Gov. Polis appoints state attorney general to investigate Elijah McClain case

McClain died after an altercation with Aurora police last year.

Elisabeth Epps (left) livestreams a rally in memory of Elijah McClain, who died after an interaction with Aurora police in 2019. June 6, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Elisabeth Epps (left) livestreams a rally in memory of Elijah McClain, who died after an interaction with Aurora police in 2019. June 6, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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A day after Gov. Jared Polis announced he was instructing his legal team to determine “what the state can do” in the case of Elijah McClain,  the governor announced the state attorney general, Phil Weiser, would investigate the case of the 23-year-old Black man who died after an encounter with Aurora police last year.

“I was moved by speaking with Elijah’s mother and her description of her son as a responsible and curious child who became a vegetarian to be healthier, and who could inspire the darkest soul,” Polis’ office wrote in a statement about his announcement Thursday. “His friends describe him as a gentle peacemaker who worked as a massage therapist and enjoyed playing the violin. Elijah McClain should be alive today, and we owe it to his family to take this step and elevate the pursuit of justice in his name to a statewide concern. ”

Recent protests in Denver and Aurora have called attention to McClain’s death, and a petition on Change.org calling for the officers involved to be taken off duty and an investigation into his case has received more than 2 million signatures.

On August 24, 2019, McClain was walking near Colfax Avenue in Aurora when someone called police to report a “sketchy” man flailing his arms and wearing a ski mask, which he often donned because he had anemia. After a brief exchange and despite no evidence that he had committed a crime, three officers wrangled 140-pound McClain to the ground. An officer claimed he tried to take his gun from its holster. The body-cam footage is limited to audio, and McClain can be heard saying he was in pain and didn’t have a gun. “I don’t do that kind of stuff,” he told them.

An officer put McClain in a carotid control hold, a kind of stranglehold. He was handcuffed and vomited multiple times. Responding EMTs then injected him with ketamine on the ride to the hospital to sedate him, they said. He suffered cardiac arrest in the ambulance, and was declared brain dead three days later in the hospital.

In early February, a review board cleared the three officers who had apprehended McClain.

The community’s response was loud enough that newly sworn-in Mike Coffman said he would make handling the case among his first priorities as Aurora’s mayor.

McClain’s death has since made national headlines.

“Now more than ever, we must do everything within our power to foster public trust and confidence in law enforcement and the criminal justice system. That’s why I have appointed a special prosecutor to investigate this case, and it’s why earlier this month we took a step in the right direction by signing sweeping bipartisan police reform legislation into law that has now established significant new accountability for officer-involved killings,” Polis wrote.

“As a father, my heart breaks for the McClain family. All Coloradans should be safe walking home from the convenience store, or just being in their own neighborhoods listening to headphones. Unfortunately, I know that is not how many people — especially young people of color — feel in our state today, because I’ve heard it from them directly. We need to do a better job, and at a bare minimum they deserve a thorough review of the case,” said Governor Polis.

On Saturday, the Party for Socialism and Liberation will host a protest outside Aurora police headquarters, calling on the officers involved to be fired, the case to be reopened, and McClain’s family to receive “immediate restitution.”

This story has been updated to include the attorney general investigation.

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