Most Aurora council members back critical Elijah McClain investigation Tuesday

The virtual Aurora City Council meeting March 2, 2021, where lawmakers discussed an independent investigation into the death of Elijah McClain. SCREEN GRAB

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.

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Don Black
Don Black
1 month ago

In the entire investigation, the only valid question on the police part was the reasonable suspicion for the initial stop. Reasonable suspicion is a matter for the courts to decide and is often a matter of opinion. The use of force was distorted in the report with exaggeration by a chief with no use of force expertise. Further, the injection of racial overtones and conjecture in the report smacks of a chief being politically correct. The Supreme Court’s ruling on Graham vs Connor states that the use of force should not be judged from “20/20” hindsight and relies upon the judgment of a reasonable officer at the scene. The report disregarded the statements of the officers and the paramedics at the scene and the video and went into conjecture. The report goes into conjecture about how officers might think he was stronger because he was black. What does that have to do with the actual experience of struggling with someone where you can feel their strength? The area in which this occurred is an area where an Aurora officer was killed in the past stopping a robbery suspect. I can point out at least one inflammatory statement that is clearly untrue and creates a clear impression that Elijah was tortured after being handcuffed. The authors of the report say that there was no effort to deescalate the contact although they list the conversation word by word where the officers are trying to elicit cooperation. The report disregards the statements by both police and fire that Elijah continued to struggle, even though you can watch them trying to get him to quit on the body cams. I guess that even the fire people are supposed to be brutal racists. This was a sad situation in which Elijah knew he was innocent but the officers knew nothing about Elijah and his special condition. What this entire investigation fails to recognize is that people, sometimes officers, have been dying in struggles for many years. In many cases, there was never any use of a choke or carotid and no excessive force. The terms Sudden In Custody Death and Excited Delirium were coined to try to describe these events. No one in the medical field can tell you why they died. So, we will never know why Elijah died. Was it a carotid (doubtful), was it the Ketamine (also questionable)? You cannot convict officers just because you don’t like the outcome. Emotional and sad, but true.

InquisitorofInquisitors
InquisitorofInquisitors
1 month ago
Reply to  Don Black

So what can the officers be convicted on? To answer this question (since you have so much info on the report) I want you to pretend you’re a persecutor? Go.

C Kats
1 month ago
Reply to  Don Black

No crime = no probable cause = EGREGIOUS violation of 4th Amendment Rights. The officers had no right to initiate the stop and certainly no right to lay a hand on him. Clothing does not constitute probable cause of anything. Sorry, there is no lipstick you can put on this pig. The officers committed a crime in violating Elijah’s 4th Amendment Rights and there needs to be justice.

We absolutely know why Elijah died, he was murdered as a result of the police violating his 4th Amendment Rights. There is NO excuse and there must be justice.

If your excuse-laden post passes for actual law and policy, that needs to end now. Right now.

Lois Zerbe
Lois Zerbe
1 month ago

STOP ! means Stop. Simply understand that STOP means Stop.

InquisitorofInquisitors
InquisitorofInquisitors
1 month ago
Reply to  Lois Zerbe

What are you referring to exactly? If you’re referring to when the officers asked him to stop!- it is seen on the video he did not hear them because he had earphones in his ears. And he most certainly did stop when he knew he was being ordered to. Next.

jeff brown
jeff brown
1 month ago

“Only the police chief can decide to open a more robust, internal review in Aurora, he said, which is very uncommon… I looked at some 30 departments around the country, and I’ve never seen that particular provision before.”

Has there really been any functioning Internal Affairs– or just a facade of such?

I believe Aurora city council’s legacy of neglecting the health of the retail tax base and just “making do,” has contributed directly to the corner-cutting that’s been coming to light. Tell me how a police dept. can compete for best talent, train and police itself when the city’s primary tax base — retail sales — is 37% lower per capita than its largest neighbor?

Joe Felice
Joe Felice
1 month ago

Why would anyone not back this report? I expect ALL councilpersons to get on board.