The Aurora, Colorado, police officers who stopped Elijah McClain as he was was walking home from a convenience store—and then put him in a carotid hold in which he repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe before injecting him with ketamine—did not have any legal basis for the August 2019 altercation, an independent investigation has concluded.
The 157-page report, commissioned by the City of Aurora after McClain’s death drew worldwide condemnation, offered stunning details into the countless missteps involved in the 23-year-old Black massage therapist’s death. Independent investigators concluded in the report released Monday that “the post-event investigation was flawed and failed to meaningfully develop a fulsome record. These facts trouble the panel. However, it was not our charge to assess whether misconduct occurred; rather, our task was simply to report what we could learn from the record and make policy recommendations.”
Investigators found that McClain’s death happened quickly; however, neither the resident who initially called 911 nor the responding officers even identified the 23-year-old as having committed a crime.
“Within seconds of exiting their cars, officers used force on Mr. McClain which they sustained over an extended time period, including two attempted carotid holds,” the report states. “EMS waited almost seven minutes after arriving to interact with Mr. McClain, and their first contact was to administer the sedative ketamine.”
“The body-worn camera audio, limited video, and Major Crime’s interviews with the officers tell two contrasting stories,” the report states. “The officers’ statements on the scene and in subsequent recorded interviews suggest a violent and relentless struggle. The limited video, and the audio from the body-worn cameras, reveal Mr. McClain surrounded by officers, all larger than he, crying out in pain, apologizing, explaining himself, and pleading with the officers.”
Moreover, the report points the finger at the paramedics who sedated McClain with an inaccurate dose of ketamine “without conducting anything more than a brief visual observation.”
After the incident, detectives failed to ask the officers involved basic questions, and instead “the questions frequently appeared designed to elicit specific exonerating ‘magic language’ found in court rulings,” according to the report.
“In addition, the report of the Major Crime Unit stretched the record to exonerate the officers rather than present a neutral version of the facts,” the report states. “It is hard to imagine any other persons involved in a fatal incident being interviewed as these officers were.”
The city hired a panel of investigators to examine the officers’ and paramedics’ decisions that led to McClain’s Aug. 24 death after intense national scrutiny. In the wake of outrage over George Floyd’s May 2020 death, protesters have called for renewed attention to several fatalities at the hands of police—including McClain’s.
His mother, Sheneen McClain, said in a statement after the report’s release that she is “relieved that the truth surrounding the death of her son is finally coming to light.”
“The independent investigation that was commissioned and paid for by Aurora makes clear what was already known: Elijah should never have been stopped by the police, never have been arrested, never have been subjected to extreme force by the police and should never have been forcibly injected with ketamine by Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics,” McClain said, adding that Aurora officials violated her son’s constitutional rights and the city is “responsible for Elijah’s tragic death by virtue of its employees’ unlawful and unconscionable actions.”
She said the officials who contributed to her son’s death must be terminated.
“We felt it was important for the public to see the results of the investigation at the same time we received them,” Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly said in a Monday statement. “We welcomed how comprehensive and thorough the investigators were over the last six months. We are currently reviewing their report and look forward to hearing additional context during their presentation before we comment further. City management will work with the mayor and city council in coming days and weeks to assure the appropriate next steps are taken.”
One of the three Aurora officers involved, Jason Rosenblatt, was eventually fired from the suburban Denver force after replying “haha” on a texted photo showing other officers re-enacting one of the chokeholds used on McClain at his memorial site. The other two officers—Nathan Woodyard and Randy Roedema—have been placed on “non-enforcement” duties.
In addition to Monday’s report, the Colorado Attorney General’s Office has asked a grand jury to look at the case to determine if any criminal charges are warranted and the Department of Justice is also investigating. Last year, McClain’s family also filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Aurora.
According to the official police report, the Aurora Police Department received a call from an unidentified resident at 10:32 p.m. on Aug. 24, 2019, about a “suspicious Black male wearing a ski mask.”
But McClain, who had made the quick grocery run to pick up bottled tea for his cousin and wore an open-faced ski mask because he had anemia, which often made him cold, was unarmed and simply listening to music.
The police report states that Woodyard, who was the first officer to arrive at the scene, asked McClain to stop three times. When McClain ignored the commands, Woodyard said he approached the 23-year-old, who allegedly told him: “I have a right to go where I am going.” In response, Woodyard said, “I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious,” before grabbing McClain’s arm.
During the 15-minute altercation, the three officers tackled McClain to the ground and put him in a carotid hold after one officer was heard saying: “He’s going for your gun.” In the audio from the officers’ body camera, McClain begs for his life and he repeatedly tells police he couldn’t breathe.
“I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff,” McClain is heard saying, after denying he is resisting arrest. “I don’t do any fighting. Why are you attacking me? I don’t even kill flies.”
“Let me go, no let me go, I am an introvert, please respect my boundaries that I am speaking,” McClain also told the officers, according to the body-camera footage. When the officers told him to “relax,” McClain stated he was going home.
While in the chokehold, McClain passed out, according to the police report.
When medical first responders arrived, they injected him with ketamine to sedate him—even though McClain had passed out in the police restraint. He suffered a heart attack in the ambulance and was taken off life support six days later.
The report concludes that Aurora paramedics failed to properly examine McClain before injecting him with nearly 500 milligrams of ketamine—a dosage that was “grossly inaccurate” estimation of the 23-year-old’s weight. Investigators state paramedics estimated McClain weighed 190 pounds when he actually weighed about 50 pounds less.
“Aurora Fire appears to have accepted the officers’ impression that Mr. McClain had excited delirium without corroborating that impression through meaningful observation or diagnostic examination of Mr. McClain,” the report states.
Once McClain was loaded into the ambulance, paramedics observed that he “did not have a pulse.” Authorities later said he “suffered a cardiac arrest and lifesaving measures were initiated,” according to the police report.
McClain was declared brain dead at 3:51 p.m. on Aug. 27, 2019. The Adams County Coroner’s Office found that he died from “undetermined causes,” but did not rule on whether the police carotid hold—or the ketamine—might have contributed to his death. Soon after, the district attorney found that the three officers involved were not criminally liable.
“In the Panel’s opinion, Major Crime investigators failed to meaningfully investigate the officers’ continued use of force after Mr. McClain was restrained, such as through a closer examination of the officers’ contentions that Mr. McClain continued to resist. Even once it should have been obvious that Mr. McClain was not able to resist or escape, given both that he was handcuffed and in the presence of multiple officers, the officers continued to use pain compliance techniques,” the independent investigation states.
“Throughout, there were times when officers could be seen on body-worn camera footage adjusting and intensifying armbars and wrist-locks or pressing down on Mr. McClain’s back or side muscle groups, causing him to cry out in pain while they were on top of him. These appeared to be in response to almost any movement on Mr. McClain’s part. The officers were still discussing maintaining pressure holds right up until Mr. McClain was injected with ketamine—and even though he did not appear to be moving at that time.”