Gov. Jared Polis said Wednesday that he has asked his attorneys to examine what steps the state can take in response to the death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old black man who died after an encounter with Aurora police last year.
McClain was unarmed and walking home when police officers, responding to a report of a suspicious person, confronted him on Aug. 24, 2019, at about 10:30 p.m. A struggle ensued and officers used a carotid-pressure hold, which cuts off blood to the brain, to subdue him.
A responding paramedic gave McClain a ketamine injection, after which McClain stopped breathing and no longer had a pulse. He died on Aug. 30, 2019, after being removed from life support.
“Public confidence in our law enforcement process is incredibly important now more than ever. A fair and objective process free from real or perceived bias for investigating officer-involved killings is critical,” Polis, a Democrat, said in a written statement. “I am hearing from many Coloradans who have expressed concerns with the investigation of Elijah McClain’s death. As a result, I have instructed my legal council to examine what the state can do and we are assessing next steps.”
In the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis there has been renewed interest in McClain’s death and calls for the investigation into how he died to be reopened.
In recent days, McClain’s death has garnered national attention as the story of how he died spreads on social media.
The officers and paramedic involved in the death were cleared of criminal wrongdoing by 17th Judicial District Attorney Dave Young.
“There is no evidence that any one of the officers sought to cause injury or death to Mr. McClain,” Young wrote. “Rather, the evidence suggests that they exercised a degree of force they believed necessary to detain him and investigate into his possible criminal activity.”
The city of Aurora, however, is soliciting an independent review of McClain’s death.
It’s possible that Polis could ask Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser to review the death, but his options — in terms of the state’s response — appear to be fairly limited.
Polis met in October with the family of 19-year-old De’Von Bailey, who was fatally shot in the back by Colorado Springs police officers last year. Bailey was fleeing the officers and was armed, though the gun was in his shorts.
Polis called for an independent investigation into Bailey’s Aug. 3, 2019, death but stopped short of asking Weiser’s office to review the shooting.
A spokesman for Polis did not immediately return a question about whether he has met with McClain’s family.
On June 9, The Colorado Sun asked Polis about whether he was looking at asking Weiser’s office to review any police-involved deaths. He did not directly answer.
“For law enforcement to be successful, it needs the trust of the community,” he said. “… And when that trust is broken, law enforcement cannot be as effective in keeping us safe.”
Polis last week signed Senate Bill 217 into law. The measure is a sweeping police accountability bill that came in the wake of Floyd’s death and nationwide protests, including across Colorado. McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, testified in support of the bill.
CORRECTION: This story was updated on June 24, 2020, at 4 p.m. to correct dates related to the arrest and death of Elijah McClain.