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Inside the Aurora PD: A long history of abuse and lack of accountability

Shortly after 10:30 p.m on August 24, 2019, 23-year-old Elijah McClain, headed to a convenience store in Aurora, Colorado to buy an iced tea for his brother. That venture, however, turned out in vain. He never returned home.

McClain wore a ski mask that night, his sister told ABC affiliate Denver7,  because he was anemic and was battling social anxiety. Wearing it made him more comfortable.

He was likely listening to music through his headphones then, too, not anticipating that in the next 15 minutes three Aurora police officers — Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt, and Randy Roedema — would tackle him to the ground with a carotid hold.  Elijah begged for them to release him, but soon went into cardiac arrest and was rendered brain dead three days afterwards. 


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As heinous as the officer’s actions were, they weren’t at all an anomaly in the Aurora Police Department. The most recent example of negligent and irresponsible behavior is when on August 2, Aurora police officers stopped a group of black women (aged 6-17), handcuffed and pointed their guns at them, when the vehicle the cops were looking for was actually a motorcycle.

The department has a history of enabling and protecting officers who have acted irresponsibly, and has a lack of accountability rooted in its foundation. 

The case of Elijah McClain

In addition to clearly not posing a threat, McClain kept apologizing for vomiting as the officers held him down. 

“Sorry, I wasn’t trying to do that,” he is heard saying on uncovered body-camera footage, that was released only in November 2019, three months after McClain’s death.

“I just can’t breathe correctly,” he continued, wanting to rid himself from their grip. 

The officers eventually called paramedics because McClain was under, quite obviously, “a level of physical exertion,” to put it as lightly as they did. A mere “level?” He was, also, according to them again, in “an agitated mental state.”

Imagine being in his shoes, being caught off-guard, choked for — what? — seeming “suspicious” to a 911 caller? What precisely made him appear “threatening”? Was it that his mask, as his sister said, was open-face anyway? Or was it simply his black skin?

The caller’s own statements sounded rather contradictory and suspect of racial bias. No immediate danger was reported and the caller confirmed that McClain was unarmed. And yet, the open-face mask and the flailing of hands, which was likely him just reacting to his music-emanating headphones, was enough for the caller to conjecture that McClain was acting “sketchy.”

Covering their tracks

When the officers tried handcuffing McClain, claiming that they had the right because he had been reported to be “suspicious,” they also alleged that he tried to reach for their guns. But there is no evidence of that.

Somehow conveniently their body cameras had, at that instance, fallen to the grass as the struggle ensued. One of the officers is even heard on audio telling the other to “move” his camera. The answer as to why remains unfounded.

Meanwhile, as they held him down, McClain was telling them how much he respects the work that policemen do, how much of an introvert he is and how sorry he is if he seems standoffish and awkward. He didn’t mean to be, he said.

In that 15-minute recording, too, the officers admit that McClain didn’t do anything illegal and yet, all the while, one of them continues physically restraining him as the others stand idly, without pulling their colleague back, without even trying.

The medics soon injected McClain with ketamine to sedate him because he was, unsurprisingly, in distress. They, supposedly, intended to take “life-saving” measures. Everything pointed to them doing the exact opposite.

The medics administered a 500-milligram dose to a man who, according to the Adams County Coroner’s measurements, was five feet, six inches and 140 pounds; Aurora Fire Rescue later confirmed that only five milligrams of ketamine are allowed per kilogram of someone’s weight.

Mathematically at least, that dose was lethal. They could have, at most, given him 320 milligrams. But was that even necessary in the first place?

A questionable autopsy

An autopsy later revealed that McClain had chronic asthma and a narrow coronary artery; though as a runner, his family said, he had lived with those conditions for most of his life without much of a problem.

Otherwise, the report was inconclusive. 

The coroner, Stephen Cina, couldn’t — why exactly, is the question — determine whether it was an accident or a carotid-related homicide. Actually, even employing the term “accident” in the latter sentence feels wrong.

How could it feel right to anyone investigating the incident— whether the coroner, the Aurora mayor Mike Coffman, Colorado governor Jared Polis, or District Attorney Dave Young.  An “accident” implies unintentionality.

Most everything about that encounter seems intentional from the get-go: reporting of a threat without precise reason, applying a carotid twice, claiming McClain’s inclination towards aggression and mental agitation, ingesting into him a likely overdose of ketamine.

“Excited delirium” as a cop-out from accountability

Organizations like WHO, and frontliners who work in the ER, including those who once wrote about the sedative in outlets like Journal of Emergency Services (JEMS) and Vice, assume ketamine’s versatility as a major appeal.

Unlike other anesthetics, it does not hinder respiratory reflexes, it is cost-effective, and it works relatively quickly. But EMS is allowed to give the drug to treat “excited delirium” or for legitimate medical reasons.

