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Investigation Rebukes Police Over Death of Colorado Man

An independent review into the death of an unarmed Black man stopped by Aurora Police Department raises concerns and offers systemic solutions.

(CN) –-- It took police in Aurora, Colorado, 10 seconds to determine that a Black man wearing a ski mask in August was a threat, escalating the interaction that resulted in the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain, according to a 157-page report filed by an independent review panel on Monday.

“Based on our review of the events on Aug. 24, 2019, we make several recommendations to the city for changes in the policies and practices of the Aurora Police Department and Aurora Fire Rescue,” the panel wrote in the report. “The recommendations are intended to lessen the chance of another tragedy like this one from happening again.”

Police stopped Elijah McClain on Aug. 24, 2019, around 10:30 p.m. in response to a driver’s report of a man “behaving oddly,” wearing a face mask and moving his arms as he walked down the street.

Though McClain was sober, unarmed and had committed no crime, the incident quickly escalated with police placing him in a chokehold. When an ambulance arrived, emergency responders injected McClain with the sedative ketamine. He died three days later in a hospital.

Following increased scrutiny into the incident, the Aurora City Council placed a moratorium on the use of ketamine by emergency medical providers and ordered an independent investigation into the incident.

The review panel included an emergency medicine physician based in Mobile, Alabama, a former chief of the Tucson Police Department, and the executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

The panel reviewed police body camera footage and audio, as well as interviews, audio from the 911 call and McClain’s autopsy report.

"Upon review of the evidence available to the panel, Officer [Nathan] Woodyard’s decision to turn what may have been a consensual encounter with Mr. McClain into an investigatory stop — in fewer than 10 seconds — did not appear to be supported by any officer’s reasonable suspicion that Mr. McClain was engaged in criminal activity,” the report says. “This decision had ramifications for the rest of the encounter."

In addition to recommending implicit bias training and better protocols for police to descalate interactions, the report suggests emergency responders wear body cameras. Prior to administering ketamine, the report suggests medical responders measure glucose levels, apply a heart monitor and assess patients independently rather than follow law the lead from enforcement.

McClain’s parents sued the city of Aurora on Aug. 11, 2020. The lawsuit remembers McClain as a massage therapist and violinist who literally wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Activists held several demonstrations in Aurora against police brutality over the summer of 2020, several of which culminated in clashes with police officers. Police beat, arrested and used tear gas against protesters, further deepening rifts between the public and police.

"The death of Elijah McClain accelerated community concerns,” the panel wrote in their report. "Police response to protests concerning Mr. McClain’s death received criticism and impacted trust and legitimacy after police officers responded in riot gear and deployed pepper spray during a largely peaceful demonstration.”

Following McClain’s death, internal investigations from the Aurora Police and Fire departments concluded no wrongdoing had occurred.

Although Aurora did not discipline any officers involved in McClain’s death, it fired three officers who returned to the site of the death last month and took photos mocking the incident.

Upon review, the 17th Judicial District attorney's office declined to press charges against the officers involved. Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced a grand jury investigation of Elijah McClain's death this month.

The Aurora City Attorney’s office did not respond immediately to requests for comment.

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