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'A beautiful young man': Elijah McClain family sues over his death in Colorado police custody

"Aurora Police Department officers ... saw none of the kindness and gentleness for which he was known, but rather just another Black man," the family's attorney said.
Image: Elijah McClain
Rashiaa Veal holds a sign of her cousin Elijah McClain at a news conference in Aurora, Colo. on Oct. 1, 2019.Andy Cross / The Denver Post via Getty Images file

The family of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who died last year after police officers in Aurora, Colorado, put him in a chokehold and then injected him with ketamine while he was handcuffed, filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday alleging that the officers violated his civil rights.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Colorado, names the city of Aurora, several police officers, two paramedics and a fire department medical director.

"Elijah was listening to music, enjoying the short walk home from the corner store with some iced tea when Aurora police officers grabbed, tackled, and assaulted him," the lawsuit said in regard to his detention on Aug. 24, 2019.

"In a span of eighteen minutes, Defendants subjected Elijah to a procession of needless and brutal force techniques and unnecessary, recklessly administered medication, the combined effects of which he could not survive," the suit said.

McClain was taken off life support and died days later, on Aug. 30.

The arrest occurred after Aurora police received a call at 10:32 p.m. on Aug. 24 reporting that a “suspicious person” was "walking on Billings Street near East Colfax Avenue, wearing a ski mask and waving his arms at the caller," officials said.

McClain's family said he often wore a ski mask when he felt cold. According to weather records, it would have been in the mid-to-high 60s the night of the arrest.

"The male would not stop walking down the street from the officer," according to a police statement at the time. "The male resisted contact, a struggle ensued, and he was taken into custody."

At some point, officers called for an ambulance. Authorities later said that McClain "suffered a cardiac arrest and lifesaving measures were initiated."

The coroner for Adams and Broomfield counties attributed McClain's death to "undetermined causes." But the coroner did not rule out whether the police chokehold — in addition to the sedative ketamine, injected into McClain by paramedics — might have contributed to his death.

Adams County District Attorney Dave Young opted not to prosecute the officers involved, saying he could not disprove, with enough evidence to win a conviction, the officers' assertion that they were right to use the level of force they employed.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, has appointed a special prosecutor to re-evaluate the case.

"Public confidence in our law enforcement process is incredibly important now more than ever," Polis said. "A fair and objective process free from real or perceived bias for investigating officer-involved killings is critical."

A union representative for Aurora police officers could not be immediately reached for comment on Tuesday. The city of Aurora said it was reviewing the lawsuit and could not comment. The Aurora Fire Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The three officers involved in taking McClain into custody were moved to "nonenforcement" duties in late June after the death came under renewed public scrutiny.

Mari Newman, an attorney for the family, said in a statement Tuesday that the McClains want justice.

"Elijah Javon McClain was 23 years old when he was killed by Aurora police officers and paramedics. "Elijah’s killers extinguished the light of a beautiful young man who loved all beings," Newman said.

"His compassion for animals was so strong that he played his violin for cats at animal shelters, believing that music eased their loneliness, and he was so averse to causing harm to another living being that he would chase flies away rather than swatting them," she said. "Yet when the Aurora Police Department officers encountered Elijah on the evening of August 24, 2019, they saw none of the kindness and gentleness for which he was known, but rather just another Black man in America."