The newly released 157-page report into the death of Elijah McClain begins with the all-too-obvious fact that McClain should never have been stopped by the Aurora cops on that August 2019 night. But we already knew that.
What we may not have not have known — or least not known with such certainty — is that the stop was only the first step leading to the tragedy and that seemingly every other step was just as mistaken. By the cops. By the paramedics. By the investigating police detectives. By the district attorney.
Everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and it was all human error, some of it clearly criminal, although determining criminality was beyond the scope of this investigation. What the report does make clear is that the 23-year-old McClain was victimized from the first moment of his interaction with police until his last.
As it also makes clear — although it doesn’t use this precise language — is that the Aurora police attempted to cover up the cops’ culpability. It says the detectives “failed to present a neutral, objective version of the facts and seemingly ignored contrary evidence.” That’s close enough for me. And in this one instance, the coverup was not worse than the crime, but it is troubling enough.
You can read the report yourself, if you have the stomach for it. It is devastating. In fact, maybe the only thing more devastating about the case than the report was the fact of McClain’s entirely unnecessary death.
Where to begin?
The report — conducted by a three-person panel at the behest of the Aurora City Council — details why McClain should never have been stopped. Why he should never have been grabbed by a cop — 10 seconds after the encounter began — in which McClain seemed to do nothing more than walk away from cops who had no reason to suspect he had committed or was going to commit a crime. Why he should never have been frisked. Why he should never have been put in a carotid choke hold. How the cops repeatedly ignored the constitutional limitations on police power.
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This is all laid out according to long-held court cases that outline proper police procedure in such cases. The major problem, of course, with the police procedure in the McClain case is that there was never any need for police or procedure.
To put it succinctly, the report suggests throughout that this was a Walking While Black case. Certainly, community outrage has been more than vindicated.
It gets worse. The cops applied physical pressure even after McClain was cuffed, even after he was vomiting, even after he had begged to be let go, insisting he had done nothing wrong — his only offense being that he had aroused suspicion from a passerby who made a 911 call saying McClain looked weird, but probably not dangerous. McClain did look weird. He was wearing a ski cap and heavy coat on a warm summer’s night. He was swinging his arms, possibly in tune to the music he was listening to through his earbuds. In America, that’s all allowable behavior.
No one had reported a crime. No one even suggested there was a crime.
And while the police were taking him down to the ground — as one claimed that McClain was reaching for an officer’s gun — and kept telling him to “chill,” to not “tense up,” and to cooperate, the report quotes McClain’s pleas for help being captured on video and audio: “All I was trying to do was become better. I’ll do it … I’ll do it. … I’ll do better to help all life. … I will do anything I have to. … Sacrifice my identity. … I’ll do it. … I’ll do it. … You all are phenomenal, you are beautiful. … Forgive me…”
Forgive him. He was unarmed. He was going home. He was listening to music. He’s a self-described introvert. The cops seemed to miss all this.
The failings didn’t end there. The paramedics who injected McClain with the sedative ketamine did not examine him, did not attempt to speak to him, but simply took the cops’ word that McClain was suffering from excited delirium. And in the category of having-your-size-misread-while-Black, the paramedics estimated that McClain was 6 feet tall and weighed 190 pounds in measuring for the sedative dose. McCain was 5-foot-6 and weighed 140 pounds. He suffered from cardiac arrest following the sedative. He died days later.
As the report found, the failure is everywhere you look, The police investigation of the actions by the cops was deeply flawed, which is why two of the three still work for Aurora police. The other one was fired, you’ll remember, for tweeting “ha ha” to a photo of cops reenacting the choke hold near the incident.
Meanwhile, the investigating detectives asked leading questions that would allow the offending cops to repeat the “magic language” that would put them right with guidelines for using force. Just as one example, each of the cops said the confrontation took place in a high-crime area. Aurora maps high-crime areas. The incident took place at the border of low-crime to medium-crime areas.
According to the report, there were no critical questions asked. Anything that seemed to contradict the cops’ stories was ignored. And there was this from the report: “It is hard to imagine any other persons involved in a fatal incident being interviewed as these officers were.”
And, finally, the former district attorney, Dave Young, seemed to rely on the police findings to determine whether any laws had been broken. He seemed to miss the obvious coverup while failing to make any real investigation of his own. In defending his decision at the time, Young wrote that McClain’s death was “tragic and unnecessary,” but that there was not sufficient evidence to charge the officers.
Other investigations are under way. The U.S. Department of Justice. The Colorado Attorney General’s office. Millions will be paid out in civil cases. Maybe someday, someone will even be charged in McClain’s death.
Until then, we are left with a report detailing a long string of failures, including this one: After reading the damning report, you can’t help but see that no one in the system ever stood up for Elijah McClain.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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