Aurora set to release investigation into death of Elijah McClain

The city of Aurora, Colorado, is set to release on Monday an investigation into the death of Elijah McClain, the 23-year-old Black man who died after he was put in a chokehold by police and injected with ketamine in August 2019.

The investigative team is expected to present its findings, including a timeline and review of police actions and procedures, to Aurora’s city council Monday afternoon. The city manager, police and fire chiefs and members of the investigative team then plan to hold a virtual news conference Tuesday morning.

The investigative report comes after the city hired Jonathan Smith, who is executive director of the Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, to lead a review of the incident, according to Aurora.

McClain’s death days after his interactions with police brought renewed scrutiny of the use of chokeholds and the sedative ketamine during law enforcement stops. His case gained renewed attention during Black Lives Matter protests over the summer in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

What happened that night

McClain, a massage therapist, musician and animal lover, was walking home from a convenience store with an iced tea when he was confronted by three Aurora Police officers who were responding to a call about a suspicious person wearing a ski mask.

A police news release said McClain “resisted contact” with officers before a struggle ensued.

In officer body camera footage, McClain tells the officers, “I’m an introvert, please respect the boundaries that I am speaking.”

“Relax,” an officer says at one point, “or I’m going to have to change this situation.”

Before an officer wrestles him to the ground, McClain is heard telling the officers he was trying to stop his music so that he could listen to them.

At one point, one officer tells another, “He just grabbed your gun, dude.” One officer tells McClain that he will “bring my dog out and he’s going to bite you” if McClain keeps “messing around.”

Video shows an officer wrestle McClain to the ground. A letter from the Adams County District Attorney said an officer placed McClain in a carotid hold, which restricts blood flow to the brain. McClain briefly lost consciousness, the letter said, but continued struggling after officers released the hold.

Paramedics arrived and administered ketamine, the letter said. McClain was taken to a hospital but suffered a heart attack on the way, and he was declared brain dead three days later, the letter said.

DA declined to bring criminal charges

The autopsy conducted by the county coroner did not determine the cause of death but noted “intense physical exertion and a narrow left coronary artery” were contributing factors.

The autopsy report noted McClain’s history of asthma and the carotid hold, though the autopsy did not determine whether it contributed to McClain’s death. The concentration of ketamine in his system was at a “therapeutic level,” the report said.

The McClain’s family attorney, Mari Newman, has called the autopsy “very strange.” She has said it “ignores the most obvious factor, which is a perfectly healthy young man is walking home from the drug store with a bottle of iced tea in a bag and he ends up dead.”

In November of 2019, District Attorney Dave Young declined to press charges against the officers involved, citing the autopsy. “I cannot take a case to the jury where I don’t know what the cause of death is on a homicide case,” he told CNN’s Chris Cuomo in June 2020.

But the Black Lives Matter protests this last year brought renewed attention to the case, and in June, Gov. Jared Polis appointed state Attorney General Phil Weiser to investigate as a special prosecutor. Weiser opened a grand jury investigation into McClain’s death last month.

Three Aurora Police officers were fired and one resigned in July after photos leaked of officers taking smiling selfies and reenacting the carotid hold at a memorial site for McClain.

The death also brought closer scrutiny of the sedative drug ketamine, which has been increasingly used for law enforcement purposes on people experiencing “excited delirium.” The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is reviewing its program that allows ketamine to be administered outside of hospital settings.