One year later, we know Elijah McClain was murdered by police, and that’s changed everything.
I have repeatedly watched the gruesome Aurora police body cam video of the fateful night on Aug. 24, 2019 when police and firefighters accosted McClain in a way that caused him to have a heart attack, which killed him. I have read and re-read all that police and lawyers have released, shedding light on the case that has turned the city upside down.
Would a jury consider and probably return some kind of criminal verdicts against the police and firefighters who killed McClain? At the hands of even a marginally adept prosecutor, without a doubt.
And did that deadly encounter, not unlike others bungled by Aurora Police, change everything? Totally. Whether changes evolving in the police department will prevent another death like McClain’s, it’s far too soon to tell.
Almost everyone appreciated the fact that a John Q Citizen took the trouble to call police and report something weird and potentially nefarious on a hot night in August last year. It was what happened after when things went wrong.
A motorist called 911 from his car at about 10: 30 Aug. 24, 2019 to say a “sketchy” looking guy was walking in a Colfax neighborhood wearing a full-face mask in the August heat.
That’s weird. I would have called police, too.
So Officer Nathan Woodyard rolls up moments later. He immediately jets from the car toward McClain, who, according to the body cam video, is not behaving in any way sketchy. He’s strolling along, clearly carrying a white, plastic grocery bag with something bottle-like in it. All the cues say, guy walking home from the store.
Woodyard instantly becomes confrontational. When McClain doesn’t freeze and become compliant — and it’s not clear whether he can even hear the cop — Woodyard grabs for him.
He says he has the right to stop and arrest McClain because he’s acting suspiciously.
How that dead-wrong self-assessment got by Adams County District Attorney Dave Young’s office is Quagmire Red Flag No. 1. Police by no means have the right to stop citizens because they are acting suspiciously. On the contrary, the Constitution expressly prohibits the government, through police, from stopping anyone without provable cause. Subsequent Supreme Court rulings have clearly spelled out what provable cause actually is. It means that if someone calls police to say someone is breaking into cars in front of their house, and cops roll up, and you have a hanger in your hand and a bag full of booty, there is probable cause for alarm, and a stop.
Should McClain have cordially stopped to engage the cop in a conversation just to assure him all was well?
If he was white, it would have been prudent. In seconds, McClain could have explained he likes or needs to wear masks despite the heat, and that he’d just run to the store for some iced tea.
Woodyard could have scolded him about wearing face masks in August, long before any of us dreamed a state law would require us to do just that. The cops could have explained that it makes the neighbors nervous. And there you go.
Would that have been the end of it had McClain done it that way? A video recorded history of the Aurora Police Department shows that’s not the case. And even after the McClain murder blew up the entire universe that the Aurora Police department lives in, just recently, Aurora blew itself up again by handcuffing black girls wrongfully arrested and forced to lie face down on a hot parking lot.
Whether you believe it or not, Black people don’t get treated like whites by some Aurora police. McClain didn’t. You only have to imagine that McClain was an elderly white man or a young white woman to understand that Woodyard wouldn’t have treated the “suspect” the same way.
But even being Black — warranting a different kind of scrutiny than a “sketchy” white person in a ski mask — seconds into the encounter, it became clear McClain was not the cliche that stokes white fears and draw police threats.
McClain was oddly tentative and self-absorbed. He neither acted nor spoke furtively. You don’t have to be a police officer or a psychologist to see there was sick trepidation on the part of McClain.
Even if Woodyard hadn’t trusted and acted on those clear signals right off the bat, seconds into the encounter it became clear that something was different about McClain. His odd phrasing and quick banter about pacifism didn’t match the meme Woodyard reached for.
It was then Woodyard and back-up officers Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema had choices, and they made the wrong ones. An attack by police and unproven threats about McClain reaching for an officer’s gun escalated a situation that would only go in one direction. A dog pile of hundreds of pounds of beefy cops was followed by choking the consciousness out of McClain. And then a paramedic, in the middle of chaos and without any means or interest in assessing the medical condition of a young man just mashed and choked by police, injects him with more ketamine than good practice called for.
How is that not murder? McClain was killed because he was Black, confronted for tapping into a systemic, racist trope that permeated Woodyard, fellow officers and much of white America. He was murdered because Woodyard ignored the clear signals that the racist meme wasn’t matching reality. He couldn’t even fathom who McClain really was. He never understood that a white “suspect” would have ceased to remain one just seconds after the encounter.
Of course McClain was murdered. And everyone who had a part of the crime must be tried and held accountable. The police and prosecutor’s side of the story is merely an argument applicable during sentencing.
Of course all of this is speculation based on evidence handled by police and prosecutors with the same care and objectives they handled McClain with. Because there is no truly independent oversight of police and the DA, they are the judge and jury in these cases.
Not this time, though. McClain’s cruel murder, in the light of the George Floyd murder, has changed everything. Never, ever before in Aurora, and all of Colorado, has there been so much momentum toward understanding police brutality, racism and malfeasance. There will likely never be a similar opportunity for meaningful change in any of our lifetimes.
Elected leaders are now open to understanding and reform. Aurora’s new police chief is on the side of raw honesty and change. Only because McClain was tragically murdered one year ago, the opportunity to prevent another murder like his is real — but fleeting.
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