An investigation commissioned by the city of Aurora, Colorado finds that the police officers had no reason to stop Elijah McClain, 23, in the summer of 2019, let alone put him in a chokehold. Fire department paramedics attending him after his collapse gave him the powerful sedative ketamine, which caused cardiac arrest. The young Black man died after being taken off life support on August 30, 2019.
His family filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Colorado last year. The lawsuit accused the city of Aurora, several police officers and paramedics, and the medical director of the fire department of violating his civil rights.
Waving His Hands to Music
When police spotted McClain on August 24, 2019, he was on his way home from a convenience store. He was listening to music and waving his hands, carrying iced tea.
Earlier, the police had received a call about a suspicious person walking in the area sporting a ski mask and waving his arms at the person reporting the incident. McClain’s family said he often wore the mask when out walking, even though it was a warm summer night. The caller did tell police that the man did not appear either armed or threatening, but was instead “sketchy.”
McClain, a massage therapist, was immediately ordered to stop by the first officer, Nathan Woodyard, on the scene. Within seconds of leaving his patrol car, Woodyard had his hands on the young man. In later interviews with the city’s major crime unit, Woodyard admitted that he and the two officers who soon arrived could not articulate what crime McClain had or was about to commit. Waving your hands at a passerby while wearing a ski mask may seem odd, but it is not a crime.
Woodyard also frisked McClain for weapons, even though the young man had done nothing to justify such a search.
Paramedics administered ketamine after officers said McClain was exhibiting signs of delirium – although the emergency responders neither observed nor diagnosed him. McClain stood 5’7” and weighed 140 pounds. He was given the amount of ketamine normally administered to a man weighing 200 pounds. It was the fire department lieutenant at the scene who overestimated McClain’s size.
Unable to Resist
The report states that police continued to use force on McClain even though it was clear he was unable to resist or escape. He was handcuffed and surrounded by law enforcement. Police body camera footage reveals officers continued using pain compliance techniques on McClain, although there was no apparent need. The audio records McClain sobbing, apologizing, and begging for mercy.
The video captures police discussing using pressure holds until the ketamine injection, although McClain was no longer moving.
Independent Review Panel Recommendations
The independent review panel consisted of legal and medical experts. It noted the investigation by local police detectives raised “serious concerns,” as the detectives neither rigorously questioned the officers involved nor closely examined the circumstances leading to McClain’s demise. The report states questions seemed designed so that officers could respond with “magic” exonerating language that had appeared in court rulings.
Just three months after his death, the Adams County District Attorney announced no charges would be filed against the officers. The D.A. claimed there was insufficient evidence that the use of force on McClain had broken the law.
The panel recommends initiating major policy changes in how police officers and emergency medical service workers are trained. More de-escalation training is necessary, as is the documentation of all police stops.