Police Department Behind Elijah McClain’s Death Is Wildly Racist, State AG Finds

·5 min read
REUTERS/Kevin Mohatt
REUTERS/Kevin Mohatt

Months before George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis, the death of Elijah McClain in Aurora, Colorado, sparked broad outrage at what critics painted as lethal brutality by racist cops.

On Wednesday, state attorney general Phil Weiser added new fuel to the fire, releasing a damning probe that detailed systemic racism in the department behind the young man’s brutal demise.

In August 2019, McClain, a 23-year-old Black man, was walking home in Aurora when local police tackled him and handcuffed him after 911 calls had flagged a “sketchy” person in the area. Later, McClain—who was wearing a ski mask and listening to music at the time of his run-in with police—was sedated by fire rescue personnel with a large dose of ketamine.

The young man went into cardiac arrest, and died three days later in a hospital. The cause of death was listed as “undetermined” in a coroner’s report.

A large protest movement around McClain’s death put pressure on police, and—buoyed by the national wave of rage after Floyd’s murder—helped push lawmakers to pass a sweeping police accountability bill giving the state AG new power to go after local cops.

Meanwhile, earlier this month, two Aurora Police Department officers, an ex-officer, and two paramedics were criminally charged for McClain’s death by Weiser.

Regardless of how that case plays out, Weiser’s report on Wednesday found that the department’s problems go well beyond one disturbing incident. And it suggested local officials faced a long road to getting out of the national spotlight.

Weiser’s report detailed the results of a 14-month investigation that included ride-alongs with officers, analyzing troves of police records and body-camera footage, and hearing from community members and police officers. It found that the police department has a pattern and practice of racially biased policing, using excessive force, and failing to document dubious investigative stops as required by the new police accountability measures put into place.

The report also suggests the police department should enter into a consent decree to address these issues, a tool often used by the federal government under the Obama administration to force change by rogue cops.

Three Cops, Two Paramedics Hit With 32-Count Indictment in Elijah McClain’s Death

Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson said in a statement Wednesday that the department would work with Weiser to “determine how to implement necessary and sustainable changes.”

“We acknowledge there are changes to be made,” Wilson said. “We will not broad-brush this agency or discount the professionalism and integrity that individual officers bring to our community every day.”

Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly said in a statement that he was still “digesting” the details of the report and that the findings were “painful to hear.” But he added that the findings lined up with an independent review of the police department that the city commissioned a year go.

Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman echoed these words in a statement on Twitter, saying the findings were not “new.” He added that he was confident the issues raised will be “corrected.”

“Elevating policing and building confidence in law enforcement is a critical priority for the Department of Law,” AG Weiser said in a statement Wednesday announcing the results of his investigation. “Our authority to conduct pattern and practice investigations is an important tool for advancing this goal.”

He added that the investigation happened with the “full cooperation” of the city of Aurora and that the findings will help “elevate the effectiveness and trustworthiness of law enforcement.”

The full findings reveal that the police department uses force against people of color nearly 2.5 times as much as they do against white residents. According to a review of use-of-force reports, nearly half of the residents that the department used force against were Black, even though Black residents account for 15 percent of the local population.

Residents of color were also more likely to interact with and get arrested by police in the city than white residents, the report concluded. It also found that officers continued to make undocumented stops of citizens, which circumvents a new stipulation in the 2020 accountability bill that requires all stops to be documented.

The report also took aim at the Aurora Civil Service Commission and their influential role in the hiring of officers in the city. According to the report, about 1 percent of Black applicants who met qualifications were offered a job in the department, as opposed to 4 percent of white applicants. “This level of racial winnowing can be observed at every step of the process, suggesting bias in Aurora’s recruitment and hiring process,” AG Weiser said in a statement.

Civil Service Commission Chairman Jim Weeks said in a statement that he was “appreciative” of the report. He added that the commission would continue to discuss ways to improve hiring and disciplinary processes but that they needed time to review the findings before commenting further.

In a press conference Wednesday, Colorado State Representative Leslie Herod, who helped draft the 2020 accountability bill that led to the probe, said Wednesday’s report “affirmed” that her bill was “doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing.”

Herod also said the findings in the report were not anything new, particularly for Black residents in Aurora. Herod said that it has been clear that the department has “operated in a way that is racist, and that is particularly racist against Black people and prevents harm to our communities.”

“Hopefully this will prove to some people and vindicate for others that what they believe happened to them was real,” Herod said of Black residents who have dealt with police misconduct for years. “That what they believe they are facing when it comes to racial discrimination in their community is real.”

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