By BILL HUTCHINSON, ABC News
(AURORA, Colo.) — An independent review of the death of Elijah McClain, the 23-year-old Black man who died in Colorado after being placed in a carotid hold by police and injected with ketamine, was made public on Monday and alleges the officers had no reasonable suspicion to stop and frisk him in the first place.
The report, ordered in July by the Aurora City Council, also concluded that the investigation of McClain’s death by the Aurora Police Department’s major crimes unit was badly flawed and alleged the detectives “stretched the record to exonerate the officers rather than present a neutral version of the facts.”
“This case is a textbook example of law enforcement’s disparate and racist treatment of Black men,” McClain’s family and their lawyers said in a joint statement issued following the report’s release. “Aurora’s continued failure to acknowledge the wrongdoing of its employees only exacerbates the problem.”
According to the statement, McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, “is relieved that the truth surrounding the death of her son is finally coming out,” adding that had he lived, he would have celebrated his 25th birthday this week.
“This Report — with its stark and unequivocal indictment of Aurora officials’ conduct — is not based on new, revelatory evidence,” the statement reads. “It is based on evidence that Aurora has had in its possession all along. Yet, at every stage, Aurora has defended its officials for their blatantly unlawful actions and refused to discipline anyone involved in Elijah’s death.”
Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly said in a statement that the city welcomed how “comprehensive and thorough the investigators were” throughout the investigation. “We are currently reviewing their report and look forward to hearing additional context during their presentation before we comment further. City management will work with the Mayor and City Council in coming days and weeks to assure the appropriate next steps are taken.”
The Aurora City Council plans to hold a special study session Monday night with the panel to which it gave autonomous authority to probe every detail of the 2019 death that prompted massive protests in Colorado and throughout the nation.
There was no immediate comment from the Aurora Police Department.
The review was led by consultant Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
“The body-worn camera audio, limited video, and (Aurora Police Department) Major Crime’s interviews with the officers tell two contrasting stories. The officers’ statements on the scene and in subsequent recorded interviews suggest a violent and relentless struggle,” the report, which was obtained by ABC News, stated. “The limited video, and the audio from the body-worn cameras, reveal Mr. McClain surrounded by officers, all larger than he, crying out in pain, apologizing, explaining himself, and pleading with the officers.”
Three white police officers stopped McClain on Aug. 24, 2019, after a 911 caller reported McClain, who had autism, was walking down a street wearing a ski mask and acting suspiciously. The investigative panel found that the officers had no probable cause to detain and frisk him.
Aurora police officers Nathan Woodyard and Randy Roedema and former officer Jason Rosenblatt were never prosecuted. In June, Dave Young, the former district attorney for Adams and Broomfield Counties, said he could not file criminal charges against the officers because the evidence was inconclusive as to whether their actions caused McClain’s death and because prosecutors could not “disprove the officers’ reasonable belief in the necessity to use force.”
But the independent investigation alleged the officers, specifically Woodyard, quickly escalated the encounter despite having no reason to believe McClain had engaged in any type of criminal behavior.
“Upon review of the evidence available to the Panel, Officer Woodyard’s decision to turn what may have been a consensual encounter with Mr. McClain into an investigatory stop — in fewer than ten seconds — did not appear to be supported by any officer’s reasonable suspicion that Mr. McClain was engaged in criminal activity. This decision had ramifications for the rest of the encounter,” the report stated.
McClain was walking home in Aurora, a suburb of Denver, after buying iced tea at a corner store, when he was stopped by the three officers.
In post-incident interviews with major crime investigators, Woodyard explained that he wanted to frisk McClain for weapons “based on him having a ski mask on” in the middle of the night, though McClain gave no indication that he was armed, according to the report.
McClain’s family said he was wearing the ski mask because he suffered from anemia, which made him feel cold.
“We were not able to identify sufficient evidence that Mr. McClain was armed and dangerous in order to justify a pat-down search,” the report stated.
Woodyard and his two colleagues moved McClain by force to the grass and restrained him, according to the report.
“The responding officers applied pain compliance techniques and restraints to Mr. McClain continuously from the first moments of the encounter until he was taken away on a gurney,” the report stated.
The independent investigators found that officers applied wrist locks on McClain and put their knees on his large muscle groups and joints.
“The officers also sat or kneeled on Mr. McClain, and one officer threatened to have a dog bite him,” according to the report.
During the struggle, Woodyard allegedly placed McClain in a carotid hold, less hazardous than a chokehold, the report said. But the investigators wrote they did not see “evidence of the officers’ perception of a threat that would justify Officer Woodyard’s carotid hold, which caused Mr. McClain to either partially or fully lose consciousness.”
Paramedics with Aurora Fire Rescue responded to the incident and injected McClain with ketamine, a powerful drug often used to induce anesthesia, in what they claimed was an attempt to sedate him. The evidence reviewed by the panel, including the body camera video, alleged that the paramedics administered the sedative without first examining McClain. The panel found that McClain was given 500 milligrams of ketamine “based on a grossly inaccurate and inflated estimate of Mr. McClain’s size.”
“Despite his apparent distress and the fact that a carotid control hold had been applied, the body-worn camera footage does not reflect any attempt by Aurora Fire to examine or question Mr. McClain before the administration of ketamine,” according to the report. “At the time of the injection, Mr. McClain had not moved or made any sounds for about one minute.”
The panel alleged the paramedics accepted what it said was the officers’ impression that McClain was exhibiting excited delirium, a syndrome in which a subject displays wild agitation and violent behavior. The panel wrote the paramedics drew the conclusion “without corroborating that impression through meaningful observation or diagnostic examination of Mr. McClain.”
McClain lost consciousness during the encounter and was taken to a hospital, where he died three days later. The Adams County coroner ruled the cause of McClain’s death to be undetermined, a decision Young said factored heavily in his decision not to file charges in the case.
“I don’t condone any of the officers’ actions out there. In fact, I wish they would have done things differently. If someone is saying ‘I can’t breathe,’ get off of him. Do it. Just get off of him,” Young told ABC News in June. “But, again, I have no indication that led to the cause of Mr. McClain’s death.”
The independent investigators also faulted the Aurora Police Department’s Major Crimes’ investigation and the report the unit presented to then-District Attorney Young, alleging detectives “failed to present a neutral, objective version of the facts and seemingly ignored contrary evidence.” The report goes on to allege the Major Crimes detectives “failed to ask basic, critical questions about the justification for the use of force.”
”The Aurora Police Department’s Major Crime/Homicide Unit investigation of the death of Mr. McClain raised serious concerns for the Panel and revealed significant weaknesses in the Department’s accountability systems,” according to the report.
The report made several key recommendations, including that the Aurora Police Department undertake a thorough review of its training and supervision of officers with respect to ascertaining reasonable suspicion and probable cause. The panel also recommended the department overhaul its use-of-force policy and increase the training of officers on de-escalation techniques.
Since McClain’s death, the Aurora Fire Rescue has banned the use of ketamine by paramedics. But the report recommends a thorough review of the department’s protocols, policies and training related to patient sedation “to ensure that a complete pre-sedation assessment by paramedics is completed.”
McClain’s family filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit in August against the Aurora Police Department and the Aurora Fire and Rescue Department. The lawsuit is pending.
The city responded to the lawsuit in December, asking that the suit be dismissed, contending McClain’s death was not caused by deliberate and discriminatory actions by the police officers.
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