Commentary

The whole system was indicted with charges in McClain case

Justice should not take mass demonstrations to achieve

September 2, 2021 8:10 am

Protestors participate in the March Against Racism & Police Violence from Aurora to Denver on Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020. Several hundred protesters marched 5 miles from Aurora to Denver on East Colfax Avenue on Sunday in a demonstration against police brutality and in support of Black lives. (Carl Payne for Colorado Newsline)

Finally, the beginning of some justice for Elijah McClain.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser on Wednesday announced felony grand jury indictments against three Aurora police officers and two paramedics involved in McClain’s death. It was a relief, in a case so marred by abuse of power and betrayal of the public trust, to see public servants applying the law impartially, even when doing so meant legal jeopardy for the very people charged with enforcing the law.

But let’s not forget where we’ve been.

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The long, painful journey to the grand jury indictments started with the killing by armed agents of the state of an innocent young Black man, initial exoneration of the white cops who were responsible, mass street protests that lasted for weeks, and trumped-up felony charges against protest leaders.

This is not a story of the system working. The charges in the McClain case, almost as much as his killing itself, prove that the system is deeply, frighteningly, stubbornly broken.

Police stopped McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist, in August 2019. He was not suspected of any crime at the time — someone had called 911 to report a person who was acting “sketchy.” Officers put McClain in 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.

A temporary mural of Elijah McClain painted on a building in Denver. (Photo courtesy of Thomas Evans)

The three officers involved were Nathan Woodyard, Randy Roedema and Jason Rosenblatt, and the paramedics who administered ketamine were Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec. The then-attorney for 17th Judicial District, Dave Young, cleared the three officers of criminal wrongdoing.

In the months following McClain’s death, community members attempted to shine a light on this injustice. But it wasn’t until George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police and street protests arose throughout the country, including Aurora, that momentum to reassess the McClain case grew.

Many of the authorities most in a position to effect change resisted it all the way. In a perverse act of spite, Young and the then-attorney for the 18th Judicial District, George Brauchler, had protest leaders arrested and charged with felonies. As I wrote at the time, “The message from authorities is that cops will escape meaningful consequences for killing an innocent man while the people who dare protest such a grave injustice will be rounded up and tossed in jail.”

The police were anything but chastened by negative attention. Three officers, including Rosenblatt, were fired last summer after a McClain-mocking photo of officers posed in a chokehold circulated among them. 

The charges in the McClain case, almost as much as his killing itself, prove that the system is deeply, frighteningly, stubbornly broken.

But the demand for justice from community members was loud and persistent enough that Gov. Jared Polis, politically, could not ignore it, and in June 2020 he assigned Weiser to look into possible criminal charges for the people responsible for McClain’s death.

What’s happened since then? Everything the authorities told us at first about the case has been reversed.

In February, the city of Aurora released a 157-page independent report that detailed all the ways officers mishandled the McClain call, but even worse it described how the department’s own investigation into the incident was essentially a check-the-boxes cover-up.

In April and May, under new district attorneys, charges against the protest leaders were dropped. 

Now a state grand jury says the officers should face charges of manslaughter. Far from appearing to clear these alleged criminals of wrongdoing, the indictment’s narrative of McClain’s detention gives the impression that they exhibited a shocking disregard for the young man’s life. The restraints the officers used on him — remember, he was never suspected of a crime — posed “a substantial risk of death or a substantial risk of protracted loss or impairment of the function of any part or organ of the body.”

The basic facts of the case were well understood by the relevant authorities from the very beginning. The only thing that changed between the cops being cleared and the cops being indicted was an eruption of public outrage.

The upshot for McClain’s family and the Aurora community is some measure of justice in this particular case, but its trajectory shows that resistance to accountability and systemic racism remain defining features of local law enforcement and the institutions that protect bad officers. The McClain cops might have to answer for their actions, but that result took mass, sustained demonstrations to achieve. What about cases of abuse that don’t benefit from such extraordinary attention?

“Our officers did nothing wrong,” said the Aurora Police Association board of directors in response to the indictments. “Sadly, Mr. McClain died due to a combination of exertion due to his decision to violently resist arrest and a pre-existing heart condition.”

Let’s hope that the indictments bring some peace to the McClain family. But don’t think that it changes anything about the entrenched institutional cruelty that resulted in his killing. Even if you’re innocent, and especially if you’re Black, the cops could end your life and then blame you for your own death.

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