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.
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.