Whether or not McClain was experiencing any kinds of so-called delirious behavioral symptoms is questionable, considering that even if he was physically trying hard to release himself from restraint, he was doing it as a survival reflex. He wasn’t hallucinating or being delirious: he was, indeed, under attack.

Actually, excited delirium, even if he were to have had it then, is itself a controversial condition that neither the American Psychiatric Association nor the American Medical Association recognizes.

Many civil rights organizations, including the NAACP and the Civil Liberties Union, have claimed that the notion of excited delirium protects law enforcement from punishment if, during an arrest, they happen to use excessive force.

Steps have, of course, been taken since then, though not anywhere close to enough, at least not internally in the Aurora Police Department. The three officers were put on administrative leave but no criminal charges were ordered against them because of a “lack” of evidence, according to D.A. Young.

Internal and external investigations into the department

Considering the poor accountability within the Department, Governor Polis assigned Attorney General Phil Weiser to investigate further whether officers there had deprived McClain, and others under their watch, of constitutional rights.

It will be grounded on assessing the levels and credibilities of the Department’s “patterns and practices,” as according to the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. 

That investigation, which has gone on for “several weeks” now, is separate from the one ordered in June, whose purpose was to win justice for McClain.

The more recent investigation comes on the heels of McClain’s parents, Sheneen McClain and Lawayne Mosley, filing a lawsuit against the city. Their lawyer, Mari Newman, wrote in a statement that one of the aims was to “hold accountable the Aurora officials, police officers and paramedics responsible for his murder.”

Performative justice vs. actual

However, it is only as of late, too, that any kind of reform, internal to the Department, actually manifested. In light of nationwide protests, spurred because of Ahmaud Arbery’s, Breonna Taylor’s, and George Floyd’s — amongst others’ — deaths, McClain’s case has been revisited.


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Denver last weekendWe will continue fighting until justice for the McClain Family is served. Link in bio for ways to help. @zach_hues_

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The new chief of the Aurora police department, Vanessa Wilson, banned carotid holds in June, made it a requirement for police officers to report when their colleagues use excessive force and to announce an intention of “deadly force” before firing their weapons. 

 Those moves, though forward-looking to some extent, feel almost superficial for now and for-show just to win back “trust.” At least until the officers and Wilson prove themselves as otherwise and live up to the mission on their very own site: To make Aurora safer every day.

A refusal to change its ways

Since McClain’s death, the same department has come under fire time and again.

The department protected an officer who was armed and on-duty yet passed out drunk in his vehicle. Other cops stole money from a non-profit, some were charged with DUIs, and others forcefully dispersed peaceful protesters

And the worst example of a lack of remorse and professionalism came when several officers posed for selfies, even faking using the carotid hold, at McClain’s memorial.

As if that hasn’t been enough with which to reckon, on August 2nd, three police officers from the same department mistakenly stopped the wrong vehicle, with four young girls, aged 6 to 17, and a mother inside, and forced them, handcuffed, onto the ground.

The SUV they had stopped had a similar license plate to a stolen motorcycle they were after. Had they checked their database in the National Crime Information Center and determined the status of the SUV, which earlier in the year was reported missing but later cleared, they would have avoided this mess. 

If the department had acted responsibly, it would have avoided traumatizing four children and rendering the adult figure there, Brittney Gilliam, helpless and frantic for the lives of her daughter, sister and nieces. 

Although, according to Chief Wilson, police are trained to treat a stolen vehicle situation as high-risk and, following protocol, lay all its occupants, handcuffed, onto the ground, she argued that, considering the children, the officers could have deviated from the so-called “rules” and acted in a more appropriate way.

Aside from basic physical training and protocol, officers should also adhere to their ability to make decisions about how they respond to everyone with whom they interact.

Before someone is stopped, pinned to the wall, handcuffed and held down, there must be a valid formation of suspicion. Not every course of action can be direct because not every person reported to be “sketchy” is “sketchy.”

So, how about we hold authorities that are supposed to protect us accountable for the times when they don’t?

How about we show our fellow humans, who for centuries have had a harder time securing their “American dream” because of the color of their skin, that we stand by them at all costs, until we trust that they feel the change, not only hear about its possibility.

Change begins internally, just as it had to for the Aurora Police Department. The fact that it has taken so long, after so many misdeeds, to bring the agency under an investigation is reprehensible.

Had it not been for the senseless 911 call that summer night, Elijah McClain would still be here.  He would have played the guitar and violin many times over for the stray animals that he so loved. He would have gone on to “change the world,” as his family and friends said he had always wanted to do.

He would have returned home.

They, who took his breath from him as he was pleading for his life, must be held accountable. 

Time and again, there shouldn’t be excuses and unapologetic apologies. That’s enough.