The Colorado state attorney general on Tuesday announced a sweeping investigation into whether a local Police Department being scrutinized in the death of a 23-year-old Black man last summer employed “patterns and practices” that may deprive people of their constitutional rights.
The attorney general, Phil Weiser, said in a statement that his office’s investigation of the Aurora Police Department had been underway “for several weeks now” and is separate from its investigation of the department following the August 2019 death of Elijah McClain. Police officers had restrained Mr. McClain with a chokehold and paramedics injected him with ketamine.
The attorney general’s investigation is the latest inquiry into the department. In June, Gov. Jared Polis appointed Mr. Weiser as a special prosecutor to determine if criminal charges should be filed as a result of Mr. McClain’s death. The City Council of Aurora voted last month for an independent investigation into the death. On Tuesday, the city announced a “comprehensive review” of the Police Department.
A “patterns and practices” investigation, according to the federal Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, is broad in scope, and may include an examination of a police department’s record of not only arrests, but also stops, searches, and use of force. Investigators may interview local residents, officials and even conduct ride-alongs with officers in order to gather information, the department said.
The chief of the Aurora Police Department, Vanessa Wilson, was “personally contacted” Tuesday by the attorney general about the new investigation and pledged the department’s “full cooperation,” according to a statement by the Police Department. “We remain steadfast in our commitment to transparency and earning the trust of our community back,” the statement said.
News of the investigation came on the same day that the family of Mr. McClain filed a lawsuit against the city.
“We have filed this civil rights lawsuit to demand justice for Elijah McClain, to hold accountable the Aurora officials, police officers and paramedics responsible for his murder, and to force the city of Aurora to change its longstanding pattern of brutal and racist policing,” Mari Newman, a lawyer for the family, said in a statement. The civil complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court by Mr. McClain’s parents, Sheneen McClain and Lawayne Mosley, seeks damages for the family and names the city, 12 police officers, two Fire Department paramedics and their medical director as defendants.
“In a span of 18 minutes, defendants subjected Elijah to a procession of needless and brutal force techniques and unnecessary, recklessly administered medication, the combined effects of which he could not survive,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit also said the city “permits and encourages a culture of racial violence in its Police Department” and accused the police of using unnecessary force in response to demonstrators who gathered to protest Mr. McClain’s death.
Representatives of the Police and the Fire Departments did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Tuesday afternoon. A spokeswoman for Aurora said “the city is currently reviewing the lawsuit and is unable to comment at this time.”
Mr. McClain, a massage therapist, was walking home from a convenience store with some iced tea on Aug. 24 when someone called 911, saying he “looked sketchy” and was wearing a ski mask and waving his arms.
The police arrived and moved to handcuff him, even though Mr. McClain had not committed any crime. After struggling to restrain Mr. McClain, the officers used a carotid hold, which restricts blood flow to the brain to render someone unconscious.
The lawsuit includes a transcript of Mr. McClain’s final words, beginning with: “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe please. I can’t. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe, please stop.”
Body camera footage shows Mr. McClain pleading while trying to get out of the officers’ grip. The officers eventually brought him to the ground, claiming he had reached for one of their guns while they were pinning him against a wall to handcuff him. The body camera footage does not show this, officers said, because their cameras had fallen onto the grass.
After paramedics arrived, they injected Mr. McClain with ketamine, a powerful sedative. Body camera footage shows that the injection made his body go limp when he was loaded onto a gurney. On the way to a hospital, Mr. McClain went into cardiac arrest. He died a few days later.
An autopsy report, released in November, said a combination of factors could have killed Mr. McClain. A few days later, Dave Young, the Adams County district attorney, announced that criminal charges would not be filed, saying there was not enough evidence that the officers had broken the law when they used force on Mr. McClain.
The decision angered Mr. McClain’s family, and this spring, his mother pushed lawmakers to adopt police reforms.
“We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of Elijah’s murder, and it’s long past time to hold his killers accountable,” Ms. Newman, the lawyer, said. “We were hopeful that the city of Aurora would stand up and do what’s right and not drag this family through the incredibly difficult and heart-wrenching process of litigation. It didn’t.”
Mr. McClain’s case received renewed attention after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis on May 25 after being pinned to the ground by an officer who pressed his knee onto Mr. Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, spurring nationwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality.
In June, the Aurora Police Department announced a ban on carotid holds like the one used on Mr. McClain. Officers are also now required to report excessive force used by their colleagues, and to announce their intention to use deadly force before firing their weapon.
In an unrelated case last week, the Aurora police chief apologized after officers handcuffed members of a Black family, including two children lying on the ground, in a mistaken stolen-car stop that was captured on a video, which has been widely shared. That car stop is now under investigation.
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