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Opinion The death of Elijah McClain was a scandal of incuriosity

Two people hold posters showing images depicting Elijah McClain during a candlelight vigil for McClain outside the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles.
Two people hold posters showing images depicting Elijah McClain during a candlelight vigil for McClain outside the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles. (Jae C. Hong/AP)
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Reading the 157-page report of the independent investigation into the untimely death of Elijah McClain is a step toward understanding — but only a step. The biggest questions about that August night in 2019 remain stubbornly unclear.

Question 1: An unarmed Black pedestrian, suspected of no crime, was unconscious and on his way to the grave within minutes of being stopped by an Aurora, Colo., police officer — why? And Question 2: Why were police officials so uninterested in the answer to Question 1?

The disturbing story of McClain’s death was nearly swept under the rug. But during last summer’s protests following the death of George Floyd, Aurora citizens tugged it into the light. Under pressure, the city council commissioned an independent panel of three experts to perform the investigation that should have been done months earlier. Despite only spotty cooperation from the police — the officers involved refused to be interviewed — the panel produced a factual and fair-minded look at the tragedy.

Around 10:32 p.m. on Aug. 24, 2019, a caller to 911 reported a man wearing a ski mask, walking on the street and gesturing with his arms in a manner that seemed “sketchy.” The caller said he was unsure whether the individual was “a good person or a bad person,” but informed the dispatcher that the man did not appear to be armed or threatening.

Officer Nathan Woodyard was on the scene at 10:42 p.m. He reported finding the situation pretty much as described. McClain, 23 and slightly built, was walking — toward home, as it turned out — while listening to music through earbuds with his phone in one hand and a plastic bag from a nearby convenience store in the other.

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Woodyard got out of his cruiser and called on McClain to stop. It’s unclear what the young man heard or understood through the music. Yet, as the investigators put it: “Within ten seconds of exiting his patrol car, Officer Woodyard placed his hands on Mr. McClain. Mr. McClain had no observable weapon and had not displayed violent or threatening behavior. No crime had been reported.”

By now, two other officers were on the scene. Two grabbed McClain’s arms while the third attempted a pat-down. McClain protested that he was only walking home, but the officers reprimanded him for “tensing up” in their grasp. They maneuvered him onto a patch of grass to force him to the ground. In the confusion, an officer called out, “He grabbed your gun, dude!”

In a flash, McClain was pinned beneath three officers, all with their guns safely holstered. Three body cameras were all knocked loose in the fracas, so the investigators were unable to confirm the officers’ reports that McClain struggled violently even after he was in handcuffs. Audio from the devices caught something else: the sound of McClain sobbing, gasping apologies, pleading for mercy and vomiting as the officers applied various pressure holds and briefly pinched off his carotid artery.

An emergency medical team arrived from the fire department, sat by for several minutes, then prepared a dose of the sedative ketamine. Without an examination and misjudging McClain’s weight by nearly half, a technician injected enough of the drug to sedate a 200-pound man. The 140-pound McClain suffered cardiac arrest and died several days later.

Woodyard agreed that McClain was not suspected of any crime, but the officer justified the rapid escalation of force by saying that he was walking in a “high crime” neighborhood. The panel disagreed, citing the police department’s own data. I’ve known the neighborhood my whole life; when I was born, my family lived a stone’s throw from the spot of the confrontation, and we stayed in the vicinity for decades. Thanks to a massive new hospital complex nearby, the area is on a positive trajectory for the first time in 50 years.

But the working-class residents are now people of color, and the panel strongly suggests that the police that night confused color with crime. It’s not a new allegation in Aurora, where the police force does not reflect the changing demographics of the city and where taxpayers have paid out millions to settle allegations of racially charged police brutality.

I had classmates who devoted their careers to policing the streets of Aurora, and now sons and daughters of my generation are out there doing the same. I’m sure they’re bothered to see a law-abiding young man end up dead at the hands of police.

Yet, the internal investigation of McClain’s death was a scandal of incuriosity. The values of good cops find scant oxygen when a department circles the wagons. Detectives assigned to the case have seemed more interested in protecting the officers than in finding the truth.

“Back the Blue” must be a two-way street. Police departments, and police unions, will get more respect when they earn more respect. That means zero tolerance for excessive violence.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.

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Read a letter in response to this piece: The inexplicable death of Elijah McClain

Jackie Spinner: Elijah McClain’s last words haunt me. Could that happen to my son?

The Post’s View: Elijah McClain’s death is an unspeakable outrage 

John Rappaport and Ben Grunwald: It will take more than the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act to fix our broken system

‘Nine minutes is an eternity’: Readers reflect on George Floyd, protests and police reform

Radley Balko: There’s overwhelming evidence that the criminal-justice system is racist. Here’s the proof.