Aurora lawmakers demand new Elijah McClain death query; chief mandates new police procedures

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AURORA | A panel of Aurora city lawmakers on Tuesday sent a letter to City Manager Jim Twombly formally asking the city to conduct a new, third-party investigation into the death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old black man who died days after a violent encounter with Aurora police last summer.

City and police officials also announced yesterday a bevy of immediate policy changes, including ending the use of specific choke-like holds and requiring cops to act on and report the use of excessive force by peers.

The three members of the city’s public safety policy committee sent Twombly an emailed letter asking for a “neutral, third-party” look at the events that precipitated and followed McClain’s encounter with a trio of police officers in the 1900 block of Billings St. on Aug. 24, 2019.

“We have watched the events over the last several days and it has become clear that public trust has been eroded,” council members Allison Hiltz, Curtis Gardner and Angela Lawson wrote. “We know that the status quo is no longer acceptable in our criminal justice system. Our community has experienced pain and as leaders it is our responsibility to take the first step in restoring public trust.”

Twombly reportedly responded to the letter, saying that the city has already initiated an independent review of McClain’s death. Explaining those comments during a virtual press conference Tuesday afternoon, he said city officials have retained Eric Daigle, a former Connecticut state police officer and attorney who now consults with municipal governments and police departments on use of force and related policies, in January. Daigle’s review was delayed by the coronavirus, but a draft is expected to be presented to a police department panel in July, according to Twombly.

But the council members who sent Twombly the letter Thursday said they want more. Gardner said Daigle’s decades-long marriage to law enforcement inherently disqualifies him from serving as a truly independent voice.

“I don’t consider Eric Daigle to be independent and neutral due to his long career in law enforcement,” Gardner said. “We need a truly independent review. I don’t feel comfortable going back to the public and asking for trust when we had a former police officer conduct this review.”

Whether Twombly will heed the council request for yet another investigation remains unclear, though the issue could be discussed at an upcoming policy committee meeting June 19.

Council members warned that any potential investigation into the McClain case may take several months to complete.

“We’d like to caution the public before drawing conclusions regarding any desired outcome of an independent investigation – while no outcome is guaranteed, a review is intended to lend greater transparency and accountability to the events that occurred,” the council members wrote. “In addition, we are committed to using the findings to inform policy changes in Aurora that may help prevent a repeat in the future.”

Renewed calls to further examine McClain’s death have proliferated since George Floyd was killed at the hands of Minneapolis Police on May 25. McClain’s name was a constant refrain at multiple protests across the metroplex last week, and a Change.org petition calling for further investigation into his death had garnered more than 810,000 signatures as of about 1 p.m. on June 9. Yesterday, a noted local muralist completed a large portrait of McClain on the facade of a brewery in north Denver.

Officers detained McClain after receiving a report that a man wearing a ski mask in the area was waving his arms and looked “sketchy,” according to the 911 transcript.

McClain did not heed initial police commands to stop walking, and the interaction rapidly escalated. Two different officers attempted to place McClain in a carotid control hold, cutting off blood flow on the side of his neck until he briefly fainted.

McClain was unarmed when police stopped him — though officers later said he at one point attempted to grab one of their holstered guns — and he was never suspected of a specific crime.

McClain struggled with officers for nearly 15 minutes — repeatedly sobbing and vomiting — before he was sedated with 500 milligrams of ketamine and loaded into an ambulance. He survived two heart attacks en route to a nearby hospital, but he was pronounced brain dead three days later and died Aug. 30.

A pathologist with the Adams County Coroner’s Office was unable to officially determine the exact cause of McClain’s death.

The district attorney tasked with evaluating the case declined to pursue charges against any of the officers involved. An internal police panel designed to evaluate local use of force incidents in January found that officers acted properly.

Young told Colorado Politics that he does not plan to re-open his investigation into how officers interacted with McClain last August.

Aurora Fire personnel also found that the paramedics who administered McClain ketamine provided appropriate treatment.

On top of calling for a new investigation into McClain’s death, council members vowed to also review the police department’s use of force policies, standing ban on chokeholds, deescalation trainings and several other local policies.

During the press conference Tuesday, Interim Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson addressed several of those policies while unveiling a quintet of new department policy directives. At the behest of Twombly, Aurora cops will no longer be authorized to use the specialized carotid hold that was used on McClain, which involves pressing the side of a person’s neck to prevent blood flow to the brain, causing them to faint. Police insist it does not restrict airflow, but induces the subject to briefly pass out.

Wilson also released a new stipulation that requires officers who engage in hand-to-hand altercations with residents to step away from the scene as soon as backup arrives. The new policy is designed to de-escalate tense interactions.

Cops will also now be required to verbally announce their presence and intention to use deadly force before pulling their triggers.

And mirroring similar moves made across the country since Floyd’s death, Wilson instituted a formal “duty-to-intervene” policy that requires officers to step in if they witness their peers using force that is “beyond objectively reasonable,” according to department documents. Officers failing to intervene would be subject to discipline.

The final directive introduced Tuesday urges city dispatchers to curb bias among callers who report a “suspicious person.” The officers who first responded to McClain were sent on a report of a suspicious person in the area.

“Someone should never be considered suspicious because of the color of their skin,” Wilson said on a call with reporters.