Flood of calls to re-examine Elijah McClain death prompt state, local officials to talk about new probe

A mural of Elijah McClain was painted by Thomas “Detour” Evans on June 8, 2020 in the River North Art District in north Denver. Evans tweeted that he hopes to paint one in Aurora soon. Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | Gov. Jared Polis said on Wednesday that state officials will probe further into the death of Elijah McClain, the 23-year-old, unarmed black man who died after being detained by Aurora first responders last summer.

Aurora area officials have been flooded with requests to further examine the death of McClain, who died about one week after Aurora police and fire personnel held him on the ground and injected him with a sedative while he was walking home from a north Aurora convenience store last summer.

McClain was never accused of a specific crime.

The office of 17th Judicial District Attorney Dave Young, which cleared the officers involved in detaining McClain of any wrongdoing, has received more than 10,000 emails and 1,000 voicemails regarding the McClain case since June 7, according to spokesperson Sue Lindsay. The office had received only two emails pertaining to the McClain case in the previous six months.

Lindsay said many of the emails are an identical, widely disseminated form letter asking for Young’s office to further investigate and ultimately prosecute the officers involved. Young has said he does not plan to re-examine the case pending the discovery of new evidence.

But on Wednesday, Polis said he has instructed his legal staffers to further explore how the case can be investigated. Polis could also ask Attorney General Phil Weiser to re-examine the case.

“Public confidence in our law enforcement process is incredibly important now more than ever,” Polis wrote in a tweet. “A fair and objective process free from real or perceived bias for investigating officer-involved killings is critical. I have instructed my legal council to examine what the state can do and we are assessing next steps.”

That missive came less than a day after Polis encouraged Young to handle any new investigation.

In an emailed statement provided Tuesday evening, a spokesperson for Polis hinted that the democratic prosecutor who oversees the area of Aurora north of East Colfax Avenue should endeavor to take action to mend public trust.

“It is the Governor’s hope that the DA and those involved take the steps necessary to restore public confidence in law enforcement and the process,” a spokesperson said in a statement to The Sentinel.

An Aurora City Council committee is insisting on a new independent investigation, which itself drew controversy after it was disclosed the city had hired a firm run by a former police officer to review the case.

On Wednesday, Aurora’s public safety policy committee asked City Manager Jim Twombly to speed up an independent review of McClain’s death. They’ve asked him to present a list of investigators at a July 16 meeting.

Hours after the committee’s announcement, Mayor Mike Coffman issued a statement saying he will convene a special meeting on July 6 to authorize any such investigation.

“We need to bring closure to this tragic incident by making sure every aspect of it is thoroughly investigated,” Coffman wrote in a tweet.

As of last week, Aurora police had received more than 200 complaints regarding the McClain case, including more than 120 phone calls, department leaders said at a public meeting Thursday.

Officials categorized the complaints as comments on officers’ use of strangleholds and carotid control holds, the recently outlawed maneuver police used on McClain. The technique involves applying pressure to the side of a person’s neck in an effort to restrict blood flow to the brain and ultimately cause them to briefly faint.

The department had received a total of four complaints regarding the use of chokeholds, strangleholds and carotid holds in the previous four years combined.

The public outrage has also trickled into the local police department’s social media pages, where a flurry of recent posts have linked to McClain’s name and petitions calling for new investigations. Multiple recent tweets linking to unrelated police press releases and digital media briefings have been inundated with the #ElijahMcClain hashtag.

More than 1.8 million people had signed a Change.org petition calling for a new investigation into McClain’s death as of Tuesday morning.

City staffers, too, have noticed an increase in McClain-related messages on recent social media posts, according to Michael Bryant, spokesman for the City of Aurora.

“I know we’ve been receiving more comments on our social media as well as calls to Access Aurora and the Mayor/Council Office over the past few weeks,” Bryant wrote in an email.

He said the number of messages received via phone, email and social media have totaled “in the thousands.”

Office personnel for Aurora Fire Rescue have also noted an increase in messages related to the McClain case in recent weeks, according to department spokesperson Sherri-Jo Stowell. She said the department started tracking the number of messages related to McClain that were coming into the office after noticing an uptick in such communications about three weeks ago. Since then, the office has received about 30 messages, the bulk of which call for the first responders who interacted with McClain to be fired and prosecuted.

Aurora Fire paramedics injected McClain with ketamine while police personnel held him on the ground the evening of Aug. 24, 2019. The department maintains a waiver with the state health department and continues to administer ketamine to residents, Aurora Fire personnel confirmed earlier this year.

Even the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, which oversees the bulk of Aurora south of East Colfax Avenue, has recently been receiving several communications a day regarding the McClain case, according to a spokesperson for the office. The Arapahoe County Jurisdiction did not handle the McClain case in any way.

The spokesperson confirmed the office refers callers to Young’s office, which was the agency that legally examined the case.

“Our jurisdiction covers more than 80% of Aurora, but Elijah McClain’s death occurred in Adams County,” DA George Brauchler’s office tweeted on June 19. “We have no jurisdiction there. Respectfully, comments should be directed to DA Dave Young of the 17th Judicial District.”

Calls to re-examine McClain’s death have proliferated in recent weeks in the wake of mass protests that have become ubiquitous across the country following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others at the hands of police.

The renewed interest in McClain’s death led a New York Times story published last week that explores the enhanced interest in old, lethal interactions between minorities and police.