit against the city.
McClain made the walk frequently from Shadow Tree apartments, where he lived, to the Shell station and back. He loved Arizona Iced Tea, unopened cans of which now decorate the shrine across the street from where he died. There are lights spelling his name, artificial roses and “rest in peace” messages.
His mother, Sheneen McClain, moved the family from Denver years ago to protect her children from gang violence. Elijah was a vegetarian and violinist, a self-described introvert, who worked at a nearby Massage Envy as a masseuse. He championed animal rights in his social media accounts.
“Those are not characteristics people think of when they imagine a Black person,” said Candace Bailey, a civil rights advocate in Aurora who has helped organize many of the demonstrations around McClain’s death, including rallies last month here and in Denver. “We’re wild animals, inhuman, that’s how we’re portrayed here.”
Bailey, who grew up in Aurora, said Black residents here have an old saying: “Come to Aurora on vacation, leave on probation and potential incarceration.”
The call that brought police to Billings Street and Evergreen Avenue that August night was made because, on a 67-degree evening, McClain had his hood up. Three officers grabbed McClain just steps from his front door, threw him to the ground and began using a now-banned “carotid hold.”
“I was just going home. I’m an introvert, and I’m different,” McClain said, sobbing, according to tape of the episode, captured by one officer whose body camera recorded audio but not video of the incident. “I’m just different. I’m just different, that’s all. That’s all I was doing. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why were you attacking me?”
Paramedics arrived and administered a 500 milligram dose of ketamine, a powerful sedative. Citing Aurora Fire and Rescue Department protocol, the correct dose for someone McClain’s weight should have been 325 milligrams.
Eighteen minutes after police first engaged McClain, the young man was dead.
“Anyone who listens to the audio of Elijah McClain dying ends up crying,” Bailey said. “And if you do not, you are part of the problem.”
The Justice Department has been examining the case since last year, and in early August, the state attorney general, Phil Weiser, announced that his office would open a new review. The city recently hired an outside firm to investigate the incident with an eye toward what it may say about the police department.
“For Aurora, this is an effort to rebuild trust with the community,” Twombly, the city manager, said. “We want to come out of this with peace officers. And part of this is to determine how we have been part of the problem in the past and how we can be a solution in the future.”
'All about intimidation'
The Aurora Police Department’s conduct continues to baffle even some of its chief defenders.
Police used pepper spray, batons and gun-fired bean bags to break up a “violin vigil” in late June commemorating McClain’s life and death. The conduct, carried out in front of city hall and police headquarters, is now the subject of a lawsuit.
Then, in early August, the department made national news again when police officers confronted a Black family out for a pedicure. Brittney Gilliam was taking her sister, her daughter and two nieces — the children ranging in age from 6 to 17 years old — to a nail salon on a blazing summer day.
After seeing that the salon was closed, Gilliam walked the family back to her blue minivan and, soon after pulling out, police stopped her. Guns drawn, officers ordered her and other family members to the ground.
Video of the incident, showing members of the family, including children handcuffed face down on the hot pavement, attracted millions of Internet viewers.
The officers explained the episode as a mistake. The van’s license plate matched that of a stolen out-of-state motorcycle. Adding to the confusion, officers said, was the fact that the van had also been reported stolen earlier this year, although the report had been resolved.
Police Chief Vanessa Wilson, a White department veteran who was officially named to the post in August after serving on an interim basis, apologized and offered the family counseling. Wilson declined to be interviewed for this article.
“What we hear all the time from police is that they do not want our legislation to be too prescriptive regarding how they do their job,” said City Council member Curtis Gardner, vice chairman of the public safety committee. “Then something like this happens and they say we were just following policy. Well, they can’t have it both ways.”
Gardner, a credit union executive, was elected last year after receiving the endorsement of both police unions. He is White, a self-described numbers guy and taxpayers’ advocate who said he is “more reform minded than defund minded” when it comes to the police.
But he is working now on what he described as a police discipline matrix, which matches police misconduct to specific disciplinary measures. He said that, once finished, the document would be made public.
“We need to send a message to the community that we have accountability for police officers and it is not just ad hoc,” Gardner said.
The message is meant for people like Lindsay Minter, a 38-year-old high school track coach who is also a civil rights advocate here. Minter is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the city for the police response in June to the violin vigil, which she described as “like a scene from some crazy movie where all of this horrible stuff is happening to this beautiful music.”
Minter, among others here, is asking for a measure of common sense in how police behave in the city.
She lives not far from Colfax Avenue, the original city center, now a collection of small ethnic restaurants, boarded-up businesses and pawnshops, and once-popular and now faded movie theater marquees.
Giant Dollar, Dollar General and the Dollar Store sit within a block of each other on one stretch of road. The Martin Luther King Jr. Public Library is a centerpiece, a modern building surrounded by many homeless people. A story board outside recalls King’s visits to the state and his call in 1963 to “let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.”
Minter has a cousin named for Elijah McClain. She worries about sending her track team running through neighborhoods here, as she has had to during the coronavirus school shutdown. She is haunted by the death of Ahmaud Arbery in a Georgia suburb earlier this year. The 25-year-old unarmed Black man was fatally shot in February as he jogged through a neighborhood in Brunswick, Ga. Three White men have been indicted on a charge of his murder.
“I love this city,” Minter said. “But it has a police department with no conscience.”
“When I think about what happened a few weeks ago with those children on the ground, I just can’t imagine how that must have felt for the family,” said Hiltz, who lives within minutes of the parking lot where the episode occurred. “And I also realize that the likelihood of that ever happening to my son are slim to none.”
Hiltz, who was elected in November 2017, is focusing now on how the department hires its recruits. The council-appointed Civil Service Commission manages the hiring across departments, giving department heads and elected officials little say in a process designed originally to prevent nepotism and cronyism.
But the department’s failure to adapt its force to the changing demographics has brought more focus on officer recruitment. Hiltz, for example, has begun to study the questionnaires used as part of the process to determine how much bias is built into hiring new officers.
“Why are people getting kicked out of the process here and getting picked up by neighboring forces?” Hiltz said. “And why are our outputs largely White and male? I want to know where and why we are losing people.”
Pastor Thomas Mayes encouraged his first daughter, Genesis, to become an Aurora police officer more than a decade ago. He believed that as a black woman, she would be an asset to a department out of sync demographically even then with its community.
She followed his advice. Eighteen months later she left the force.
“It was all about intimidation, how you had to be mean if you wanted anyone on the street to listen to you,” Mayes said. “She didn’t want to be a part of it.”
Mayes is pastor of the Living Water Christian Center, which shares its sanctuary with several other churches just off Colfax Avenue. He has been active in the civil rights community here for decades.
He is both a plaintiff in the lawsuit concerning the violin vigil incident and a member of the Citizens Police Oversight Committee, which many of its members consider toothless. Mayes said that “it doesn’t matter if you have a seat at the table if you don’t have a voice,” a sentiment echoed by Bailey and Minter, who also serve on the board.
Mayes, 67, uses his voice from the pulpit.
“What the city of Aurora has done year after year is to pay off those the police department has harmed,” he said. “I tell people I know you are struggling economically, but we can’t go around with a price tag around our necks.”
A Vietnam veteran, Mayes is on one side of a generational divide over how to reshape policing, believing that funding cuts are the wrong course to take. Enhanced accountability and a public willing to push consistently for change across the local government, he said, are the direction to take.
“I tell my parishioners that I don’t believe the Lord is pleased with you if you are inactive, until the problem falls on you,” he said. “If we don’t do anything, we cannot stand on His word that all will work together for the good.”