DENVER (News Nation) — Colorado’s attorney general and the city of Aurora announced new probes into the Denver suburb’s police department Tuesday after Elijah McClain’s family filed a lawsuit alleging its officers and paramedics are responsible for his death last year.
The attorney general’s office said Tuesday that it has launched a civil rights investigation into the Aurora Police Department, whose officers put the 23-year-old Black man in a chokehold after stopping him on the street.
The office announced it’s been looking for several weeks into whether Aurora police have been depriving people of their constitutional rights. The investigation is separate from the one specifically into McClain’s death that was ordered by Gov. Jared Polis in June.
The announcement came as McClain’s family sued Aurora police as well as the paramedics who injected him with a sedative last August. Just hours after the civil rights lawsuit was filed, the city announced an outside firm would conduct a comprehensive review of the police department.
In the civil rights lawsuit, Sheneen McClain and Lawayne Mosley said they were seeking both accountability for the loss of a “beautiful soul” and to send a message that “racism and brutality have no place in American law enforcement.”
“We have filed this civil rights lawsuit to demand justice for Elijah McClain, to hold accountable the Aurora officials, police officers, and paramedics responsible for his murder, and to force the City of Aurora to change its longstanding pattern of brutal and racist policing,” the family said in a statement released by their attorney.
Aurora spokesman Julie Patterson said the city attorney is reviewing the lawsuit but declined further comment.
On Aug. 24, 2019, police stopped McClain as he walked down the street wearing a ski mask with his headphones on after they got a 911 call from someone who reported him as “sketchy.” His family said he wore the mask because he had a blood condition that caused him to get cold easily.
Police body-camera video shows an officer getting out of his car, approaching McClain and saying, “Stop right there. Stop. Stop. … I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious.”
In the video, the officer turns around McClain and repeats, “Stop tensing up.” As McClain tries to escape the officer’s grip, the officer says, “Relax, or I’m going to have to change this situation.”
As other officers join to restrain McClain, he begs them to let go and says, “You guys started to arrest me, and I was stopping my music to listen.”
Police put him in a chokehold, and paramedics gave him 500 milligrams of ketamine to calm him down.
Police have said McClain refused to stop walking and fought back when officers tried to take him into custody and that they thought he was trying to take an officer’s gun, which the lawsuit disputes.
In the video, McClain tells officers: “Let go of me. I am an introvert. Please respect the boundaries that I am speaking.”
McClain suffered cardiac arrest, was later declared brain dead and taken off life support. A prosecutor said last year that there wasn’t enough evidence to charge the officers, but the governor directed the state attorney general to open a new investigation. The city also is investigating its policies on using force and ketamine.
The lawsuit alleges that McClain was unlawfully stopped and that officers later sought to justify their aggressive treatment of him by filing an assault charge against him and making a notation in a police report suggesting that he was connected with a gang.
The lawsuit also claims one officer jammed his knee into McClain’s arm “with the sole purpose of inflicting pain by forcefully separating Elijah’s bicep and triceps muscles.”
It also says two of the officers reported that all three of them simultaneously placed their body weight on McClain after a chokehold. One officer estimated that the collective weight on McClain, who weighed 140 pounds, to be over 700 pounds.
McClain’s autopsy report found that that levels of the sedative in his blood were at tolerable levels but that an unexpected reaction to the drug could not be ruled out, along with other possibilities like an asthma attack or an irregular heartbeat.
Based on the pathologist’s inconclusive ruling about what role the officers’ actions might have played, a district attorney last year declined to charge any of the three officers who confronted McClain.
News Nation affiliate KDVR-TV reported that a civil rights attorney representing the family had notified the city in February of their intent to sue.
The national reckoning over racism and police brutality following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis brought renewed criticism to Aurora police over McClain’s death.
Colorado health officials are looking into the use of the sedative ketamine, while federal authorities are considering whether to launch a civil rights inquiry.
Earlier this month, three Aurora officers were fired over photos showing police reenacting a chokehold used on McClain. A officer who was involved in confronting McClain was among the officers fired.
Chief Vanessa Wilson has called McClain’s death tragic. As interim chief, she told officers in response to the case that they no longer had to contact a person reported as suspicious if they were not committing a crime.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.