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Aurora City Council Questions Panelists About Elijah McClain Independent Review

AURORA, Colo. (CBS4) - The Aurora City Council held a special study session on Tuesday night to question panelists on their findings in the Elijah McClain independent review. The 157-page report, released last Monday, recommends major changes to how the Aurora Police Department handles use of force cases.

The report goes into extensive detail about the August 2019 death of McClain following an encounter with Aurora police. It states that police and emergency responders mishandled the response.

Elijah McClain (2)
Elijah McClain (credit: CBS)

McClain, 23, was walking home from a convenience store wearing a ski mask when someone called 911 to report a suspicious person. Arriving officers tried to arrest McClain, who resisted and was not armed.

Officers put McClain in a carotid hold and an Aurora Fire Department paramedic injected him with ketamine, a sedative. McClain suffered a heart attack on the way to the hospital and was taken off life support days later.

The report found the officers who stopped McClain never "articulated" if he was suspected of a crime, and the panel wrote there was no evidence to justify a pat down that led to a takedown.

(credit: Aurora)

During Tuesday's study session, council member Dave Gruber said the responding offers acted according to their training.

"I believe that there were many, many mistakes made," Gruber said. "I believe that the procedures that our police officers were trained in were incorrect."

The Aurora Police Department announced policy changes in June, including a ban on the carotid hold used on McClain and a duty to intervene if police see another officer violate policies. In addition, APD officers are no longer required to make contact with a person reported as suspicious.

The panelists at Tuesday's study session included lead investigator and attorney Jonathan Smith, former Tucson, Arizona Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor, and Dr. Melissa Costello, a board certified emergency medicine physician.

Council member Angela Lawson asked the panelists about their findings regarding implicit bias. Implicit biases are thoughts and feelings people can have, but might not realize stem from stereotypes.

"There were no specific statements that were made that explicitly we could draw the conclusion that the officers intentionally took the steps they took because of his (McClain's) race. But we did find behavior that was consistent with implicit bias," said Smith.

The panel's research found patterns of implicit bias within the Aurora Police Department that included: the perception of people of color as more threatening, perception people of color have unusual strength, and indifference to the effect of officer's use of force on people of color and the pain they experience.

Council member Curtis Gardner asked the panelists about whether ketamine should have been used to sedate McClain. Gardner is the sponsor of a temporary ketamine ban for Aurora first responders. The ban is set to expire 30 days after the release of the independent review.

Dr. Costello said she believed the initial decision by police to ask for ketamine was appropriate, but said first responders could have gathered more information about the situation before administering ketamine six minutes later.

"In this case I think there was a missed opportunity to really meaningfully gather information in that six minute interval that would have potentially changed their mind," said Dr. Costello.

Officers said McClain displayed symptoms of excited delirium, a controversial diagnosis included in the independent review. Dr. Costello said excited delirium exists in Aurora's protocol, so the review examined the condition as a presumptive diagnosis.

"Even with the best possible intervention, in the cases of true excited delirium, there is a fatality rate that runs around 10%," Dr. Costello said. "It is an illness that we find disproportionately in communities of color."

Council member Nicole Johnston asked the panel about the process of investigating use of force cases in Aurora. Smith said the Aurora Chief of Police is the only person who can authorize an internal affairs investigation.

As part of their review, the panelists recommended an automatic inclusion of internal affairs in future use of force investigations.

Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson said the current review board within the Aurora Police Department was lacking in its ability to investigate cases. She said that they have instituted a Force Investigations Unit that will be better equipped to fully investigate incidents.

The three officers involved in McClain's death were removed from patrol duty in June 2020 and District Attorney Dave Young's official review on the situation found no crime was committed by police. Officers Nathan Woodyard and Randy Roedema remain employed by the department, but Jason Rosenblatt has since been fired.

The independent review does not provide a recommendation about whether the two of the officers who were involved in the arrest should lose their jobs. Chief Wilson would not comment on disciplinary action against the officers involved.

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