When Lindsay Minter, an Aurora-based community activist, closes her eyes at the end of every day, the violent scene that led to Elijah McClain’s death last August plays through her mind like a movie reel. Her heart aches when she thinks of how McClain’s mother, Sheenan, has been forced to grieve her son’s death in the public spotlight.

There are currently five separate investigations into the Aurora Police Department and the death of 23-year-old McClain, who died days after a violent encounter with police while walking home from a convenience store on Aug. 24, 2019. A civil lawsuit was filed this month by the McClain family against the city of Aurora and more than a dozen officers and paramedics.

A year after McClain’s death, his case is in the national spotlight and at the center of Colorado’s push for racial justice and widespread police reform. But for many, a year has passed and justice hasn’t been served.

“There was no way in my mind that a year ago, when I started this journey, that I would have thought that those people would still have jobs,” Minter said, referring to the police officers and paramedics involved in the McClain case, “let alone not be involved in some sort of criminal charge.”

An event planned for the anniversary of McClain’s death was canceled this week, because it no longer represented the family’s intentions. “People wanna celebrate his death like a regular anniversary while his killers roam free,” Sheenan McClain wrote in a post on her GoFundMe page on Aug. 14. “All I wanted to do was walk my son’s spirit home safely so he could finally be at peace despite the injustices in the police and fire departments that killed him.”

Jukka Pawley, at left playing violin, and others take part in a protest at City Center Park in Aurora on June 27, 2020, in response to the death of Elijah McClain at the hands of Aurora police. (Photo by John Moore)

The family’s GoFundMe page has received nearly $2.5 million in donations, and more than 5 million people have signed an online petition demanding the officers involved in his death be held accountable.

In a separate post on her GoFundMe page, Sheenan McClain wrote that their family would not be talking to any members of the media until charges have been filed against the officers involved in her son’s death.

“There is nothing new to say, or add or showcase, only after a conviction, then Elijah’s family will have something to say,” she wrote. “Anything else can be handled at another time surrounding charges being filed against Elijah’s killers.”

Five investigations

On Aug. 11, the McClain family filed a 106-page federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Aurora, 13 law enforcement officers, one paramedic and one doctor.

“Aurora’s unconstitutional conduct on the night of August 24, 2019, is part of a larger custom, policy, and practice of racism and brutality, as reflected by its conduct both before and after its murder of Elijah McClain, a young Black man,” the lawsuit states.

McClain, who worked as a professional massage therapist, was suspected of no crime and was stopped by Aurora police officers after someone called 911 to report a “sketchy” looking person. 

Pending investigations

Federal ––> McClain case: Looks at whether Aurora police violated McClain’s constitutional rights; could result in the officers involved in the McClain case being indicted by a grand jury. 

State ––> McClain case: Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser has been appointed by the governor to reexamine the McClain case and file charges if necessary.

State ––> Aurora Police Department: The department-wide investigation by Weiser will determine if there are serious patterns and practices of excessive force and biased policing within the Aurora Police Department. 

City of Aurora ––> Aurora Police Department: The department-wide review will look into use-of-force procedures, potential discriminatory practices, officer misconduct, civilian complaints, recruitment and hiring, and crisis intervention practices.

City of Aurora ––> McClain case: The investigation is led by Washington-based lawyer Jonathan Smith and will look into how the police and paramedics conducted McClain’s arrest. 

A federal investigation involving the local FBI, U.S. Attorney’s Office and U.S. Department of Justice could result in the officers involved in the McClain case being indicted by a grand jury. Investigators are assessing if the officers violated McClain’s civil rights. Last year, the officers involved in the McClain case — Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema — were cleared of all criminal wrongdoing by District Attorney Dave Young. 

On June 25, Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order appointing the state’s attorney general, Phil Weiser, to reexamine the case and file charges if necessary. “Elijah McClain should be alive today,” Polis said in a statement, “and we owe it to his family to take this step and elevate the pursuit of justice in his name to a statewide concern.”

In August, Weiser announced his office was conducting a “patterns-or-practices” investigation into the Aurora Police Department. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division uses these types of investigations across the country to reform ”serious patterns and practices of excessive force, biased policing and other unconstitutional practices by law enforcement,” according to its website.

