September 10, 2021 |NEWS | by Susie Dummit | Photo by Sierra Romero
On Sept. 1, 2021, three Aurora police officers and two paramedics were indicted in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain with manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, and other charges totaling 32 counts.
The individuals implicated were paramedic Jeremy Cooper, Lt. Peter Cichuniec, and officers Randy Roedema, Nathan Woodyard and Jason Rosenblatt. Rosenblatt was fired last year for his involvement in a photographed re-enactment of the chokehold that led to McClain’s death in front of his memorial.
History has proven time and time again how seldom police officers face criminal charges for deaths on duty, but what is even more rare is the indictment of paramedics. While some view this as a turning point in social justice reform, many argue the nature of the case and the context of McClain’s character provide undeniable evidence of foul play.
“He never should’ve been killed,” Ms. McClain, Elijah’s mother, told the New York Times. “Elijah believed in our humanity. He showed more humanity to those that killed him than the ones who were supposed to protect and serve him. He believed in our capacity to love one another.”
Known for his benevolent nature, passion for music and animals, and experience with autism, it’s difficult to identify any justifications for McClain’s untimely death. He was a 23-year-old massage therapist when the officers attempted to take him into custody on his walk back from a convenience store on Aug. 24, 2019. The officers were responding to a 911 call, reporting a man walking down the street looking “sketchy” and wearing a ski mask, with no further explanation for their concern.
McClain was in fact wearing a ski mask to keep himself warm, due to a medical condition. But without the opportunity to explain himself, three officers pinned him down in a chokehold for 18 minutes, 15 of which he was in handcuffs. An officer who arrived later threatened to get his police dog to bite McClain.
Paramedics arrived soon after, sedating McClain with 500 milligrams of ketamine, which is more than one and a half times the prescribed dose for his weight. McClain stopped breathing within five minutes, suffered cardiac arrest, was declared brain dead in the hospital, and died six days later.
Responding officers claimed that McClain was “actively resisting” and trying to grab one of their guns. However, critics of their actions cite the body camera footage from the officers as evidence of use of excessive force.
McClain’s tragic pleas are forever immortalized in the widely-publicized body cam footage and continue to echo in the minds of its viewers.
McClain repeatedly tried to explain to the officers that he was different, referring to his autism, and had done nothing wrong, but to no avail. Before the arrival of the paramedics, the footage of one officer’s body camera displays McClain handcuffed, lying on his side and occasionally vomiting as another officer leans on him.
“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t. Please stop.” McClain said in tears, as officers continued to pin him down in a chokehold. “My name is Elijah McClain. That’s all. That’s what I was doing. I was just going home. I’m an introvert and I’m different. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why were you attacking me? I don’t do guns. I don’t even kill flies. I don’t eat meat. I am a vegetarian.”
These words have been repeated countless times, through tweets, Instagram infographics, Facebook posts, and adorning the signs held by protestors across the country. Nevertheless, it took over two years of demands for accountability for the indictment of McClain’s killers.
McClain’s autopsy revealed a combination of a narrowed coronary artery and physical exertion as causes of death. However, medical examiner Dr. Stephen Cina claimed to have found no evidence of a ketamine overdose, suggesting other explanations such as an unexpected reaction to ketamine or an irregular heartbeat caused by the chokehold. Thus, in 2019, a district attorney had said that he could not charge the officers because the autopsy could not determine how McClain died.
However, a lawsuit from McClain’s family implies that McClain died as a result of “a dramatic increase of lactic acid in his blood caused by excessive force used by police … combined with the effects of the ketamine.” They state that police continued to “torture” McClain, even after restraining him, which they say was a result of the Aurora police department’s history of “unconstitutional racist brutality.”
The case also posits that the paramedics failed to follow medical protocol in their administration of ketamine while McClain was already restrained, and by neglecting to check his vital signs or properly monitor him after giving him a powerful drug.
This event caused a shared sense of tragedy, suffering and trauma, specifically within Black and Autistic communities. It also ignited a passion for both accountability and prevention, which sparked small, but nevertheless meaningful reforms.
The case motivated new police accountability laws in Colorado through Senate Bill 217 in 2020, and new restrictions on the use of ketamine, through House Bill 1251 in 2021. Senate Bill 217 includes a ban on carotid and choke holds, a call for intervention from fellow officers in the wrongdoings of their colleagues, new protocols for law enforcement agencies investigating use-of-force deaths and new rules on deadly force, saying it can only be used when faced with an imminent threat. All of the factors mentioned in these reforms allegedly contributed to McClain’s death, according to the indictment.
Nonetheless, many will argue that these reforms will never be enough. McClain’s death fueled a powerful resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and demand for police reform, stemming from George Floyd’s death in May 2020. This reignited passion sparked a broader conversation concerning the United States justice system, which has created a permanent space for newer, more radical perspectives to be taken into consideration in lawmaking.
Deborah Richardson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, echoed the hope behind some of these ideologies. “Historically, the internal culture of policing normalized the treatment Mr. McClain experienced and was callously written off.” Richardson said. “Hopefully, this law enforcement abuse will no longer be tolerated.”