Police department in Elijah McClain’s death found to be racially biased, use excessive force

  • Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who was walking home from a store, died in 2020 after police and medics administered him ketamine.
  • His death, and multiple police misconduct reports, prompted the investigation into the Aurora police and fire departments.
  • The report found they violated law through racially biased policing, use of excessive force, and unlawfully administering ketamine.

A civil rights investigation sparked by Elijah McClain’s death has found a pattern of racially biased policing and use of excessive force within the Aurora Police Department, Colorado’s attorney general announced Wednesday.

The investigation into Aurora police and fire departments determined that they violated state and federal law through racially biased policing, use of excessive force, failing to record community interactions and unlawfully administering ketamine.

Announced in August 2020 after multiple police misconduct reports, the investigation was prompted partially by the in-custody death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who was walking home from a store. Earlier this month, five police officers and medics were indicted by a Colorado grand jury in connection with his death.

“These actions are unacceptable. They hurt the people that law enforcement is entrusted” to serve, Attorney General Phil Weiser said.

Aurora police Chief Vanessa Wilson said in a statement that the department will cooperate with Weiser’s office and has already begun implementing reforms.

Wilson acknowledged “there are changes to be made,” but said, “we will not broad brush this agency or discount the professionalism and integrity that individual officers bring to our community every day.”

State investigators conducted interviews, went on ride-alongs with officers and firefighters, and reviewed thousands of use-of-force reports. The 112-page report foundAurora police used force against people of color almost 2.5 times more than they did against white people. Nearly half the people officers used force against were Black while only 15% of Aurora’s population is Black, according to the report.

Aurora police also arrested people of color 1.3 times more than white people. The disparity was even more pronounced for Black people, who were arrested over 2 times more than white people.

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“We observed statistically significant racial disparities — especially with respect to Black individuals — in nearly every important type of police contact with the community, from interactions to arrests to uses of force,” the report said.

‘Nothing will bring back my son’:In Colorado, Aurora police, medics indicted for 2019 death of Elijah McClain

The report includes multiple examples of police responding differently to people of color in comparison to white people.

In one instance, a Black man told police he had a knife and planned to kill himself. Officers responded by pointing their weapons at the man and yelling at him to comply. On the same day, a white man who was “very drunk and exhibiting mental health issues” threw his cane at officers, according to the report. The incident ended after an officer “walked up to him, extended his hand, and said, ‘I’m (Joe), you look to be hurting. How can we help you?'”

Investigators found Aurora police regularly used “greater force than reasonably warranted” and observed officers using force without giving people adequate time to respond of officer commands.

They saw officers use force against people who had not committed any crimes or presented any danger, often generically reciting “stop resisting” even when the person was not resisting. Officers also escalated situations in which the subjects showed “obvious mental health distress” and did not “apply nonviolent means” before resorting to force, according to the report.

The report also points to issues in the department’s documentation and recruitment processes. Aurora officers often make stops without documenting them as the law requires, the report found. And investigators found only 1.1% of Black applicants who met minimum qualifications were offered a job with the department, as opposed to 4.2% of white applicants.

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“This level of racial winnowing can be observed at every step of the process, suggesting bias in Aurora’s recruitment and hiring process,” a Wednesday statement announcing the report’s findings said.

Report finds Aurora police illegally administered ketamine

The report also examined the department’s use of ketamine in the wake of McClain’s deathIn medical settings, ketamine is routinely used for its rapid and anesthetic effects, but it is also used illicitly as a hallucinogen.

This undated photo provided by his family shows Elijah McClain before his death.

Aurora Fire suspended the use of ketamine last year as part of a series of policy changes following the death of McClain, who died in August 2019 after being thrown to the ground and put into a now-banned carotid artery chokehold.

More:Elijah McClain was injected with ketamine before he died. Is that legal?

Aurora police and medics injected McClain with 500 milligrams of ketamine, well over the maximum amount recommended for his weight. McClain, a vegetarian massage therapist and violin player, choked on his own vomit and had a heart attack. He was declared brain dead at the hospital and died six days later.

Police were responding to a 911 call that McClain had worn a face mask into a convenience store to buy some iced tea. The caller reported that he looked suspicious and was Black.

Five police officers and medics indicted earlier this month face charges including manslaughter and assault in connection to McClain’s death.

The report found Aurora Fire Rescue administered ketamine, an anesthetic, 22 times between January 2019 and June 2020, despite a suspension of its use in September 2020. In more than half of these instances, paramedics didn’t follow ketamine monitoring protocols and used the anesthetic at doses above maximums allowed based on the weight of the subject, the report found. 

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City of Aurora Investigation:Investigation faults overall police treatment in the fatal arrest of Elijah McClain

Attorney General urges policy changes

Elijah’s mother, Sheneen, urged the police department to make policy changes and work with the attorney general’s office following the release of the state investigation’s findings.

“It’s just terrible that it takes my son’s death for Aurora police to change what they’ve been doing for a long time in this community,” she said Wednesday. “Front and center: Elijah would still be here if the system was operating like it should. My son’s death was preventable.”

Sheneen McClain, right, and family attorney Mari Newman speak during a news conference at the memorial site across the street from where McClain's 23-year-old son, Elijah, was stopped by police officers, in Aurora, Colorado.

Since McClain’s death, officershave been criticized for excessive force again. Last year, officers handcuffed four Black girls over a car that was suspected stolen but turned out not to be. In July, an officer was charged with assault after pistol-whipping and choking a Black man.

The latest investigation is the first of its kind in the state following a Colorado police accountability law passed amid public outcry over McClain’s death and the murder of George Floyd. 

In the Wednesday statement, Weiser urged Aurora police to reform its use of force policies and officer training, adding that if the department fails to comply with recommendations made in the report, his office will seek a court order compelling them to do so.

State Rep. Leslie Herod applauded Weiser’s recommendations.

“We have affirmed what the citizens of Aurora and so many folks already knew: That the Aurora Police Department has operated in a way that is racist and that is particularly racist against Black people and presents harm to our community,” Herod said.

Contributing: The Associated Press

Contact News Now Reporter Christine Fernando at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @christinetfern.

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