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Gov. Polis looks for options amid growing pressure to re-investigate Elijah McClain's death

Case has garnered widespread attention since demonstrations began
Elijah McClain
Posted at 5:03 PM, Jun 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-25 14:56:43-04

DENVER — Amid renewed calls both locally and nationally for justice, Gov. Jared Polis announced Wednesday that he is looking into what his office can do to respond to the death of Elijah McClain, the 23-year-old Black man who died following an interaction with Aurora police last August.

“I am hearing from many Coloradans who have expressed concerns with the investigation of Elijah McClain’s death. As a result, I have instructed my legal council [sic] to examine what the state can do and we are assessing next steps,” Polis said in a tweet Wednesday afternoon.

Over the past couple of weeks, interest in the case has grown both locally and nationally. People from Colorado State Rep. Leslie Herod to U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Ellen Degeneres and Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, Bernice King, have made calls for justice in the case and a renewed investigation into what happened that night and if officers should face punishment. A Change.org petition calling for justice has been signed more than 2.3 million times as of Wednesday afternoon.

At the same time, pressure from the Aurora City Council to complete a search for a new independent investigator into McClain’s death by next month is mounting.

A letter from Council Member Curtis Gardner to Aurora’s City Manager Jim Twombly urged Twombly to have the recommendations for a new third-party investigator ready to present by July 16, the date of Aurora’s Public Safety Policy Committee’s next meeting.

Mayor Mike Coffman on Wednesday afternoon called for a special City Council meeting on July 6 to vote on whether or not to authorize an independent investigation in the case, with a second vote on who will conduct the investigation. The call came after the letter from the Public Safety, Court, and Civil Service Policy Committee. A release from the city said that the committee will bring the proposal forward to the full council at the July 6 meeting.

"We need to bring closure to this tragic incident by making sure every aspect of it is thoroughly investigated," Coffman said in a statement.

"Trust is already eroded—delaying action will only cause further strain in our community," said Allison Hiltz, the chair of the Public Safety, Court, and Civil Service Policy Committee.

The independent investigation has been fraught with controversy since many council members felt the original outside probe, led by a Connecticut-based attorney with ties to law enforcement, was not independent enough. That contract was terminated June 10 and Mayor Mike Coffman said in a tweet that “another individual will be selected by the Mayor and the City Council.”

Calls for an independent and external review in McClain’s August 2019 death have been ongoing since it happened, and the officers involved in his death did not face criminal charges and were found not to have violated department policies. The city has since changed department policies directly in the wake of McClain's death after calls for further investigation.

McClain suffered a heart attack on the way to a hospital after the Aug. 24 incident, which happened in the 1900 block of Billings Street. Officers had responded to a call about a suspicious man wearing a ski mask and waving his arms. When they arrived, they contacted McClain, who they claimed resisted when the officers tried to detain him, police said.

A struggle ensued, and a responding officer requested that a paramedic give McClain a dose of ketamine "due to the level of physical force applied while restraining the subject and his agitated mental state," officials said.

But in the department's review of the incident earlier this year, the board found that the officers "had a lawful reason to contact Mr. McClain."

The board also found that the force applied by officers — which included a carotid control hold — during the incident was "within policy and consistent with training."

The carotid hold has since been banned by the department.

The Adams County Coroner conducted the autopsy on McClain and ruled that the manner of his death was "undetermined," saying it could not determine whether his death was an accident, due to natural causes or a homicide.

District Attorney Dave Young said Wednesday his office received more than 1,700 voicemails on Tuesday alone about the McClain case. Young’s office has established a page on the office’s website where members of the public can submit comments about the McClain case. Click here for more.

Young says he has to make a decision based on evidence and that a jury would find compelling beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Understand that my role is limited to determine whether or not a criminal violation occurred. I am not indicating that the actions of the police department were appropriate. That's the role of the Aurora Police Department,” Young said.

Denver7 confirmed Wednesday the officers involved are all still currently employed by the Aurora Police Department.

Young says the attacks have gotten personal and are overwhelming his office from doing their job of serving victims of crime.

He encourages those sending emails to read his decision. Young said if new evidence comes to light in the case, he would reconsider.

“The emails, the voicemails, the attacks on Facebook — not only to me, but my family — is not evidence that can be used in a court,” Young said.

Young sent out a lengthy statement on Thursday morning reiterating that he had not “cleared the officers” involved in McClain’s death.

“This statement is not only incorrect, it does not adequately convey the role of the district attorney or the decision I was called upon to make,” Young said. “Consequently, given the degree of public interest with this investigation, it is important for me to explain the process, along with my authority and decisions with respect to the case involving the death of Mr. McClain.”

Click here to read his full statement.

Denver7's Robert Garrison, Jessica Porter and Blair Miller contributed to this report.