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Elijah McClain’s family and Aurora, Colorado, agree to record $15M settlement over deadly police confrontation

The agreement, which has not been finalized, would settle a civil rights lawsuit filed by McClain's family following his 2019 death after a violent confrontation with police.
Demonstrators walk down Sable Boulevard during a rally and march over the death of Elijah McClain in Aurora, Colo., on June 27, 2020.
Demonstrators walk down Sable Boulevard during a rally and march over the death of Elijah McClain in Aurora, Colo., on June 27, 2020.David Zalubowski / AP file

Officials in Aurora, Colorado, have agreed to pay $15 million to Elijah McClain’s family to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit over his 2019 death, which followed a violent confrontation with police, attorneys representing his family said Friday.

The agreement is the largest police settlement in the city’s history, likely the largest in Colorado history, and among the largest ever in the United States.

It was reached in federal court Friday, NBC affiliate KUSA of Denver reported.

"No amount of money will ever bring Elijah back to his mother. Ms. McClain would return every cent for just one more day with her son," the Denver law firm representing Sheneen McClain said in a statement that confirmed the settlement figure.

The firm, Rathod Mohamedbhai, said an upcoming allocation hearing would determine how much of that would go to McClain, who it says raised Elijah, and how much would go to his father, LeWayne Mosley.

In a statement released by his attorney Friday, Mosley said the settlement wouldn't make up for his loss, but said, “hopefully this sends a message to police everywhere that there are consequences for their actions.”

McClain’s family filed the federal lawsuit in August 2020 naming the city, accusing several police officers, two paramedics and a fire department medical director of violating the 23-year-old Black man’s civil rights.

According to KUSA, once McClain drops defendants from the suit the city will make its payment to the court’s registry. The registry will then hold the funds until allocation is determined.

McClain was detained by authorities on Aug. 24, 2019. Police put him in a chokehold and handcuffed him before an Aurora paramedic injected him with ketamine, according to an independent investigation launched by the city.

“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 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.

McClain’s death garnered national interest in light of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, as millions of Americans protested police brutality and systemic racism.

The settlement with McClain’s family is among the highest ever, and comparable to other recent high-profile deaths of Black people who died during interactions with police.

Sheneen McClain, the mother of Elijah McClain, in the office of her attorney, Qusair Mohamedbhai, on March 3, 2021, in Denver.
Sheneen McClain, the mother of Elijah McClain, in the office of her attorney on March 3, 2021, in Denver.David Zalubowski / AP file

In September 2020, the city of Louisville, Kentucky, reached a $12 million settlement with Breonna Taylor’s family six months after she was killed in her home during a police drug raid.

The settlement did not require the city to admit any wrongdoing.

In March, the city of Minneapolis agreed to pay $27 million to settle a civil lawsuit with George Floyd’s family, a record payout for the city.

During the summer of 2020, Colorado became the first state to end so-called “qualified immunity,” a legal principle which generally shields police officers and other government employees from being held personally responsible in civil court.

In February, an independent investigation concluded Colorado police and paramedics who stopped McClain made a series of crucial errors that ended in the young man’s death.

Aurora police had no justification to stop or use force to detain McClain, and responding paramedics sedated him with ketamine “without conducting anything more than a brief visual observation” of him, according to a panel of medical and legal experts, appointed by the City Council, which commissioned the report.

The initial stop of McClain was questionable, as “none of the officers articulated a crime that they thought Mr. McClain had committed, was committing or was about to commit,” the report found.

“This decision had ramifications for the rest of the encounter,” according to findings.

Authorities have said they believed he was in a state of excited delirium and posing a threat to officers.

Elijah McClain was a 23-year-old massage therapist who played the violin. McClain was in the hospital after he was forcibly detained by Aurora police officers in August 2019. He later died.
Elijah McClain was a 23-year-old massage therapist who played the violin. McClain was in the hospital after he was forcibly detained by Aurora police officers in August 2019. He later died.Courtesy Sheneen McClain

“Based on the record available to the panel, 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 said. “The panel also notes that one officer’s explanation that that Aurora officers are trained to ‘take action before it escalates’ does not meet the constitutional requirement of reasonable suspicion to conduct (a stop or frisk).”

The 5-foot-7, 140-pound McClain was given a ketamine dosage that would have been proper for a man weighing 190 pounds, according to the panel’s findings.

“Aurora Fire appears to have accepted the officers’ impression that Mr. McClain had excited delirium without corroborating that impression through meaningful observations or diagnostic examination of Mr. McClain,” the report said.

“In addition, EMS administered a ketamine dosage based on a grossly inaccurate and inflated estimate of Mr. McClain’s size," the report said. "Higher doses can carry a higher risk of sedation complications, for which this team was clearly not prepared.”

The report stopped short of blaming “implicit bias” for McClain’s death.

“In looking at this single incident, the panel has insufficient information to determine what role, if any, bias played in Aurora Police officers’ and EMS personnel’s encounter with McClain,” according to the city-commissioned experts.

“However, research indicates that factors such as increased perception of threat, perception of extraordinary strength, perception of higher pain tolerance, and misperceptions of age and size can be indicative of bias," the report stated.

Previously, fire and emergency medical services officials in Aurora have said a preliminary review found that medics’ actions on the night police detained McClain were “consistent and aligned with our established protocols.”

Family attorney Mari Newman said then the report supported plaintiff allegations.

“This is a broadside on the city of Aurora from top to bottom, beginning with the illegal stop that set the wheels in motion and the illegal conduct every step of the way,” Newman told NBC News.

The report was also critical of city law enforcement well after McClain’s death.

The department’s homicide unit “failed to ask basic, critical questions about the justification for the use of force,” and the Force Review Board review was “cursory and summary at best,” the report found. The incident wasn’t even reviewed by internal affairs, the panel said.

“Without a detailed examination of the justification for the use of force throughout the incident, important opportunities to identify problems and reform practices were lost,” the report said.

An autopsy failed to identify McClain's precise cause of death, according to reports from KUSA.

But five people, including two police officers, a former officer, and two paramedics were indicted in September in connection to McClain's detainment and death, said Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser.

The five defendants were charged with one count each of manslaughter and criminally-negligent homicide.

McClain’s father, Mosley, said he cried tears of joy upon learning of the indictment.

“Nothing will bring back my son, but I am thankful that his killers will finally be held accountable,” Mosley said in a statement.