Elijah McClain Didn’t Have To Die But You Knew That Already
Elijah McClain was walking home from a convenience store in August of 2019 when three Aurora, Colorado, police officers confronted him. There was a struggle, during which McClain, 23, begged for his life as he was tackled to the ground and put into a chokehold. He was handcuffed with his face pressed into the pavement, and when the paramedics arrived, they pumped him with a sedative. He went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and lingered on life support for a few days before his eventual death.
This didn't have to happen.
The Aurora Police Department later "found the three officers connected to McClain's death had acted within acceptable policy and training." However, after public outcry, the City Council ordered an independent review, which was released Monday. The report determined that police had no legal reason to stop and frisk McClain that night. A citizen had called the cops, as if they were the literal fashion police, because McClain was wearing a ski mask. That's not a crime.
This just makes me physically ill. Stop killing us. Stop killing our kids. Elijah McClain had a whole life ahead of… https://t.co/9UDG3MEpnP— Joy-Ann Pro-Democracy & Masks Reid 😷 (@Joy-Ann Pro-Democracy & Masks Reid 😷)1614030513.0
According to the report, Officer Nathan Woodyard had his grubby hands on McClain within 10 seconds of approaching him. McClain had no visible weapons and made no threatening movements. He was a peaceful young man unlike the three cops he encountered. (He reportedly wore a ski mask because he was anemic.) The cops claimed they stopped him because McClain was “overdressed," which is also not a crime.
In interviews with the Aurora Police Department's Major Crime/Homicide Unit ("Major Crime") investigators, none of the officers articulated a crime that they thought Mr. McClain had committed, was committing, or was about to commit. They provided the following reasons, none of which under the prevailing case law is sufficient to establish reasonable suspicion: Mr. McClain was acting "suspicious," was wearing a mask and waving his arms, and he was in an area with a "high crime rate." One officer asserted that his refusal to stop was consistent with someone who "either just committed a crime" or someone who is "concealing something whether it be a weapon or drugs," but declining to submit to a consensual stop cannot serve as the basis of reasonable suspicion.
The independent panel, which included policing, constitutional law, and emergency medical experts, could not identify sufficient grounds for a pat-down search of McClain, and the panel noted that one of the officers' claim that they are trained to “take action before it escalates" is not entirely constitutional.
Officers Jason Rosenblatt, Randy Roedema, and Woodyard physically moved McClain to a grassy area. This all happened within a minute and turned an "investigatory stop" into an arrest for which they had no probable cause. Officer Roedema claimed, “He grabbed your gun, dude," which is what uniformed cowards often say as an excuse to unleash hell on a suspect. Soon enough, McClain was in a "carotid control hold" and pinned to the ground.
The body worn camera audio, limited video, and 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 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. [...]
It is not clear from the record whether Mr. McClain's movements, interpreted by the officers as resisting, were attempts to escape or simply an effort, voluntary or involuntary, to avoid the painful force being applied on him, to improve his breathing, or to accommodate his vomiting.
When emergency medical services personnel arrived, they didn't immediately offer aid. They also didn't bother examining or questioning McClain before filling him with ketamine. He was given a 500 milligram dose based on the inaccurate estimation that he weighed 190 pounds. The autopsy report stated that McClain was 5 foot 6 and weighed 140 pounds. That's a significant and possibly lethal error.
The independent panel concluded that the Aurora Police Department's investigation into McClain's death was an insult to respectable shams.
First, the interviews conducted by Major Crime investigators failed to ask basic, critical questions about the justification for the use of force necessary for any prosecutor to make a determination about whether the use of force was legally justified. Instead, the questions frequently appeared designed to elicit specific exonerating "magic language" found in court rulings. Major Crime's report was presented to the District Attorney for Colorado's 17th Judicial District (the "District Attorney") and relied on by the Force Review Board, but it failed to present a neutral, objective version of the facts and seemingly ignored contrary evidence.
Second, the incident was never referred to Internal Affairs investigators, whose role it is to protect the integrity of the Department by determining whether officers' conduct complies with policy. Current policies prevent Internal Affairs from self-starting investigations and instead require approval from the Chief of Police to open an inquiry. This places the Chief in a difficult and potentially compromised role, and limits the independence of Internal Affairs to investigate potential failures to comply with Department policy.
The panel offered recommendations that would supposedly make the Aurora Police Department more humane and less corrupt. Good luck with that. Officers Erica Marrero, Kyle Dittrich, and Jaron Jones took selfies near a memorial for McClain that re-enacted the fatal chokehold. They sent the photos to Jason Rosenblatt, who was hardly overcome with grief. Instead, he responded “haha," like the fucking Joker receiving dead Robin pictures from Harley Quinn. That's how far the rot goes. You can fire these specific cops, but until law enforcement in general is a sociopath-free industry, more Elijah McClains will die brutal, lonely deaths.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He's on the board of the Portland Playhouse theater and writes for the immersive theater Cafe Nordo in Seattle. Tickets are on sale now for his latest Nordo collaboration, "Curiouser and Curiouser," an adaptation of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass." It promises to feel like an actual evening with SER (for good or for ill).