DENVER (Reuters) – A Colorado police officer had no apparent reasonable grounds to suspect a crime was being committed when he approached an unarmed Black man walking home from a convenience store, and within seconds escalated a stop that led to the man’s death, a report by independent investigators released on Monday said.
The City Council in the Denver suburb of Aurora had requested the investigation after the 2019 death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain attracted renewed scrutiny amid international demonstrations against racism and police killings of Black Americans following the death last May of George Floyd in Minnesota.
Earlier probes by city departments had determined that the officers and paramedics involved in McClain’s death had not violated policy and the prosecutor declined to bring charges.
Monday’s report resulting from an investigation led by Jonathan Smith, a former head of special litigation for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, concluded that Aurora police “failed to ask basic, critical questions” that would have helped prosecutors determine whether the force used was justified. Police investigators instead asked questions that appeared designed to elicit comments that would exonerate the officers involved, according to the report.
Aurora police and paramedic officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Smith’s report was to be discussed at an Aurora City Council meeting on Monday.
Mari Newman, an attorney for McClain’s family, said in a statement that the independent report “confirms what we have known all along: Aurora police and medics violated Elijah McClain’s civil rights, and Aurora did everything in its power to sweep his murder under the rug.”
McClain’s family has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit.
According to the 153-page report by Smith and two colleagues – one a former Arizona chief of police and the other a doctor who directs emergency medical services in Alabama – Aurora Police Officer Nathan Woodyard decided in less than 10 seconds after McClain was stopped as he was walking alone late on August 24, 2019 “to turn what may have been a consensual encounter with Mr. McClain into an investigatory stop” without apparent grounds.
McClain went into cardiac arrest after he was subdued by three police officers. Woodyard was the first officer to have responded to a report from a passerby that McClain had been acting suspiciously.
Police restrained McClain using an oxygen-depriving neck hold. Police called paramedics who administered a dose of ketamine, a sedative. McClain died days later in hospital.
The independent investigators concluded that paramedics failed to properly examine McClain before injecting the sedative.
Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; writing and additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; editing by Donna Bryson and Grant McCool