The death of Elijah McClain after a violent encounter with law enforcement in August, 2019, sparked local protests in Aurora, Colorado. In response to the inadequate departmental oversight, the Aurora City Council appointed an independent panel to investigate what went wrong. The panel issued a 157-page report on February 22, 2021. The report highlights a series of unconstitutional conduct and events that lead to McClain’s death. The report also underscored the inadequacies of the Force Review Board’s probe. The report found that Aurora police officers, including Major Crimes/Homicide Unit detectives, either don’t understand, or do not care about, the constitutional constraints on their conduct.
McClain, a 23-year-old Black man, walked to the store for some iced tea. As McClain was returning, a call to 911 reported a man wearing a ski mask who “look[ed] sketchy,” while making “all these kinds of signs” with his hands. That man was McClain. McClain was carrying the bag containing the iced tea, his cell phone, and was listening to music through ear buds. The violations of McClain’s rights began when Officer Woodyard conducted an investigatory stop of McClain without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
A reasonable suspicion is the minimum standard required by the Fourth Amendment when stopping a person. Officers would later claim it was because McClain was overdressed and wearing a mask while exhibiting “unusual behavior.” McClain was anemic, which causes cold extremities. The unusual behavior? Gesticulations in sync with the music.
Woodyard tried to get McClain’s attention, but the music made it hard for McClain to hear the first commands to stop. After getting McClain’s attention, McClain said, “I have a right to walk where I’m going.” Woodyard responded by grabbing McClain’s arm and saying McClain was acting suspiciously. This began the escalation of events. Woodyard then frisked McClain, another violation of McClain’s rights. Frisking is only legally justified when the person is reasonably suspected of being armed. However, Woodyard knew McClain was unarmed because dispatch had said so.
Woodyard would later admit that he knew McClain did not have any weapons prior to contact. Woodyard was joined by multiple officers who then turned the unconstitutional stop and frisk into an unlawful arrest. While McClain begged to be left alone officers performed “pain compliance techniques” and “carotid control holds.” These acts continued well after McClain was on the ground and restrained. A few minutes later, paramedics administered ketamine to McClain to “subdue” him. This was despite the fact that McClain was not resisting at that point. Paramedics did not examine McClain and administered enough ketamine for a 190-pound man. McClain was only 140-pounds. As a result, McClain suffered cardiac arrest. Although McClain was resuscitated, he suffered brain damage and died three days later.
To make matters worse, the Board conducted only a cursory investigation and made no referral to Internal Affairs about the officers’ conduct. The report found that detectives “failed to ask basic, critical questions” a prosecutor would need to “make a determination about whether the use of force was legally justified,” and their questions “frequently appeared designed to elicit specific ‘exonerating language.’” The report concluded that the Board ignored evidence and did not present objective facts about the officers’ conduct.
Aurora police rank eighth out of 100 large U.S. cities in police killings per capita. The Justice Department is investigating McClain’s death. Perhaps the Justice Department can reinvigorate the Aurora Police Department’s appreciation for the constitutional protections the citizens of Aurora retain.
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