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Aurora city councilmembers call for third-party investigation into Elijah McClain death

Posted at 10:46 AM, Jun 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-10 13:37:38-04

AURORA, Colo. — Three Aurora city councilmembers are calling for an independent investigation into the death of Elijah McClain, the 23-year-old black man who died following an interaction with Aurora police in August.

The officers involved in the McClain incident did not face criminal charges, and a police review board found they did not violate department policy.

Later Tuesday, city officials said the McClain incident is being investigated by a Connecticut attorney, a former police officer who specializes in use-of-force and police training issues.

But the councilmembers — Allison H. Hiltz, Curtis E. Gardner and Angela Lawson, all members of the council's public safety committee — said in a response Wednesday that they don't consider the attorney, Eric Daigle, to be a neutral third party, as he often works with police departments.

"Unfortunately, an attorney with a long career in law enforcement that specializes in defending municipal police departments from liability claims doesn't qualify, in our minds, as a neutral review," the councilmembers wrote. "This is especially true considering there is a pending civil suit in this case."

Aurora city manager Jim Twombly said Daigle will likely have a draft report for the investigation completed by July, when he'll meet with the police review board and receive feedback. His final report will be made public, Twombly said, and the report will be sent to the district attorney for further review, if needed.

McClain suffered a heart attack on the way to a hospital after the Aug. 24 incident, which happened in the 1900 block of Billings Street. Officers had responded to a call about a suspicious man wearing a ski mask and waving his arms. When they arrived, they contacted McClain, who resisted when the officers tried to detain him, police said.

A struggle ensued, and a responding officer requested that a paramedic give McClain a dose of ketamine "due to the level of physical force applied while restraining the subject and his agitated mental state," officials said.

The officers who detained McClain were cleared by a department review board, and they did not face criminal charges.

But in light of recent protests in Colorado and across the country — demanding justice for George Floyd and calling for an end to police brutality — councilmembers Hiltz, Gardner and Lawson wrote in a letter that "it has become clear that public trust has been eroded."

"We know that the status quo is no longer acceptable in our criminal justice system," the councilmembers, who are members of the council's public safety committee, said. "Our community has experienced pain and as leaders it is our responsibility to take the first step in restoring public trust."

The councilmembers called on Twombly to use a "neutral third party" to investigate McClain's death. McClain's family has called for an independent investigation for months.

"We are looking for a truly independent third party investigation into the entire situation," Gardner said. "What I am hearing from the community is a lack of trust. I think trust has been eroded and from my perspective it is really important that we can review what happened and be able to go to the public and say here are the facts."

"We’d like to caution the public before drawing conclusions regarding any desired outcome of an independent investigation – while no outcome is guaranteed, a review is intended to lend greater transparency and accountability to the events that occurred," the councilmembers wrote.

In the department's review of the incident earlier this year, the board found that the officers "had a lawful reason to contact Mr. McClain."

The board also found that the force applied by officers — which included a carotid control hold — during the incident was "within policy and consistent with training."

The Adams County Coroner conducted the autopsy on McClain and ruled that the manner of his death was "undetermined," saying it could not determine whether his death was an accident, due to natural causes or a homicide.

“The loss of Mr. McClain’s life is tragic, and we continue to offer our deepest condolences to his family, friends, and all those impacted by this loss," interim police Chief Vanessa Wilson said in a news release after the board's findings in February.

In a statement after the review, Twombly said he would be "initiating a Critical Incident Review" of how Aurora police and firefighters responded to the McClain incident. It was unclear as of Tuesday whether that review had been completed.

"It is not enough to see if policies were followed," Twombly said in February. "We now need to take a very critical look at all aspects of the incident and make changes that better serve our community."

On Tuesday afternoon, some of the concerns were addressed in a press conference with Aurora leadership. In a press conference with the city manager, mayor, and police chief, changes to policing policy were outlined. Aurora police are no longer authorized to use the carotid hold, they must give warnings before firing a weapon and suspicious person calls will have extra vetting among other changes.

Mayor Mike Coffman also voiced support for an outside investigation into the police handling of Elijah McClain.

Gov. Jared Polis on Tuesday said he met with black community leaders, including Denver Public Schools board director Tay Anderson, to discuss the process of holding independent investigations into deaths involving police, including the McClain incident.

"I think whenever there is community mistrust about the outcome of an investigation, it’s important for stakeholders to have a fair process to those involved, as well as gain the confidence of the community," Polis said. "We want to be sure we have better framework for holding everybody accountable who violates our laws and for regaining trust in community policing and law enforcement. For law enforcement to be successful, it needs to have the trust of the community."