Class action lawsuit alleges excessive force by Aurora cops at Elijah McClain vigil

AURORA | Attorneys representing a cadre of local leaders filed a class action lawsuit against the city of Aurora and dozens of law enforcement officials Thursday morning, claiming Aurora police and area sheriff’s deputies violated residents’ constitutional rights at a chaotic protest and violin vigil held for Elijah McClain in front of city hall last month.

In the 53-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court July 23, attorneys Mari Newman and Andy McNulty allege officers violated protesters’ rights to free speech under the Colorado Constitution and used excessive force when they deployed pepper spray, smoke canisters and foam rounds on the group shortly after 8 p.m. on June 27.

“Against the backdrop of the violinists’ beautiful and haunting soundtrack, these officers under APD direction bullied and indiscriminately deployed chemical agents on the men, women, and children who had gathered to peacefully remember Elijah,” the attorneys wrote in the complaint. “Some even wielded batons and shot projectiles. Defendants’ actions sent young children running in terror. They caused asthmatics to grasp for their inhalers (while simultaneously gasping for breath). They drove faith leaders and families to leave. They terrorized an already reeling and grieving community.”

The scene came at the end of a nearly all-day protest held for McClain, the 23-year-old Black man who died days after trio of Aurora officers stopped him on his way home from a north Aurora convenience store last summer. The officers wrestled McClain, who was unarmed and never suspected of a crime, to the ground and placed him in a now-banned carotid hold, which caused him to briefly faint. Paramedics later injected him with 500 milligrams of ketamine and McClain went into cardiac arrested shortly after. He died in a local hospital on Aug. 30, 2019.

Newman, who filed the lawsuit in federal court Thursday, also represents McClain’s family.

Aurora police were the subject of increased scrutiny in the days after the protest, which prompted Aurora officials to hold an impromptu council meeting July 2 to hear Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson’s explanation of what occurred.

Wilson, who is also named as a defendant in the suit, said officers proceeded onto the lawn to move a few dozen “agitators” who police said became increasingly aggressive and donned helmets and shields as night fell. Undercover officers dispersed among the demonstrators told Wilson: “They are talking about storming the building,” she told council members.

Two days after the protest, police released a compilation of officers’ body camera footage from the event, which showed protestors upending a temporary barricade placed in front of the police station and officers complaining of being struck by rocks and bottles.

“A rock, solely, should not be something we should respond to with force, but when people are taking officers’ batons, trying to disarm them … and throwing things, that was very concerning to me,” Wilson said.

Wilson, who is currently applying to serve as the city’s full-time chief of police, said she should have communicated with numerous peaceful protestors who became ensnared in police actions, as officers swept the crowd from the lawn into the parking lot as night fell and violin music blared.

“This didn’t have to happen, and I understand your frustration,” she said at the beginning of the special meeting. “I take full responsibility for Saturday.”

Newman and McNulty excoriated Wilson’s response in their filing.

“In direct contradiction of video evidence, Aurora proceeded with its standard cover-up,” the attorneys from the Denver firm Killmer, Lane and Newman wrote. “Defendant Interim Chief of Police Wilson presented a sterile PowerPoint aimed at justifying the unconstitutional, and disgusting, actions of Aurora’s officers and the other officers under her command. This presentation, however, only reinforced how grossly abusive Aurora’s actions were at the vigil.”

A gaggle of other law enforcement agencies that assisted Aurora police at the lengthy protest are also named in the suit. There were 16 deputies from the Adams County Sheriff’s Office, 25 deputies from the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office and 31 deputies from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office helping Aurora officers at the event, according to representatives from all three agencies. All of those officials are named as John Does in the suit.

The only Aurora officer named in the suit other than Wilson is a person identified as “Rodriguez,” who a woman named Alissia Acker accused of using a baton to strike and bruise her hip. The strike caused “a softball-sized bruise,” according to the complaint.

A trio of prominent activists are also listed as defendants: Lindsay Minter, Thomas Mayes and Kristin Mallory. Both Mayes and Minter sit on the city’s new community police task force, and Mallory serves as the chairwoman of the Arapahoe County Democratic Party.

Mayes, who is the pastor of Aurora’s Living Water Christian Center, said he wasn’t personally pepper-sprayed or otherwise hurt by police officers while he attended the violin vigil, but he was angry with the law enforcement response to what he characterized as a peaceful gathering.

“You are shooting pepper spray, and smoke, and you have children there,” Mayes said of the police actions. “That collateral damage, to me, was unforgivable.”

He said he was “even more” willing to sign on to the class-action lawsuit because city leaders had not only ignored his ability to be a citizen liaison during the unrest but violently attempted to suppress the gathering.

In the suit, the defendants call for compensatory damages “for emotional distress, humiliation, loss of enjoyment of life and other pain and suffering,” according to the complaint. The attorneys also call for injunctive relief that would bar Aurora police from using pepper spray and projectiles against protesters. Last month, a federal judge in Denver issued a temporary restraining order effectively imposing those very restraints on Denver police.

In a statement, Aurora City Attorney Dan Brotzman said his office has yet to review the complaint.

“We haven’t been served yet,” Brotzman said through a city spokesperson. “As soon as we obtain a copy of the complaint from the court, we will begin analyzing it. Since we haven’t seen it, only accounts from the media, we will need time to evaluate the claims.”