EDITORIAL: Elijah McClain death probe illustrates Aurora must set policing standards, not police

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Screen shot from Aurora Police press conference and body cam video regarding the officer-involved death of Elijah McClain

There were no surprises Monday when Aurora officials released a long-awaited independent assessment of the death of Elijah McClain, infamously killed during a 2019 confrontation with city police.

The damning report created by experts, scrutinizing the circumstances leading to McClain’s death, provided greater detail of what officials and the community have long known: McClain, a young Black man, did nothing wrong and did nothing to warrant police harassing him, assaulting him and making a string of mistakes that caused his death. Had police spent initial seconds asking why McClain wore a ski mask on a summer night rather than immediately and aggressively pursuing him, Aurora, and the nation, would never have known it ever happened.

READ THE REPORT HERE

Instead, police officers, and later the entire police department, committed a cavalcade of errors, bad calls, biased reactions and botched investigations into the tragic death. The calamity turned the Aurora Police Department into the face of what the Black Lives Matter movement and a majority of disgusted and determined Americans are working to overcome, and deservedly so.

Monday’s brutal assessment into the debacle also brought focus on these problems:

— The internal investigation into McClain’s death was riddled with errors and ethical derelictions. These problems were both systemic within the department and reflected egregious errors by individual investigating officers. Ultimately, the internal investigations became virtual cover-ups into what actually happened the night of McClain’s death and after.

— A parallel internal investigation also failed to produce a clear picture of what had happened and why. That use-of-force assessment was flawed for the same reason the internal affairs query failed: Without oversight and transparency, police are inherently unable to accurately and objectively investigate themselves for irregularities and especially for possible criminal violations.

— Fire rescue officials used failed tactics to determine whether to administer tranquilizing drugs to McClain, after he’d already twice been choked into unconsciousness by police. They were unable to accurately render a buzzword-diagnosis of “excited delirium.” Even worse, medics gave McClain too large a dose of ketamine after “grossly” overestimating his size. Medics were compliant with police at the wrong time and independent from them at the wrong time.

— The 17th Judicial District Attorney office performed a shoddy investigation into the McClain death, based primarily on tainted, inferior research and evidence collected mostly by Aurora police. Part of the DA’s inaccurate report and failure to levy a meaningful criminal assessment came from a lackluster and unchallenged coroner report into the cause of McClain’s death.

While the 157-page report provided keen insight into Aurora police blunders, there were no revelations. Instead, the three-expert panel of outside, expert investigators schooled the Aurora Police Department about how they had failed from the moment the first officer rolled up. The investigation made clear that officers were intent on illegally confronting McClain until he was slipped into the back of an ambulance, poised to die from his brutal encounter.

The trio of expert investigators, a civil rights lawyer, emergency medicine physician and seasoned police chief, also offered a long list of recommended changes in policy and training for the department, pressing for a way to prevent similar assaults.

Much of the advice is well considered and already underway because of peremptory initiatives by Police Chief Vanessa Wilson and City Manager Jim Twombly. Some of the needed changes were imposed last year by state lawmakers. Those include a new state law requiring any officer who sees dangerously wrong police activity to step in immediately and stop it. New city laws ban the choke-holds and restraints used on McClain, and the city has paused the use of ketamine while investigations are completed.

Without doubt, the most important change yet to be implemented in Aurora would require meaningful transparency and unbridled, regular and permanent independent assessment of police controversies.

There can be no substitute for quickly revealing the particulars and identities of police and victims involved in cases where police maim or kill people. All aspects of internal investigations must be made public when they’re complete.

Above all, police cannot investigate themselves for possible criminal actions or complaints of serious misdeeds. Either the state must begin providing expert, objective investigations for police departments, or at the least, other police departments must lead critical internal investigations. Ideally, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation would create a unit for just such probes. Likewise, local district attorney offices must be precluded from investigating potential police felonies within their jurisdictions.

While the comprehensive report neatly packaged the details of so much that went wrong, leading to the death of McClain, investigators only skirted the underlying problem. It must be the community that sets the standards for policing, and not the police department.

Over a period of generations, police departments like Aurora’s have evolved to dictate to the community whether how they serve and protect us includes assaulting an unarmed innocent Black man oddly dressed on a hot summer night.