Weiser gained the ability to conduct pattern-or-practice investigations earlier in the month when Polis signed a sweeping police accountability law.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser. (coag.gov)

The city of Aurora is also reevaluating the McClain case as well as the police department in two separate investigations. The investigation into the case, which is being led by Washington-based lawyer Jonathan Smith, will look into how the police and paramedics conducted McClain’s arrest. 

The department-wide review into the Aurora police, being led by consulting firm 21CP Solutions, will look into the department’s leadership structure, police’s use-of-force procedures, potential discriminatory practices, officer misconduct, civilian complaints, recruitment and hiring, and crisis intervention practices, according to a city press release on Aug. 14.

But for the McClain family and many community activists pushing for change, the process to achieve justice has been painstakingly slow.

“It’s like climbing a hill, except when we get to the top we realize there’s no way to go down and we have to keep climbing,” said Minter, who is a member of Aurora’s police Independent Review Board. “There are still so many hills to climb.”

Minter said firing the remaining officers involved in McClain’s death would be the first step among many towards community healing and justice for him and his family.  Former officer Rosenblatt was fired on July 3 after he responded to a photograph of three on-duty Aurora police officers reenacting a chokehold at the site of McClain’s violent arrest with “ha ha.” He has since filed a lawsuit against Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson and Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly over his termination.

Minter wants to see more transparency into how the various investigations into the McClain case and the Aurora Police Department are being handled.

“There is no transparency, everything is still being done in the cover of darkness, and that alone in itself needs to change,” Minter said. “We have to be able to put our hands directly to government and the community has to be engaged.”

‘No one is asking the right questions’

For Kelci Newlin, the fight for justice for McClain hits especially close to home.

“My mom’s older brother was murdered by police off Colfax in the 70s,” Newlin said, referring to the central Denver thoroughfare. “And he was a vet and was hooked on heroin and was going to make a deal or whatever and was shot by undercover officers. No one deserves to die under that pretense and they deserve a fair trial.”

When protests ignited in Colorado over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, Newlin was in the streets of Denver and Aurora every day. Since then, she said, her second job has been helping to organize events calling for justice for McClain. 

Kelci Newlin, a community activist, poses for a portrait near her home in Denver. Newlin has been helping to organize events over the last few months to demand justice for Elijah McClain and to push for broader police reforms. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

In April, Newlin said she noticed a lull in activism. “And honestly, this is just history repeating itself again and again and again,” she said. “This can’t be buried under not having swabs for testing or whatever. This can’t be buried under a lot of the issues that we have going on and just forgotten.” 

She said she hopes the public pressure and outcry seen in May and June carries throughout the fall. “There are papers that are being filed right now but there hasn’t been a lot of change, and so our energy really needs to remain high,” said Newlin, who runs programs for adults with special needs at a care center in Centennial.

On Aug. 17, Newlin helped orchestrate a film screening in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. The film, which was projected on the side of a building on Curtis Street, included celebrities like Janelle Monáe, Jonathan Van Ness and Meagan Good who were demanding justice for McClain and calling on Colorado officials to charge the officers involved in his death. 

The screening was meant to be simple: light a candle, watch a video and come together to show support. “The family doesn’t need any marching right now, they don’t need shouting,” Newlin said.

“I understand how impactful marching on I-225 was and all that, but it’s a little bit too loud for a week of mourning. And so that event was kind of like, ‘Hey, we’re still here, and we still support you and we can do this quietly as well as loud,” said Newlin of the film screening.

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She said she understands why the event planned for the one-year anniversary of McClain’s death was canceled. 

“It’s traumatizing to the family,” Newlin said. “They don’t want to hear his last words over and over again. And I think that’s a big reason the event was called off,” she said, adding that before the event was canceled, nearly 14,000 people had responded to the Facebook event.

Newlin said the conversation from elected officials around racial justice, systemic racism and police brutality is still not where it needs to be to promote systemic change.

“No one is asking the right questions, it’s all so defensive,” Newlin said. “Laws take time, lawsuits take time, all this stuff is going to be years and years, but we still haven’t even had the right spark of thought. Like how can we really change this? How can we be better? It’s still not on the forefront. And that’s just crazy to me.”