AURORA | Dozens of civil rights activists and Aurora community leaders gathered in front of the Aurora Municipal Center Saturday afternoon to highlight and condemn the Aurora Police Department’s handling of the case of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old black man who died after being detained by officers and paramedics in late August.
Local religious leaders, acquaintances of McClain’s and the family’s attorney, Mari Newman, spent approximately 45 minutes excoriating the Aurora police department’s decision to release on Friday night body camera footage of McClain’s Aug. 24 arrest.
“It’s no coincidence that the Aurora Police Department decided to hold a surprise, late-night meeting on a Friday,” Newman said in front of the west steps of the Aurora Municipal Center. “That’s exactly what people do when they know they’ve done something wrong and they’re trying to avoid accountability. And that’s what the Aurora Police Department is doing right now.”
At approximately 5:15 p.m. Friday, police sent an invitation to several members of the media to attend the 7 p.m. press conference at police headquarters.
At the press conference, Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz, who is retiring at the end of the year, said the department elected to hold the meeting in response to 17th Judicial District Attorney Dave Young’s decision not to pursue a grand jury probe or an indictment against any of the officers involved in detaining McClain. Metz said he received Young’s letter outlining his decision at 3:35 p.m. Friday.
“One of the things that I directed early on is that when we got a decision letter from the 17th Judicial District that we were going to get information out as quickly as possible,” Metz said. “ … I told my staff that it didn’t matter what day this letter came out, that we were going to be doing this press conference as quickly as possible, even if it was late on Friday night, Saturday or Sunday.”
In his report, Young determined that the officers’ actions didn’t meet the legal requirements necessary to pursue an indictment.
“There is no reasonable likelihood of success of proving any state crimes beyond a reasonable doubt at trial,” Young wrote. The letter is not posted on Young’s website.
A trio of Aurora police officers stopped McClain in the 1900 block of Billings Street at about 10:40 p.m. in late August 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 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.
McClain, who was never suspected of a specific crime in connection with the incident, was unarmed when he was detained, though police said at one point he reached for one of the officer’s holstered handguns.
Officers originally contacted him because he looked “suspicious,” and the area was “known for criminal activity,” according to Young’s report.
Newman and others at the gathering Saturday called for accountability from the police department, and the prosecution of the officers involved, though it’s unlikely that would occur at the federal level now that Young has determined no criminal charges will be filed by the state.
“We’re tired of this, Aurora,” said Pastor Terrence Hughes with the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance. “ … And we’re not going to take it. We’re demanding you to come to the table, we’re demanding changes and we’re demanding these officers be prosecuted.”
Newman said she plans to pursue civil action in the case and may file a federal civil rights suit on behalf of the McClain family.
Newman also scolded police for “shedding” their body cameras during the scuffle with McClain. All three of the responding officers who contacted McClain lost their cameras in the ensuing struggle.
“One thing we didn’t hear adequately explained last night is just how it is that all of the on-scene officers who were physically involved in bringing down Elijah McClain … managed to miraculously shed their body cameras so that you as a community do not have an opportunity to see what really happened,” Newman said.
On Friday, Metz underscored that officers did not intentionally strip their cameras from their chest-mounted holsters, and that displacing various parts of a police uniform during an arrest is common. He added that the city is actively working to find a new vendor to supply the department’s body-worn cameras.
Newman went on to question the dosage of ketamine McClain was given, and how such a dosage was determined.
“(Young’s report) gives an erroneous estimate of Elijah’s body size,” she said. “Elijah was a small guy. The amount of ketamine that he was given is not an amount that was appropriate for young man of his size, I’m told by doctors.”
The Fire Medic who injected McClain with 500 milligrams of ketamine, Jeremy Cooper, estimated McClain to weigh about 220 pounds, according to Young’s report. McClain weighed 140 pounds when he died, according to his autopsy report.
Following multiple reviews by medical experts, Aurora fire personnel determined McClain received appropriate medical treatment.
The forensic pathologist who conducted McClain’s autopsy, Dr. Stephen Cina, wrote that McClain had a “therapeutic level” of ketamine in his system, but that he had an “idiosyncratic response” to the drug.
Cina was unable to determine what specifically led to McClain’s death, but suggested the intense physical struggle with officers, a narrow artery in his heart, strong response to the ketamine or an undiagnosed mental illness may have contributed to his demise.
Cina also determined that McClain exhibited signs of so-called “excited delirium” due to his agitated state and reported strength. McClain had only marijuana and ketamine in his system when he died, according to a toxicology report.
McClain’s mother, Sheneen, called for unity from activists instead of hostility.
“I don’t want to be here, and I don’t know anybody that is alive that would want to be in my position,” she said. “Death is not the cure. We are the cure … Stop being divided over whatever your situation is, that never solves anything. What is divided will never stand. So let’s get ourselves together and do something to make some real s**t happen.”
McClain’s death is expected to again be addressed at a public meeting with elected officials and representatives at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 26 at Restoration Christian Fellowship on East Sixth Avenue.