Activists and elected officials react to Elijah McClain grand jury decision
“I just want to make sure that we don’t have another Sheneen McClain,” said local activist and Aurora City Council candidate Candice Bailey.
Aurora City Councilmember Juan Marcano thought about Sheneen McClain on Wednesday as he learned a grand jury indicted local cops and paramedics involved in the violent arrest of Sheneen’s son, Elijah McClain, more than two years ago.
Marcano, who has advocated for numerous police reforms, said he hoped Sheneen McClain felt some hope and some sense of accountability.
“This has been like a dark cloud hanging over our city for about two years now,” Marcano said. “It’s about damn time we get some movement on this.”
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser on Wednesday detailed the results of the state’s investigation, which started in June 2020 after Gov. Jared Polis appointed Weiser as a special prosecutor to investigate McClain’s death.
Local activist and Aurora City Council candidate Candice Bailey said she cried after hearing Weiser’s announcement. She credited the hundreds of protesters who demanded accountability last year as helping bring the charges forward.
She spoke to press outside the city municipal center on Wednesday — the very space where she and others protested. McClain’s death prompted demonstrations in Denver and Aurora last summer after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis in May 2020. Bailey emerged as a pivotal figure during those protests.
“Community, I am so proud of you for what has been accomplished,” Bailey said. “Let this be the fire that lights the way for the change that we need.”
McClain died after an encounter with Aurora Police and paramedics in August 2019. He died days after cops placed him in two carotid holds and EMS personnel injected him with ketamine. He had committed no crime when police approached him near Billings Street and Colfax Avenue. McClain was 23.
The 32-count criminal indictments are against three Aurora police officers, Nathan Woodyard, Randy Rodema and Jason Rosenblatt, and two medical personal, Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec. Each face one count of manslaughter and one count of criminally negligent homicide. They face additional charges as well.
Rosenblatt was fired last year for his involvement in a photo mocking McClain’s death.
McClain’s death sparked local, state and federal investigations. An independent investigation commissioned by the city and released in February concluded police had no basis to approach and apprehend McClain. A second investigation focusing on Aurora police practices released last month recommended policy changes that include changing how officers use force and improving diversity among its staff.
Jeff Fard of Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center in Denver said he plans on hosting Sheneen on Wednesday afternoon on his show.
Fard said Weiser handled the sensitive case well. He said it wasn’t a time to celebrate, though he said he felt optimistic that the case may go before a jury for a trial to hold people accountable for what happened.
Still, in his eyes, the announcement falls short.
“Justice is Elijah McClain going home to his mother and his family,” Fard said. “Justice for Elijah McClain is him going into college. Justice for Elijah McClain is Elijah McClain having a family. Justice for Elijah McClain is passing on his legacy, perhaps through children. Justice for Elijah McClain is being alive. None of those things will ever happen.”
U.S. Rep. Jason Crow of Aurora, a Democrat, said in a statement the indictments are a critical step in ensuring justice is served on McClain’s behalf.
“I stand with Elijah’s family, friends, and community who mourn his loss,” Crow said in his statement. “Today we join the community in seeking greater accountability and justice.”
State Sen. Janet Buckner of Aurora, a Democrat, in a statement called Elijah McClain “a gentle soul who cared for others.”
“Far too often, instances of police violence wreak havoc on communities of color, and so many Black men and women do not get the justice and accountability they deserve,” Buckner said in her statement. “Today, we got some accountability and a real path toward justice.”
Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly said in a statement no civil or criminal investigation will erase the pain and heartbreak of McClain’s death.
“This tragedy has greatly changed and shaped Aurora,” Twombly said in his statement. “Today’s announcement is an important step in restoring the community’s trust in Aurora’s public safety agencies and in honoring Elijah’s life.”
Marcano said more works needs to be done, adding that Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson, who was appointed last year, needs to keep working to address what he characterized as a “toxic culture” in the police department. She has fired several cops for misbehavior since taking over.
“I know this has been a long-awaited decision for Ms. McClain and her family,” Wilson said in a statement. “This tragedy will forever be imprinted on our community. We continue to offer our condolences for the loss of Elijah, and we will continue to cooperate with the judicial process.”
McClain’s mother, Sheneen, recently told CPR News she plans to keep advocating for police reform. Bailey said she had not yet spoken to her.
“I just want to make sure that we don’t have another Sheneen McClain,'” Bailey said.