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Colorado attorney general announces broader probe of police

In this June 27, 2020 photo, Sheneen McClain speaks during a rally and march over the death of her son, Elijah McClain.
Sheneen McClain speaks June 27 during a rally over the death of her son, Elijah McClain, outside the police department in Aurora, Colo. The 23-year-old Black man died last year after officers stopped him on the street and put him in a chokehold.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

The Colorado attorney general has announced a civil rights investigation into the suburban Denver police department whose officers used a chokehold on Elijah McClain before the 23-year-old Black man died last year.

It’s the first investigation under a new police reform law passed after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis set off global protests over racial injustice and police brutality.

The attorney general’s office announced Tuesday that the investigation into whether the Aurora Police Department has been depriving people of their constitutional rights has been underway for several weeks.

The department said the “patterns and practices” investigation is separate from the investigation it’s conducting specifically into McClain’s death, which was ordered by Gov. Jared Polis.

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The announcement came as McClain’s family sued Aurora police and paramedics, who injected him with a sedative last August. Just hours after the civil rights lawsuit was filed, the city announced that an outside firm would conduct a comprehensive review of the Police Department.

In a federal civil rights lawsuit, Sheneen McClain and Lawayne Mosley, Elijah’s parents, said they were seeking both accountability for the loss of a “beautiful soul” and to send a message that “racism and brutality have no place in American law enforcement.”

The lawsuit alleges that Elijah McClain was unlawfully stopped on the street last August and that officers later sought to justify their aggressive treatment of the massage therapist by filing an assault charge against him and making a notation in a police report suggesting that he was connected with a gang.

Aurora spokesperson Julie Patterson said the city attorney is reviewing the lawsuit but declined further comment.

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McClain’s parents said in a statement released by their lawyer that their son was a creative, peaceful man who played his violin for cats at animal shelters to ease their loneliness and would not swat a fly. His death got new attention after the police killing of Floyd stirred worldwide protests over racial injustice and police brutality. Aurora police have drawn outrage for McClain’s death and other run-ins with people of color.

On Aug. 24, 2019, police stopped McClain as he walked down the street wearing a ski mask and headphones after they received a 911 call from someone who reported him as “sketchy.” His family said he wore the mask because he had a blood condition that caused him to get cold easily.

Video from a police body camera shows an officer getting out of his car, approaching McClain and saying, “Stop right there. Stop. Stop. ... I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious.”

In the video, the officer turns McClain, who seems startled, and repeats, “Stop tensing up.” As McClain tries to escape the officer’s grip, the officer says, “Relax, or I’m going to have to change this situation.”

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As other officers join to restrain McClain, he begs them to let go and says, “You guys started to arrest me, and I was stopping my music to listen.”

Police put him in a chokehold, and paramedics injected him with 500 milligrams of ketamine.

Police have said that McClain refused to stop walking and fought back when officers tried to take him into custody and that they thought he was trying to take an officer’s gun, which the lawsuit disputes.

In the video, McClain tells officers: “Let go of me. I am an introvert. Please respect the boundaries that I am speaking.”

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McClain suffered cardiac arrest; he was later declared brain-dead and taken off life support. A prosecutor said last year that there wasn’t enough evidence to charge the officers, but the governor directed the state attorney general to open a new investigation. The city also is investigating its policies on using force and ketamine.

The lawsuit claims one officer jammed his knee into McClain’s arm “with the sole purpose of inflicting pain by forcefully separating Elijah’s bicep and triceps muscles.” It also says two of the officers reported that all three of them simultaneously placed their body weight on McClain after a chokehold. One officer estimated that the collective weight on McClain, who weighed 140 pounds, was more than 700 pounds.

The lawsuit comes just over a week after Aurora police were criticized for putting four Black girls on the ground and handcuffing two of them while investigating a car they suspected was stolen. It was later found that the car was not stolen.

The department just named a new permanent police chief, Vanessa Wilson, who said she is committed to rebuilding the public’s trust and wants to empower police to think about whether they are acting on their biases.

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Wilson has called McClain’s death tragic. As interim chief, she told officers in response to the case that they no longer had to contact a person reported as suspicious if the person was not committing a crime. When photos surfaced of officers reenacting the chokehold used on McClain, she moved quickly to fire three officers, including one who was involved in stopping McClain. She called the photos “a crime against humanity and decency.”


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