IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Probe sparked by Elijah McClain death finds Aurora Police racially biased

Earlier this month, two police officers, one former officer and two paramedics were charged with one count each of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in connection with the death.
Image: Elijah McClain
Demonstrators march to protest the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain in Aurora, Colo., on June 27, 2020.David Zalubowski / AP file

A civil rights investigation sparked by the death of Elijah McClain while in custody has found that the Aurora Police Department has a pattern of racially biased policing, Colorado's attorney general said Wednesday.

The report found "a consistent pattern of illegal behavior by Aurora Police, which can be witnessed at many levels of the department," Attorney General Phil Weiser's office said in a statement.

"The investigation team also found Aurora Fire had a pattern and practice of administering ketamine in violation of the law," the statement said.

Aurora police have used force against people of color 2.5 times more than against whites, the report found. "Nearly half of the individuals whom Aurora Police used force against were Black, even though Black residents make up about 15 percent of the population in Aurora," according to the report.

Police in Aurora also arrested people of color 1.3 times more than white people. Black people were arrested twice as much as white people.

And the investigation suggested "bias in Aurora’s recruitment and hiring process," according to the attorney general's statement. About 1 percent of Black qualified applicants were offered a job, compared with more than 4 percent of white applicants, the investigation found.

Attorney General Phil Weiser's office investigation was announced in August 2020. It had begun several weeks before then but was not revealed until the day that McClain's parents filed a lawsuit against Aurora.

The investigation was the first of its kind launched under a sweeping police accountability law passed in Colorado the month before amid nationwide protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“These change are a long time coming and critically necessary if we are going to avoid more tragedies in the future,” said Mari Newman, the attorney for McClain’s father who worked on the state’s police reform bill which gave the attorney general the power to investigate the Aurora Police Department for widespread abuses.

Newman expects that the state will sign a court-ordered agreement, called a consent decree, with Aurora to ensure that the changes are made. “We need to wait and see what the terms of the consent decree will include.”

“We are optimistic that the consent decree will make the necessary changes to address Aurora’s longstanding problems with racist police brutality," Newman added. “It’s a big deal, while this is a process, this is a critical first step.”

Under the law, if the attorney general finds an agency has "a pattern or practice" of violating people's rights, the attorney general must notify the agency of the reasons for that belief and give it 60 days to make changes. If the agency does not make changes, the attorney general can file a lawsuit to force them.

"Our team conducted a thorough examination—with the aid of the full cooperation of the city of Aurora—and developed important findings on how Aurora can come into compliance with the law and elevate the effectiveness and trustworthiness of law enforcement,” Weiser said Wednesday.

Weiser announced earlier this month that two police officers, one former officer and two paramedics will be charged with one count each of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide and other charges in connection with the death of McClain, 23.

The officers named in the indictment are Nathan Woodyard and Randy Roedema and former officer Jason Rosenblatt. The paramedics are Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec.

McClain's encounter with police in Aurora, a Denver suburb, began just after 10:30 p.m. on Aug. 24, 2019, after he bought iced tea from a corner store. At the time, McClain, a massage therapist, was wearing a ski mask — which he typically did because of a blood condition that made him feel cold, according to his family.

Three Aurora police officers responded to a report of a suspicious person wearing a mask and waving his arms.

Bodycam video later released showed officers ordering McClain to stop. He responded that he was an introvert and to "please respect the boundaries that I am speaking."

After questioning him, the officers grabbed McClain. One of them said he believed McClain had reached for a holstered gun, and McClain was brought to the ground. Aurora police said in a statement that he "resisted contact, a struggle ensued, and he was taken into custody."

Authorities said officers applied a carotid control hold on McClain, a type of chokehold meant to restrict blood to the brain to render a person unconscious. Paramedics were called to the scene, and McClain was injected with ketamine to sedate him after police video showed him writhing on the ground saying, "I can't breathe, please," and vomiting. He apologized for vomiting.

About seven minutes after he received the drug, McClain was found to have no pulse in the ambulance and went into cardiac arrest, according to a report released in fall of 2019 by a local prosecutor, Dave Young.

Medics were able to revive McClain, but less that a week later, he was declared brain dead and taken off life support.

The Adams County Coroner's Office determined that McClain's death was due to "undetermined causes," and that the "evidence does not support the prosecution of a homicide," according to Young's report. But the coroner did not rule out that the chokehold, in addition to the ketamine, may have contributed to his death.

Aurora police banned carotid control holds last summer, and separately, federal authorities said they were reviewing whether a civil rights investigation is warranted.

While officers Woodyard and Roedema remain employed by the department, Rosenblatt was one of three other officers fired in July 2020 after an internal investigation found they held a selfie photo session near a memorial site for McClain. A fourth officer also resigned as part of that scandal.

A lawsuit filed by McClain's family in August 2020 alleges that excessive force used by the officers over a span of 18 minutes caused an increase of lactic acid in his blood, and mixed with the ketamine injected into him, negatively affected his respiratory system.

An independent probe commissioned by the city of Aurora and released in February concluded 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."

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

Erik Ortiz and Simone Weichselbaum contributed.