Aurora is poised to change that now by imposing meaningful reforms to ensure that the public dictate to police how to uphold the law and keep the peace — and determine what happens if they don’t.

 

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DICK MOORE
DICK MOORE
7 days ago

I would hope that if I called in a suspicious person in my neighborhood, to the police, like someone with a mask on in the middle of the summer and at nighttime, not in a pandemic, that the police would come and investigate.

To me, that’s protecting me as a citizen of Aurora. What’s that to you?

Jason Schneider
Jason Schneider
7 days ago
Reply to  DICK MOORE

I would be horrified to find out that call got somebody killed, Dick.

DICK MOORE
DICK MOORE
4 days ago

Maybe the “Defund the Police” are correct. We could send social workers for all suspicious persons calls.

Jeff Ryan
Jeff Ryan
6 days ago

The police have the same right as anyone else to try to talk with someone in a public area, just as that person has the right to ignore them. They do not have a right to detain the person, even briefly, absent reasonable suspicion that a crime is being committed.

I have not read anything regarding this incident that showed the police had anything approaching reasonable suspicion to briefly detain Elijah McClain, and they certainly had no probable cause to take him into custody. No crime was being committed, at least not by Mr. McClain.

The conduct of the police here was inexcusable. And a man is dead because of it.

Don Black
Don Black
5 days ago

Let me start with the questionable term “experts” referring to the panel. A chief is not an expert on use of force. To those who are, his analysis is absurd. Tragic as this case is, it is not a coverup as is intimated. Is it strange that this chief disagrees with all of those who do have expertise who have reviewed the case. There are untruths in this report, just as there are exaggerations in this editorial. Suspects have been dying for many years after struggles with police when no carotid or excessive force were used. The term “Sudden In Custody Death” and “excited delirium” were coined long ago to try to describe this phenomenom. No one in the medical community can explain why they die. Please note that he was not rendered unconscious twice as this editorial says. Please note that he was not tortured by having his arm pulled up behind his back in a bar hammerlock after he was handcuffed, as this report says. Please understand that autism is often associated with excited delirium. Please note that officers called for rescue as soon as they applied the carotid. Please note that they have a conversation to get him on his side as soon as possible to avoid him aspirating vomit and to facilitate his breathing and recovery. Please note that they are trying the whole time to get him to quit struggling. While probable cause did not exist to arrest Elijah and he was merely a suspicious person, when he began to refuse to stop or cooperate, he then committed several crimes. The first would be a municipal order to stop, The second would be the state statute obstructing a police officer when he physically resisted. The third would be attempting to disarm a police officer when he grabbed at the officer’s gun. The report quotes an existing Supreme Court ruling that states that a use of force should be judged from the point of reasonable officer on the scene and not from 20/20 hindsight as you see in this report. The authors of this report make assumptions when they were not there to feel the resistance. They make connections to unproven prior assertions about cases involving Aurora officers and intimate implicit bias. I can go on in depth. However, what you will see is the continued mob hysteria and there will be no one to explain the police side. There are articles about grand juries not indicting officers. Do you think that might be because they heard the real facts instead of the type of reporting you see in this editorial and this investigation? Chiefs, like the one in this investigation, are political animals who will not stand up for the officers. There is only one narrative allowed now. The simple argument that something is wrong because arrests and contacts of blacks are disproportionate is flawed. Studies have shown that blacks are disproportionately involved in crime. If contacts, arrests, and incarcerations were not disproportionate, then officers were not doing their jobs. Not recognizing that black suspects are causing their own deaths by their resistance is contributing to the problem. If you demonize the police and keep yelling systemic racism, you create unjustified fear and cause other black citizens to resist instead of cooperating, The present narrative can only do a couple of things. One is to cause more deaths and injuries to black citizens. The other is to cause officers not to stop anyone. That is where we are going. Black communities will suffer the most from the lack of enforcement. An unfortunate series of circumstances placed officers and poor Elijah at this place and time. Elijah was confused. Simple cooperation would have prevented this escalation. It is a sad situation that all involved would have preferred not to have happened. No one wins in this case.