An independent investigation into the death of Elijah McClain—the 23-year-old who died days after Colorado police placed him in a chokehold and medics administered a lethal amount of ketamine—has found there was little reason to stop the young Black man as he made his way home from work in August 2019, suggesting that the encounter could have been avoided altogether if officers had taken a less aggressive approach.
Commissioned by the city of Aurora, Colorado, last July, the investigation concludes that Aurora Police Officer Nathan Woodyard had little reason to stop McClain the night he was taken into police custody, let alone use force. The report’s findings detail issues with the rest of the encounter, pointing out some of the same discrepancies protesters did last summer, as McClain’s death received international attention amid larger calls for police reform in the U.S.
The investigation was conducted by a review panel of three experts: Jonathan Smith, director of the Committee for Civil Rights, former Tuscon Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor, and Alabama physician Dr. Melissa Costello. The city released the 157-page report on McClain’s death Monday morning.
“Officer Woodyard’s decision to turn what may have been a consensual encounter with Mr. McClain into an investigatory stop—in three fewer than ten seconds—did not appear to be supported by any officer’s reasonable suspicion that Mr. McClain was engaged in criminal activity,” the report reads. “This decision had ramifications for the rest of the encounter.”
On August 24, 2019, Aurora police received a call about a suspicious man walking around wearing a black ski mask. Family would later explain McClain often layered up because he was anemic. When police arrived, they called out to McClain, but he didn’t respond. Then, officers tackled him to the ground, restrained him with various positions including a chokehold, and even threatened to sic a police dog on him if he didn’t comply. McClain repeatedly apologized to the officers and asked them to let up during the struggle, vomiting and eventually passing out.
The new report questions the officer’s decision to use force on McClain, as he had no visible weapon on his person and no crime had been reported. It also calls into question the department’s statements suggesting McClain gave the officers a tough time as they restrained him.
“The limited video, and the audio from the body-worn cameras, reveal Mr. McClain surrounded by officers, all larger than he, crying out in pain, apologizing, explaining himself, and pleading with the officers,” the report reads, echoing many Americans who questioned Aurora officers’ used force on McClain during Black Lives Matter protests last summer.
The report also details missteps that the emergency medical responders made that night. It says they did not administer any medical help to McClain for minutes, despite McClain’s cries of pain during the struggle with officers minutes before. They also failed to do a basic check-up on McClain’s well-being: instead, they administered the drug ketamine based solely on the information provided by police officers involved in the encounter, and officers’ observation that McClain’s behavior was consistent with excited delirium, a syndrome characterized by increasing excitement with wild agitation and violent, often destructive behavior.
“Aurora Fire appears to have accepted the officers’ impression that Mr. McClain had excited delirium without corroborating that impression through meaningful observation or diagnostic examination of Mr. McClain,” the report says.
“While trained medical personnel can learn a great deal from simple observation, more is required for effective clinical decision making, including talking to and touching the patient and measuring vital signs. Other simple diagnostic procedures also could have been employed.”
McClain was given a 500-milligram dose of the sedative based on the cop’s estimate that the man weighed about 190 pounds. In reality, McClain weighed just 140 pounds, making the dose administered by EMS lethal. The drug triggered a cardiac arrest as medics made their way to the hospital. McClain would be declared brain-dead shortly afterward, and would be taken off life support six days later.
The panel recommended that the city reevaluate how it trains its police officers and its medical responders, how the two agencies handle joint situations, and overhaul how it reviews officer-related deaths.
Elijah’s mother is calling for the immediate termination of the officers Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema.
“Elijah committed no crime on the day of his death, but those who are responsible for Elijah’s death certainly did,” an attorney for McClain’s family told the Denver Post.
All three officers were placed on administrative leave shortly after McClain’s death. Three months later, local district attorney Dave Young announced that the officers and paramedics who failed to save him would not face criminal charges.
The Aurora Police Department declined to comment on the investigation’s findings.