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Elijah McClain case: Sergeant who oversees Aurora PD's training unit testifies in day 6 of Woodyard's trial

Aurora Police Officer Nathan Woodyard is charged with reckless manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in the death of McClain.
Posted: 11:14 AM, Oct 25, 2023
Updated: 2023-10-25 20:27:19-04
Elijah McClain

Denver7 is following the second of three trials in the case of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old unarmed Black man who died a few days after he was violently arrested by Aurora police on Aug. 24, 2019.

Aurora Police Department (APD) Officer Nathan Woodyard is charged with reckless manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in the death of McClain. Previously, a jury found APD Officer Randy Roedema guilty of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault. Former APD Officer Jason Rosenblatt, who was fired by the department less than a year after McClain's death, was acquitted of all charges.

Jury finds one Aurora officer guilty, one not guilty in 1st Elijah McClain trial

Woodyard, who is currently suspended from the APD, is accused of putting McClain in a carotid hold that rendered him unconscious before paramedics arrived to administer ketamine, a powerful sedative. The 23-year-old massage therapist encountered police on Aug. 24, 2019 after a person called 911 to report a “sketchy” man walking in Aurora.

Officers with the Aurora Police Department (APD) responded and put McClain, who was unarmed and had not committed a crime, into a neck hold. Paramedics administered the ketamine, which officials said led to cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital.

He was declared brain dead days later and died Aug. 30, 2019. A pathologist found he was given a higher dose of ketamine than recommended for somebody of his size and, as a result, he overdosed. The City of Aurora settled a civil lawsuit with McClain’s family in November 2021 for $15 million.

Woodyard, along with two paramedics who have yet to face jury trials, have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them in January 2023 in the wake of a grand jury indictment.

Two Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics — Peter Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper — have trials beginning Nov. 17 and 27, respectively, for charges of reckless manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and assault, plus sentence enhancers. The paramedics are accused of injecting a significant amount of ketamine into McClain, causing him to overdose.

Scroll down to read updates from the Oct. 25 proceedings.

Wednesday, October 25

Tuesday morning's court proceedings began with the prosecution calling their 15th witness, Sgt. Kevin Smyth with the APD. Smyth oversees the training unit and is the training records manager. He has been a supervisor of Aurora's training academy since 2021.

He also testified on Sept. 28 during the trial for Roedema and Rosenblatt.

APD said officers are required to take various trainings every year. The department demands significantly more hours of training than the minimum required by the state, Smyth said. The average officer takes about 100 hours of training a year, he said, though it varies year to year. There are also specialized trainings — included in that is KOGA, or arrest control training, which is a 40-hour course over one week.

Smyth said Woodyard completed all of his necessary training and sought the additional training to become a KOGA assistant instructor, which he was certified for.

Regarding the training for the carotid hold, Smyth said it is first introduced in basic academy. Officers are required to have training on the hold once a year for the remainder of the time they are with the force. Smyth explained that the carotid hold must be done exactly the way it is trained and therefore, the only way to pass this part of academy is to earn a 100% on both the practical test and written test. Anything less is considered a failing grade and the officer must retake the test.

Other techniques are more lenient and an officer can pass with a 70% or 80%, he said.

However, out of the 130 to 180 techniques taught to officers, instructors spend the most time on the carotid hold because of the risks associated with an incorrect hold.

After applying the hold, officers are taught to check for coherency once the person regains consciousness, Smyth said. The person should "be back online" within about 30 seconds, he said, and by the time they come around, they should be handcuffed and in the recovery position, which is on their side. If the person is calm and can support themselves, officers can use the person's leg as a kickstand so they can keep their own body in the recovery position. However if the person refuses or is unable to stay in the recovery position, the officer can hold them there — using control holds when needed — until rescue arrives.

Aurora Fire Rescue should be called if the carotid hold is used, he said.

If a medical emergency follows, the officers should then perform first aid, call for rescue, and update rescue as the person's condition changes, Smyth said.

Woodyard received carotid hold training in 2016 in the academy, in 2017, 2018 and 2019 when he was in service, and again in 2019 for his KOGA training, Smyth said. Prosecutors have previously said Woodyard completed his most recent carotid hold training 10 days before he encountered McClain, though Smyth said he couldn't confirm the exact dates off the top of his head.

After a mid-morning break, Smyth continued his testimony, where he described how officers are taught to de-escalate once they regain control of a suspect. This helps reduce the intensity of a situation, Smyth said. De-escalation training is also required by the state.

"When practical, APD training and policies say that you don't just consider de-escalation, but that you must deescalate — is that correct?" prosecutor Jason Slothouber asked, stressing the word "must." Smyth responded yes.

Smyth also described how officers are taught how certain restraint techniques can result in asphyxia and how to understand the signs of agonal breathing. He also explained how officers are trained in what to do if they notice a person in their custody is struggling to breathe. That includes alerting Aurora Fire Rescue. The sooner medical intervention can arrive at the scene, the better, Smyth said.

When prompted by prosecutor Jason Slothouber, Smyth explained that the department teaches its officers that the common phrase "If you can talk, you can breathe" is a myth.

“The phrase ‘if you can talk, you can breathe’ is pervasive in sports and athletics," he said. "It’s a term we all sort of grew up hearing and believing. The problem with the term is it can disarm you to some issues.”

