AURORA, Colo. (CN) — The parents of a 23-year-old Black man killed in police custody a year ago sued the city of Aurora, Colorado, and several officers involved in federal court on Tuesday.
Massage therapist Elijah McClain was dancing while listening to music on his way home from the corner store at 10:30 p.m. on Aug. 24, 2019, when three police officers tackled and handcuffed him. Officer Nathan Woodyard told McClain he had the right to stop him for being suspicious.
Police were responding to a driver’s report of a man “behaving oddly,” wearing a face mask and moving his arms as he walked down the street. McClain often wore a face mask in cool weather because he got cold easily.
McClain was sober, unarmed and had committed no crime.
In their 102-page lawsuit, McClain’s family says that “upon seeing Elijah, [the police officers] observed that he was Black, and although he exhibited no suspicious behavior, the officers nonetheless elected to contact him and almost immediately decided to use force against him.”
For nearly 20 minutes while waiting for an ambulance, officers held McClain against the ground with two constructive carotid holds and threatened to sic a police dog on him if he resisted, the family says. On the ground, McClain told police he was an introvert and a vegetarian. “Forgive me,” he told the officers. “All I was trying to do was become better.”
“I can’t breathe,” McClain told police. Based on audio captured by body cameras, the last words McClain ever spoke were, “Stop please! I’m trying. Please help me.”
The cameras fell off police officers’ uniforms during the arrest.
After vomiting, McClain passed out at the scene and paramedics injected him with 500 milligrams of ketamine — more than double the recommended dose for someone of his size, 143 pounds. He died three days later.
“Elijah’s killers extinguished the light of a beautiful young man who loved all beings,” said Mari Newman, the family’s attorney, in a statement. Newman practices with the Denver-based civil rights firm Killmer Lane & Newman.
“His compassion for animals was so strong that he played his violin for cats at animal shelters, believing that music eased their loneliness,” Newman said. “Yet when the Aurora Police Department (APD) officers encountered Elijah on the evening of Aug. 24, 2019, they saw none of the kindness and gentleness for which he was known, but rather just another Black man in America.”
Newman described McClain as the type of person who literally wouldn’t hurt a fly. “He would chase flies away rather that swatting them,” Newman said.
Last month, activists held several demonstrations in Aurora against police brutality, several of which culminated in clashes with police officers. Police beat, arrested and used tear gas against protesters on several occasions.
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.
According to the lawsuit, the city also handed the investigation over to “a former police officer and municipal defense attorney whose apparent purpose was to help the city dodge liability.”
Police charged McClain with the felony aggravated assault, but the family says in the complaint “it is the common custom, practice, and de facto policy of the Aurora Police Department to falsely charge citizens who are subject to police force with crimes in order to justify the use of force by police.”
“For decades, Aurora police have persistently brutalized people of color, and especially Black people, at a rate significantly greater than their proportion in the Aurora community,” the family says.
As evidence, the family lists more than two dozen other incidents of excessive force including most recently Brittany Gilliam, a Black woman with four children in tow who were all handcuffed on Aug. 2 when police mistook her car for a stolen motorcycle.
Aurora Police used force against 67% of the people they suspected of committing a misdemeanor in 2019.
Home to 353,000 people, Aurora is considered Colorado’s most diverse city where 46% of the population is white, 18% is Hispanic and 16% is Black.
The defendants include 13 members of the Aurora Police Department, the municipality, a paramedic and the medical director of Aurora Fire Rescue.
The city of Aurora declined to comment for this story.
The family accuses the city of Aurora and its police officers with depriving McClain of his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights as well as violating Colorado statutes protecting citizens against wrongful death from battery and negligence.
McClain’s parents, Sheneen McClain and Lawayne Mosley, asked U.S. Magistrate Judge N. Reid Neureiter to grant “past and future economic losses on all claims allowed by law, including but not limited to lost earnings and funeral and medical related expenses,” as well as punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.