AURORA | The mayor of Aurora on Tuesday thanked a panel of experts who delivered a highly critical report on the fatal arrest of Elijah McClain as an important step in the city’s healing on Tuesday. However, a few city council members faulted the investigation commissioned by the city and defended police’s right to stop the 23-year-old Black man in what they said was a high crime area.
During a meeting to discuss the report released last month, Mayor Mike Coffman said the city needs to understand what went wrong in the arrest. McClain was stopped by police in August 2019 as he walked home from the store after a 911 caller reported that he looked suspicious because he was wearing a ski mask and had been waving his hands.
“For us to heal we have to make reforms,” Coffman said.
Investigator Jonathan Smith told city councilors that officers’ body camera video did not show any reasonable suspicion that McClain was committing or about to commit a crime, which would have legally allowed them to stop him and use force against him.
While council member Marsha Berzins said the area where police stopped McClain — near the intersection of Billings Street and Evergreen Avenue — had been a high crime area for years with shootings and drug activity, Smith said the area was not ranked as one according to statistics provided to the panel by the city. Berzins noted that police asked him to stop three times— which the report said happened over eight seconds — and that McClain appeared suspicious because of his mask and the behavior reported by the 911 caller.
“There is crime, and there’s a lot of crime. So I’m saying that because I believe that the police, when they answered that 911 call and asked three times for Mr. McClain to stop and he didn’t, I think they went into their policing mode, which is what they do, that’s what they were trained to do,” Berzins said. “Unfortunately, they didn’t know him, they didn’t know that he was a kind soul who wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
McClain’s family has said he wore the ski mask because he had a condition that caused him to get cold easily. The temperature was in the 60s when McClain was stopped and officers only saw him walking down the street, not waving his arms, Smith said.
He said being in an area that does have a high crime rate does not give police the right to stop someone and neither does wearing a mask or heavy clothing.
“You need more than that,” Smith said.
Police put McClain in a neckhold that stops the flow of blood to the brain, rendering him temporarily unconscious, and paramedics injected him with 500 milligrams of ketamine as a sedative. He suffered cardiac arrest and later was taken off life support.
His death drew renewed attention last year amid the national reckoning over police brutality and racial injustice and prompted several investigations, including a probe into possible criminal charges by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office that remains in progress.
During the meeting, lawmakers also dug into possible police reforms recommended in the report.
Smith, the lawyer who led the investigation, emphasized that McClain’s case should have originally been referred for an internal review in the Aurora Police Department.
The report found that police investigators failed to seriously scrutinize the actions of the three officers who detained McClain. Only the police chief can decide to open a more robust, internal review in Aurora, he said, which is very uncommon.
“That is unusual,” Smith said. “I looked at some 30 departments around the country, and I’ve never seen that particular provision before.”
And Smith also affirmed his support for an independent monitor to watch police department decision-making.
Chief Vanessa Wilson announced last week the department would create the community-based monitor. That’s also a main goal of the city’s Community Police Task Force, which includes a core group of racial justice activists. That group is slated to release its long-awaited reform ideas in the coming weeks.
It’s unclear how the monitor would act or how much power it would have.
Wilson has said the department is injecting more community input into reviews of controversial interactions with cops, creating a more racially diverse police department and changing policies including how cops respond to calls involving “suspicious” people.