He further explained that breathing requires three things: an open and unobstructed airway, mechanical articulation of chest and gas exchange. A person can speak — but not breathe — without gas exchange, he said.

Smyth confirmed — with the prosecution's use of testimony from the prior trial — that if somebody says "I can't breathe," that is a sign of respiratory failure, meaning a person cannot breathe, and that information needs to be passed along to rescue paramedics. That's the case even if the statement is made just one time.

Aurora Fire Rescue has its own policies that it follows and APD does not have a hand in that, Smyth said. The department draws a hard line there. Instead, Aurora police are simply taught that the fire department has its own set of rules, but not what they necessarily are.

Court took a recess at 12:05 p.m. for a lunch break and is set to return at 1:20 p.m.


After the lunch break, the prosecution continued questioning Smyth on the training officers and cadets receive at the Aurora Police Academy.

Several of the topics touched on during his testimony included training on excited delirium, positional and restraint asphyxia, and when paramedics are expected to request medical assistance.

When questioned how police are told to respond to someone who is showing signs of respiratory distress, i.e. "I'm having trouble breathing" or "I can't breathe," Smyth said that the training officers receive sometimes will require them to call paramedics, but it really depends on the situation at hand — it's not an automatic call.

"The training does not teach them that (to call paramedics immediately if someone is complaining about having breathing issues)," he said. "It teaches them to look out for behaviors (such as if that person isn't coherent or has lost consciousness) and make a call based on several different factors."

In cross examination, defense attorney Andrew E. Ho then framed the training the officers receive not as something they have to go through step-by-step, but more so as a guide to how they should react in situations depending on the circumstances.

"You are not training individuals to be robots. You’re not wanting officers on the scene to have a checklist of things to do before they’re able to respond to a situation, correct?" Ho asked, which Smyth confirmed.

The questioning then got into the details of the language in the training materials — the differnce between "shall" and "may/should," and how that plays into the training of officers and their expectations in the field.

Smyth said the word "shall" if training materials is very definitive while the words "may" and "can" are more so used as a guiding principle for officers to use at their discretion in a given situation.

The prosecution then question Smyth as to whether officers are supposed to know a person's average heartbeat per minute to assess whether they need immediate medical attention.

Smyth testified that while officers receive only basic, first-aid training, the police academy does teach them how to address what a "weak" or "irregular" heart rate is, and how to know based on that whether they need to call paramedics to the scene or not.

The rest of the defense's time was spent on questioning Smyth about the carotid hold - it's technique, application and the training that is given to officers before they go out on the field.

Smyth testified the carotid hold can be a de-escalation tactic in some cases, but the training isn't focused on using de-escalation techniques (like the carotid hold can be) to avoid use other, more severe techniques to gain compliance from an unruly suspect, he said.

In the redirect, Slothouber focused more on the actions that APD officers are supposed to take when paramedics arrive to a scene police is responding to.

He further questioned Smyth on some things he told the defense during cross examination, including following directives given by APD even when using their critical thinking skills to assess a certain situation where an individual may be out of breath.

"We train that a complaint of lack of breathing needs to be looked at with other factors," Smyth said, referring to this as the "totally of circumstances." He added, "If there’s a medical emergency, medical needs to be called."

Smyth was excused and the court went on their afternoon recess at about 3:25 p.m.


The witness to be called to testify was current Deputy Chief of Police for the Boulder Police Department, Stephen Redfearn. Redfearn was the former APD Division Chief of Operations and worked in a supervisor role for the department until 2021.

Ann Joyce, the assistant attorney general in the department of law with the Colorado General Attorney's Office, questioned Redfearn on his expertise about police policies, directives and protocols.

Redfearn testified about the systems that are in place at the department to make sure everyone follows the directives, policies and protocols that guide the Aurora Police Department.

Directives, he said, are guidelines on the day-to-day procedures that an officer needs to acknowledge, sign and follow in order to perform his job duties correctly.

Redfearn talked about a particular piece of software that was in place during his time with APD that allowed officers to both read and acknowledge those directives, in order to make sure they were complying with policies and protocols made by the department.

He said every time directives were updated, officers would receive an email letting them know they had to read and sign those directives. Failure to do so would eventually involve their supervisors.

Among the directives given by the APD is the use of physical force, which Redfearn said officers are trained on "several times on."

The prosecution then touched briefly on three other directives — rendering aid; less lethal devices weapons and techniques; carotid control hold.

Redfearn said that the directive on the carotid hold was different than the rest, in that aside from having to read and acknowledge updated directives, officers had to undergo in-person training once a year on this particular hold.

In the cross examination, defense attorney Ho focused his line on questioning on the hierarchy at APD and who has to obey who when responding to a call. Smyth answered that line of questioning by saying officers are required to obey the orders of their superior officers at all times.

Redfearn was excused and the court was dismissed for the day.

Court will resume at 9 a.m. Friday.

Day 1 — Tuesday, Oct. 17
Day 2 - Wednesday, Oct. 18
Day 3 - Thursday, Oct. 19
Day 4 - Friday, Oct. 20
(No court on Monday, Oct. 23)
Day 5 - Tuesday, Oct. 24
Day 6 - Wednesday, Oct. 25 (this story)


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