Five suburban Denver police and medics were indicted by a Colorado grand jury in connection with the death of a young black man who went home from business two years ago.
Elijah McClain, 23, died after being thrown to the ground, placed in a now-banned jugular artery stranglehold, and injected with the sedative ketamine by Aurora police and medics during the August 24, 2019 encounter. The police responded to an emergency call that he was wearing a face mask in a supermarket to buy iced tea. The caller did not accuse him of a crime who thought he looked suspicious and claimed he was Black.
“I can not breath. I can’t breathe, please. I can not. I can not breath. I can’t breathe, please stop, “McClain pleaded with the officers over the camera.
McClain choked on his own vomit, suffered a heart attack and never recovered, his family said. McClain, a vegetarian massage therapist and violin player, was pronounced brain dead in hospital and died six days later.
The grand jury concluded that police used excessive force to hold McClain back despite the lack of evidence that he had done something wrong, and that paramedics were using far too high a dose of the sedative, which is legally considered a lethal weapon.
The five defendants are charged, among other things, with manslaughter and assault. The four remaining employed by the city – officers Randy Roedema and Nathan Woodyard and paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec – will be suspended without pay once prosecutors formally prosecute them. A third charged officer, Jason Rosenblatt, was fired from the city last year after sending text messages mocking McClain’s death. On Wednesday it was unclear whether the five would be taken into custody. Roedema and Woodyard are former U.S. Marines.
“Nothing will bring my son back, but I’m grateful that his killers are finally being held accountable,” McClain’s father LaWayne Mosley said in a statement on Wednesday. McClain’s family is suing the Aurora police, individual officers, and the medics.
McClain’s death initially attracted little attention outside of Aurora, but the May 2020 assassination of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a white police officer in May 2020 brought fresh attention and community pressure amid a nationwide debate over police reform and systemic racism. Although the local prosecutor’s office declined to bring charges against the officers and paramedics, protesters demanded accountability through massive street protests that ended with police shooting them with tear gas and pepper spray.
Frustrated by the internal police investigation into McClain’s death, Governor Jared Polis ordered a state investigation. A state civil rights investigation into McClain’s death is ongoing.
“Whenever a person dies after encountering law enforcement, the community deserves a thorough investigation. Mr McClain’s family deserves it. And justice demands it, “Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said on Wednesday. “Make no mistake, we recognize that this case will be difficult to prosecute. In this way we promote the rule of law and the commitment that everyone is accountable and equal under the law.”
Officials from the Aurora Police Union said in a statement that the initial investigation acquitted the officers and “has not changed anything. Our officers didn’t do anything wrong with a pre-existing heart condition. The hysterical overreaction to this case has seriously damaged the police. The public has inevitably paid the price. “
City officials quickly realized that the police union that made the statement is no longer officially recognized by the city for collective bargaining.
McClain’s father argued in his lawsuit that the department had a long history of racist bias. Several Aurora police officers were fired last summer after media reports revealed they took mock pictures on the scene of McClain’s death. One of the officers who arrested McClain was fired from the division after he responded with “haha” to the pictures – but not for McClain’s death.
“Aurora allows and promotes a culture of racial violence within its police force so widespread that a trio of uniformed Aurora police officers on duty returned to the site of Elijah’s murder to take photos of themselves while they were strangled chasing after Elijah, “Mosely said in his lawsuit.” Under increasing public pressure, the city dismissed these officials, some of whom in turn appealed these dismissals because their conduct was widely accepted in the Aurora Police Department for decades, someone for killing someone of an innocent young man. “
In August 2020, Aurora City officials hired a new police chief, Vanessa Wilson, who launched an initiative to restore public confidence in the department. Wilson promised to cooperate with the court case in a statement on Wednesday.
“This tragedy will forever shape our community,” said Wilson. “We continue to offer our condolences for the loss of Elijah and will continue to work with the legal process.”
In a statement on Wednesday, Polis remembered McClain and thanked the grand jury.
“This innocent young man should be here today,” Polis said. “I continue to urge my colleagues in Colorado to reflect on how we can work together to build a better future where everyone can go home safely and a Colorado for everyone.”