Aurora police officers did not have a legal basis to force Elijah McClain to stop walking, to frisk him, or to use a chokehold on him, an independent investigation commissioned by the city found on February 22, 2021.
The initial investigation into the incident led by the department’s detectives in the Major Crimes Unit was also deeply flawed, the investigators found. The detectives failed to ask basic, critical questions of the officers involved in McClain’s death and instead “the questions frequently appeared designed to elicit specific exonerating ‘magic language’ found in court rulings,” the report states.
The report from the detectives was relied upon by the department’s force review board as well as the 17th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, both of which cleared the officers of wrongdoing.
“In addition, the report of the Major Crime Unit stretched the record to exonerate the officers rather than present a neutral version of the facts,” the investigators wrote.
“It is hard to imagine any other persons involved in a fatal incident being interviewed as these officers were,” the investigators continued.
Aurora city officials on Monday morning released the 157-page report on the death of McClain at the hands of city police and paramedics. The city hired a panel of investigators to examine the officers’ and paramedics’ decision and make policy recommendations “to lessen the chance of another tragedy like this one from happening again,” the report states.
McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, “is relieved that the truth surrounding the death of her son is finally coming to light,” according to a statement issued by her attorneys.
“The Aurora officials who contributed to Elijah’s death must be immediately terminated,” according to the statement from the Rathod Mohamedbhai law firm. “Ms. McClain continues to call for the criminal prosecution of those responsible for Elijah’s death. Elijah committed no crime on the day of his death, but those who are responsible for Elijah’s death certainly did.”
Recommendations from the panel include overhauling the police department’s accountability system and review policy, training and practice regarding arrest standards and use of force.
“The body worn camera audio, limited video, and Major Crime’s interviews with the officers tell two contrasting stories,” the report states. “The officers’ statements on the scene and in subsequent recorded interviews suggest a violent and relentless struggle. The limited video, and the audio from the body worn cameras, reveal Mr. McClain surrounded by officers, all larger than he, crying out in pain, apologizing, explaining himself, and pleading with the officers.”
The investigators also found that Aurora paramedics failed to properly examine McClain before injecting him with 500 milligrams of the sedative ketamine — a dose based on a “grossly inaccurate” estimation of McClain’s weight. Paramedics estimated he weighed 190 pounds but he actually weighed closer to 140 pounds.
“Aurora Fire appears to have accepted the officers’ impression that Mr. McClain had excited delirium without corroborating that impression through meaningful observation or diagnostic examination of Mr. McClain,” the investigators wrote.
The external consultants hired to conduct the investigation delivered their findings to Aurora’s city government on Monday morning — the first findings made public from several ongoing investigations into the incident that are taking place at every level of government.
Aurora government leaders commissioned the investigation on July 20 as McClain’s 2019 death drew international attention. Widespread protests of police brutality against Black people exploded in the summer of 2020 following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and dozens of protests and vigils have been held in McClain’s name.
The investigation included a review of the city’s relevant policies, procedures, and practices, including how police and fire personnel interact with people, their use of force, their use of the sedative ketamine, and how the city reviews incidents. The investigators’ request to interview the officers and paramedics involved was declined, however.
The investigation was led by Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Smith previously led the section of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division that conducted the investigation into the Ferguson, Missouri, police department following the death of Michael Brown. The other members of the team were Roberto Villaseñor, a former police chief and founding partner of policing consulting firm 21CP Solutions, and Dr. Melissa Costello, an emergency medicine physician and EMS medical director based in Mobile, Alabama.
The Aurora City Council is scheduled to discuss the report’s findings at a special meeting at 5 p.m. Monday. The public can watch the meeting at AuroraTV.org or on Comcast Channels 8/880 in Aurora. A city spokesman said city officials will not answer questions from the press until after the City Council meeting. A news conference is scheduled for Tuesday morning.
The results of the city-initiated investigation are the first to be made public out of several ongoing investigations into McClain’s death. The Colorado Attorney General’s Office has asked a grand jury to look at the case and see if any criminal charges are warranted and the U.S. Department of Justice is also investigating whether officers violated McClain’s civil rights.
McClain’s family also has filed a federal lawsuit against Aurora.
Three Aurora police officers detained McClain on Aug. 24, 2019, after receiving a 911 call about a suspicious person. When McClain refused to stop walking, the officers took him to the ground, choked him, and handcuffed him before a paramedic injected McClain with ketamine, a powerful sedative.
McClain suffered cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital, where he was later declared brain dead. He was taken off life support on Aug. 30, 2019. McClain wasn’t suspected of a crime.
The Adams County coroner ruled the cause of McClain’s death to be undetermined and the district attorney for the 17th Judicial District found the three police officers who violently detained him were not criminally liable. A review of the incident by the police department found the three officers did not violate any policies and they were not disciplined. Both the police chief and the district attorney who made those decisions have since left their positions.
One of the officers involved in McClain’s death, Jason Rosenblatt, was later fired by the department’s next chief for replying “haha” to a texted photo showing other Aurora police officers re-enacting one of the chokeholds used on McClain at his memorial site.
The other two officers remained employed by the department, though in jobs that are not public-facing. Officer Randy Roedema is assigned to the forensic services unit and Officer Nathan Woodyard is assigned to the electronic support section, a department spokesman said.
Smith is the second person commissioned by the city to investigate McClain’s death. City Manager Jim Twombly first hired a former police officer turned lawyer to complete the review, but the city canceled the contract after city councilmembers raised concerns that the lawyer’s investigation would be biased by his past law enforcement experience.