AURORA | The City of Aurora’s independent investigation into the death of Elijah McClain will focus on first-responder training, policies, practices and directives, while the state attorney general’s investigation will focus on potential criminal aspects of the case, city staff and lawmakers said during a public discussion Monday.
Mayor Mike Coffman called in June for a special vote of the scope of the independent investigation, but the matter only appeared on the body’s study session agenda, where no formal actions are taken. City staff briefed council members on the status of putting together the investigation.
The city is looking at a committee approach to the investigation, one that would include experts on civil rights, the criminal justice system and medical assistance in police calls, since ketamine was administered to McClain by Aurora Fire Rescue, according to Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly. After calls from the city’s public safety policy committee earlier this year, Twombly axed an agreement with a Connecticut-based attorney and former police officer who was hired to examine the case.
Gov. Jared Polis formally appointed state Attorney General Phil Weiser to special prosecutor in the case June 26. That investigation will operate completely separate from the city’s.
“We have already identified potential investigators, so the hard part is done,” Aurora City Council member Allison Hiltz, chairperson of the city’s public safety policy committee, told the Sentinel. “What’s left is fine-tuning the details. There’s no reason to believe we can’t do both.”
Investigators are expected to be discussed by the council later this month.
“It is crucial that the city earn and maintain public credibility throughout this process. That means putting together a team that is above reproach and that is free of any perceived conflicts of interest,” Hiltz said. “I appreciate Attorney General Weiser understanding the importance of this moment by supporting and encouraging us to take the needed time to ensure our efforts are independent and effective.”
Coffman has repeatedly called the city’s investigation “time sensitive,” as McClain’s story has resonated with people across the globe and tens of thousands of people have called for justice on his behalf. The controversy has been the subject of several recent protests and a scandal involving police officers who were caught taking and sharing photos mocking the death of McClain.
Those calls have been a leading factor in shaping the city’s new investigation, said Councilmember Crystal Murillo, who represents Ward I.
“I really want to give a shout out to the community. That’s where this lives,” Murillo said during the study session. “The community has put pressure on us as elected officials to make sure that we are making decisions in line with what our community is OK with and how they seek justice for what has happened and the kind of public will in that regard.”
The Elijah McClain case in brief
WHO IS ELIJAH McCLAIN?
Elijah McClain was a massage therapist who planned to go to college, his younger sister, Samara McClain, told reporters. McClain’s friends and family said he was as “a spiritual seeker, pacifist, oddball, vegetarian, athlete, and peacemaker who was exceedingly gentle,” according to the a past Sentinel Colorado story.
Samara McClain said her brother often wore masks when he was outside because he had a blood condition that caused him to become cold easily. She also said that her brother was walking to a corner store to get tea for a cousin when someone contacted police to report a suspicious person wearing a ski mask on a warm evening and waving his arms as he walked down a street on Aug. 24.
HOW DID HE DIE?
According to a report by District Attorney Dave Young, Aurora officers responding to the report said McClain was uncooperative when they confronted him. They said they took McClain to the ground when he tried to grab one of their holstered guns. One of the officers then put him in a specialized control hold, pressing against his carotid artery.
Police body camera footage shows McClain telling officers: “Let go of me. I am an introvert. Please respect the boundaries that I am speaking.”
After McClain was kept 15 minutes on the ground, paramedics gave him 500 milligrams of Ketamine to calm him down. McClain subsequently suffered cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and was declared brain dead on Aug. 27. He was taken off life support three days later.
A forensic pathologist working for the Adams County Coroner could not determine what exactly led to his death but said physical exertion during the confrontation likely contributed.
WHAT WAS THE RESULT OF THE INVESTIGATION?
Three officers were placed on paid administrative leave while the incident was investigated by Denver and Aurora police, as well as the district attorney’s office.
Young said in a letter to then-Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz that he could not find indisputable evidence that Aurora officers or others used “unjustified” force” and that it was “improbable for the prosecution to prove cause of death beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury.”
Aurora hired an attorney, Eric Daigle, to investigate, then terminated the contract when it was learned he had been a police officer in Connecticut.
Aurora’s City Council is debating whether to hire another third-party investigator. Mayor Mike Coffman has set a July 6 deadline for the council to decide.
Initial investigations by Aurora police and a district attorney produced no charges. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, citing appeals from the public, appointed the state’s attorney general to reexamine a possible prosecution against the three officers.
The U.S. attorney’s office, the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the FBI announced that they have been looking into a possible civil rights investigation since 2019.
Federal authorities also said they were considering an investigation into photos of Aurora police released last week.
WHAT IS THE CONTROVERSY SURROUNDING THE PHOTOS TAKEN AT MCCLAIN’S MEMORIAL?
Three officers were fired in early July over photos showing police reenacting a chokehold used on McClain when he was arrested.
Officers Kyle Dittrich, Erica Marrero and Jaron Jones — none of whom confronted McClain in August — smiled and mockingly placed each other in a chokehold in the photos taken in October near a memorial for McClain.
Jason Rosenblatt one of the officers who arrested McClain in August, received the photo and responded by text with “Haha,” and was fired along with Dittrich and Marrero for conduct unbecoming of an officer. Jones resigned last week.
Aurora Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson called the photos “a crime against humanity and decency.”
The Aurora Police Association called the investigation “a rush to judgment.”
Past Sentinel Colorado Coverage of Elijah McClain:
Police Body Cam Video