A recent social media outcry demanding Colorado officials launch an independent investigation into the 2019 death of a 23-year-old Black man in police custody has prompted Gov. Jared Polis to announce his administration will reexamine the case.
Polis announced Thursday that he signed an executive order designating Attorney General Phil Weiser to investigate the death of Elijah McClain.
“Elijah McClain should be alive today, and we owe it to his family to take this step and elevate the pursuit of justice in his name to a statewide concern,” Polis said in the release.
Polis said Weiser would criminally prosecute individuals if the facts support such action.
In a series of tweets Wednesday, Polis wrote, “a fair and objective process free from real or perceived bias for investigating officer-involved killings is critical.”
The announcement came after more than 2 million people signed a petition urging officials to conduct a new investigation into the death of McClain, who died after police officers from the Denver suburb of Aurora put him in a chokehold.
McClain’s death is one of several cases to receive renewed scrutiny following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others in incidents sparking massive protests across the country.
On August 24, 2019, McClain was stopped by three White officers as he walked home from a convenience store, after a 911 caller described a “suspicious person,” according to a police overview of the incident. McClain resisted officer contact, the report says, and a struggle ensued. On one of the officers’ body cameras, McClain is heard saying, “I’m an introvert, please respect the boundaries that I am speaking.”
Body cam video shows McClain telling officers that he was trying to stop his music to listen to them, then they begin to arrest him. One officer is heard telling another, “He just grabbed your gun, dude.”
The video shows an officer wrestle McClain to the ground.
At one point during the struggle, an officer is heard telling McClain, “If you keep messing around, I’m going to bring my dog out and he’s going to dog bite you.”
An officer placed McClain in a carotid hold, or chokehold, and he briefly lost consciousness, according to an overview of the incident provided by police. They released the hold, the report says, and he began struggling again. When paramedics arrived at the scene they administered ketamine to sedate McClain, the report said. According to a letter from the district attorney, McClain suffered a heart attack while in the ambulance, and he was declared brain dead three days later.
An autopsy did not determine a cause of death but listed intense physical exertion and a narrow left coronary artery as contributing factors, according to the police overview. The coroner found the amount of ketamine in his system to be a therapeutic amount.
‘He was an angel among humans’
The Adams County district attorney, Dave Young, declined to file criminal charges in the case at the time. In February this year, a police review board declared, “[t]he force applied during the altercation to include the carotid control hold and the force applied during the altercation was within policy and consistent with training.”
The officers in the case were placed on administrative leave following McClain’s death, but were later reinstated after prosecutors declined to file charges against them.
Asked about the social media petition and if it would sway him to take new action in the case, Young told CNN, “we’ve got to have the evidence … so the petitions, the emails, the voicemails and Facebook attacks to me, my family, everyone else expressing their opinions … is not evidence.” Young added that he doesn’t “condone the actions of the officers. I think they could’ve done things differently.”
Separately, the city of Aurora is planning an independent investigation, telling CNN in an email: “The mayor, City Council and city manager are working to initiate a new independent, external review of the actions of police, firefighters and paramedics in the Elijah McClain case. We are considering a team of experts from across the country to be involved and provide insight from different perspectives, but the exact participants have not been selected yet.”
An attorney for the McClain family, Mari Newman, called for officials to bring charges against the officers.
“It shouldn’t take millions of people signing a petition, and it shouldn’t take international media attention for elected officials to do their jobs,” Newman told CNN affiliate KCNC.
“He was an angel among humans,” Newman said of McClain. “He would go to play his violin on lunch hour to animals who were waiting to be adopted so they wouldn’t be lonely.”
In his Thursday statement, Polis said he was moved “by speaking with Elijah’s mother and her description of her son as a responsible and curious child who became a vegetarian to be healthier, and who could inspire the darkest soul.”
On Friday, Polis signed new police accountability legislation into law.
The Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act mandates body cameras, requires public reporting on policing, prevents rehiring of “bad actors,” holds individual officers liable for their actions, restricts the use of chemical agents and projectiles, and establishes that officers can only use deadly force when there is an imminent risk of danger to human life if apprehension is delayed, according to a joint press release from the General Assembly Democrats last week.
The legislation also repeals officer’s authority to use chokeholds and other dangerous tactics, the release said.