AURORA, Colo. — A grand jury criminally charged two paramedics for the death of Elijah McClain, an exceedingly rare move.
The indictment states the paramedics failed to speak or touch McClain before diagnosing him with excited delirium and injecting him with ketamine, a powerful sedative.
Aurora Police body camera video of McClain’s arrest garnered national attention. Millions of people watched and scrutinized how police officers and paramedics ultimately decided to inject McClain with ketamine.
After watching the videp, a Denver paramedic, who asked to remain anonymous, said, in her 12 years of experience, the paramedics' actions were clearly negligent.
“When I watched the video, I remember thinking to myself, ketamine was not appropriate in this situation. Elijah McClain was not so violently combative that he fell under the ketamine indication,” the Denver paramedic said.
She sided with the charges brought against the paramedics.
"The paramedics are the ones that did the action. They didn’t have to sedate him if they didn’t think that it was appropriate," the paramedic said. "We are absolutely taking people's lives in our hands and we are supposed to be saving their lives and not harming them."
Dr. Ben Lawner, a medical director at Maryland ExpressCare Critical Care Transport and the medical director of Baltimore City Fire Department, outlined a series of assessments that must be made by a paramedic, including taking vital signs and asking a patient questions before deciding to use ketamine.
“These are very difficult medical decisions,” Lawner said.
An Aurora police officer can be heard in body camera video saying, “let’s give him some juice to go to sleep.” Minutes later, the paramedics injected McClain with ketamine.
“It is not the norm for police officers to ask, and this is because the administration of ketamine is, first and foremost, a medical decision,” Lawner said. “It is not done to facilitate behavioral compliance. It’s not done to facilitate an arrest. It is used primarily when you have a patient with a medical emergency, a condition that is causing them to pose an immediate threat to their life or the safety of providers.
A grand jury indicted three Aurora Police officers and the two Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics involved in McClain’s death.
Jeremy Cooper and Pete Cichuniec face many charges, including criminally negligent homicide and use ketamine for a purpose other than a lawful medical treatment. Cooper, a fire medic, was with AFR for 19 years. Cichuniec was a captain and served 15 years with the department.
According to the indictment, paramedics spoke with officers and reached a diagnosis after two minutes on the scene. Cooper and Cichuniec failed to talk to McCalain, touch him or take his vital signs, according to the indictment.
The paramedics assumed McClain was 200 pounds, but he weighed 143 pounds, a key detail because ketamine is calculated in accordance with the patient's weight. Evidence shows the paramedics administered nearly 50mg in additional dosage for his assumed weight.
Ian Farrell specializes in criminal law at the Sturm College of Law at the University of Denver. He said officers will unconsciously perceive people of color as violent and tend to make inaccurate assessments of their size, more often assuming they are bigger than they really are.
The Denver paramedic hopes the magnitude of the charges brought against Cooper and Cichuniec sends a strong message to people in the medical field with access to ketamine.
“Be better, be better than that. Do what you have hopefully been trained... the right thing to do, which is approaching the scene, survey the scene, approach your patient and do a full assessment,” the paramedic said.
A law passed earlier this year significantly reduced the use of ketamine in emergency situations outside hospital settings. The move raised safety concerns for paramedics who, at times, arrive on the scene before police officers.
“Ketamine was vital because it worked quickly when you have somebody that was so truly aggressively trying to fight you, and you are absolutely almost in a fight for your life,” the paramedic said.
Lawner said ketamine was introduced as a less invasive option to excessive force.
“People were dying due to restraint from officers and from clinicians,” Lawner said.
While there are other alternatives, paramedics say they take much longer to take effect.
State Rep. Leslie Herod fully supported laws passed to restrict the use of ketamine. She said the drug has been excessively used in situations, like McClain's case, where it wasn't warranted.
“Until organizations that are administering ketamine in the field can show and prove that they can do it safely; we don’t need to allow those certifications to continue,” Herod said.