Aurora police form a line at City Center Park in Aurora during a protest on June 27, 2020, in response to the death of Elijah McClain at the hands of Aurora police. (Photo by John Moore)
A report from independent investigators released this week confirms what many observers of the Elijah McClain case intuited all along — that Aurora cops and paramedics behaved with mortal recklessness in handling the 23-year-old McClain, who was the suspect of no crime and posed no threat, and that, upon the young man’s death, their allies in positions of public responsibility, from the police department to the district attorney’s office, went through a cover-up checklist to make sure no one involved was held accountable.
Many people in Aurora have come to believe that justice, especially if you’re Black like McClain, is a mirage. The independent report makes that view all but irrefutable. It outlines a power structure designed not just to withhold the assurance of law enforcement protection but, just when it’s most needed, to flip it so the guilty walk free.
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Add to the report’s findings the larger context of other instances of police misbehavior and the felony charges faced by demonstration leaders and it’s impossible not to conclude that Aurora law enforcement is a danger to the people.
McClain, a massage therapist, was not suspected of any crime at the time of his encounter with police in August 2019. Officers stopped him because someone had called 911 to report a person who was acting “sketchy.” Police said he resisted arrest. Officers applied a carotid control hold, a now-banned form of neck hold that restricts blood to the brain, and firefighters administered ketamine. McClain died days later in the hospital. The then-attorney for 17th Judicial District, Dave Young, who was term-limited out of office in November, decided not to bring any charges against Nathan Woodyard, Randy Roedema and Jason Rosenblatt, the three officers involved in McClain’s death.
The case might have faded from wide public attention, but then George Floyd was killed at the hands of Minneapolis police last year, and a renewed demand for justice in the McClain case was one outcome of Denver-area Black Lives Matter protests. Several reviews of the case were ordered, including an independent investigation commissioned by the Aurora City Council. It was this investigation that produced the report released this week.
The report described how the officers in a matter of seconds after contacting McClain escalated the encounter to violence, even though they had no justification to perform an investigatory stop on him, or to frisk him, or to arrest him. Then Aurora fire personnel simply took the cops’ word for it that McClain was suffering from “excited delirium,” without performing their own assessment, and injected him with a massive dose of the powerful sedative ketamine. In the aftermath, the police investigation into the incident worked like clockwork as a cover-up. The prosecutor Young, relying on the police department’s own misleading description of events, let the whole thing drop.
White cops killed a Black man. Then the system, just as it was designed to do, determined they did nothing wrong.
Here is the crucial passage in the independent investigators’ report: “The Aurora Police Department’s Major Crime/Homicide Unit investigation of the death of Mr. McClain raised serious concerns for the Panel and revealed significant weaknesses in the Department’s accountability systems. First, the interviews conducted by Major Crime investigators failed to ask basic, critical questions about the justification for the use of force necessary for any prosecutor to make a determination about whether the use of force was legally justified. Instead, the questions frequently appeared designed to elicit specific exonerating ‘magic language’ found in court rulings.”
Contrast that treatment with how the system handled civilians who sought justice for McClain. On July 3, protesters marched to Aurora’s District 1 police station for a “peaceful occupation,” which the protesters sustained until police units early the next morning cleared them. Eighteen officers were blockaded inside the building during the demonstration. For this, protest leaders were arrested. Lillian House, Joel Northam and Eliza Lucero were taken in on the most serious charge, first-degree attempted kidnapping, a class 3 felony. Trey Quinn, Terrance Roberts and John Ruch also faced felony charges related to activities during peaceful McClain demonstrations last summer. The charges were brought in the 17th Judicial District by Young, who has since been succeeded as district attorney by Brian Mason, and in the 18th Judicial District by George Brauchler, who has since been succeeded as district attorney by John Kellner.
From the beginning, the cases against protest leaders had the unmistakable quality of retaliation. In light of the independent investigation report, the cases represent a gross perversion of justice. Mason and Kellner must withdraw the charges if they don’t want the legitimacy of their offices to erode any further.
In a September commentary about the arrest of protest leaders, I wrote, “There now exists in the McClain case a pattern of injustice that eventually will lead to a crisis of confidence in law enforcement.” An op-ed published in The Denver Post this week notes the deadly results of such a crisis. Authors David Pyrooz, Justin Nix and Scott Wolfe, criminal justice and sociology associate professors, in discussing the dramatic rise in homicides in Denver last year, wrote, “Our evidence points to a legitimacy crisis with the criminal justice system.” They cited the Floyd killing as having broad ramifications. “Legitimacy crises occur when distrust in the law and its gatekeepers intensifies. Experiencing or witnessing unjust treatment by legal authorities undermines the law’s legitimacy.” A legitimacy crisis can lead to officers pulling back from proactive policing, citizens refraining from calling police, and criminals feeling emboldened, they wrote.
What we’re left with is a form of de facto anarchy.
The McClain case is primarily about the brutal killing of an innocent man. But it’s also about the civic health of a community, and Aurora will remain unwell so long as protesters seeking justice for McClain are held to account and those responsible for his death are not.
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