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MUSC Calls for Justice and Police Reform in Aurora, Colorado

Thursday, August 6, 2020  

This week, a mother and 4 children (ages 17,14,12 & 6) were terrorized when police mistakenly identified their SUV as a stolen motorcycle from another state. That’s right. An SUV in Colorado was mistaken for a motorcycle in Montana with the same license plate number. The mother and children, one as young as 6, were forced to get out of the vehicle and lie face down on the hot, dirty pavement. They were handcuffed as the children wailed, confused and terrified by what was going on.

This follows the murder of Elijah Jovan McClain, a 23-year-old African American massage therapist who loved animals and taught himself to play the violin, by Aurora police officers last summer. On August 24, 2019, Elijah’s life was cut short when he was approached and subsequently killed by Aurora, CO police while listening to music, as he walked home from a convenience store. Aurora, CO police officers Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema responded to a 911 call of a suspicious black male wearing a ski mask, “acting weird” by “waving his arms around.” Although the 911 caller indicated that he did not believe anyone was in danger, McClain, who was unarmed and had not committed a crime, was detained and forcibly restrained using a choke hold.

Three months after McClain’s death, the body camera footage was released and McClain can be heard asking the officers to stop, explaining that they started to arrest him as he was “stopping [his] music to listen.” He tells them his name, says he has ID but no gun, and pleads that his house is “right there.” One of the officers can also be heard threatening to set his dog on McClain if he “keep[s] messing around.” As McClain is detained on the ground for 15 minutes, he is clearly in distress as he vomited several times, for which he apologized, saying, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to do that, I can’t breathe correctly.” When medical responders arrived, McClain was injected with ketamine, a powerful sedative. McClain went into cardiac arrest on the way to a hospital and was declared brain dead on August 27, 2019.

Last week, The Colorado Department of Health and Environment opened a new investigation into the administration of ketamine prior to Elijah McClain’s death. This follows the Governor's unprecedented move last month to appoint a Special Prosecutor to investigate and prosecute any individuals whose actions caused McClain’s death, despite the local district attorney’s own review and ultimate decision not to prosecute.

The family maintains that the use of excessive force by law enforcement ultimately led to McClain’s death. The officers, however, were subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing and their despicable actions were deemed to be within policy and consistent with their training.

If this is true, policy and training must change now. To date, two of the officers are still gainfully employed with the Aurora, CO police, and none of them have been charged with a crime.

Of particular concern is the fact that McClain was never accused of actually committing a crime. He was just deemed “suspicious,” a highly subjective term based on how he looked.

We want to acknowledge the positive steps the Colorado legislature has taken to ratify the Senate Bill 20-217 enhancing law enforcement integrity in the State of Colorado. However, there is still much work to be done.

Parts of Senate Bill 20-217 aren't expected to go into effect until July 2023. We believe all parts of the bill should be enacted effective immediately. We also believe officers who report misconduct by a fellow officer should be provided incentives for doing so and protection from any retribution. In addition, all  training by the Police Officers Standards Training Board in the state of Colorado should be reviewed and approved by diverse citizen groups representing different parts of the state. Mandated training should include anti-bias, de-escalation and crisis intervention along with awareness of dealing with neurodivergent citizens.

The unprofessionalism and lack of respect for Black lives displayed by the Aurora, Colorado police department is unacceptable. There is clearly something awry in Aurora.  Significant reform and greater accountability is needed to ensure that dehumanization and unwarranted death of Black citizens comes to an end.


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