Elijah McClain case: Officers on non-enforcement duty as family pursues independent inquiry

Three officers involved in the arrest of Elijah McClain, an unarmed Black man who died in 2019 after being stopped by police in Colorado, have been placed on non-enforcement duties.

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Friday, June 26, 2020
Elijah McClain case: 2019 death of Black man in Colorado police custody receives renewed attention
More than two million people signed a petition demanding an independent investigation into the 2019 death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain.

AURORA, Colo. (KABC) -- Three officers involved in the arrest of Elijah McClain, an unarmed Black man who died after being stopped by suburban Denver police last year because of "suspicious" behavior, have been placed on non-enforcement duties, according to the department.

The three officers, Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema, were shifted within the last two weeks, according to the Aurora Police Department.

They are now working in a non-enforcement capacity, which can mean a variety of administrative duties. The department indicated the move was made to protect the officers' safety after they have received threats in recent weeks.

The reassignments come as pressure mounts on local and state officials to re-examine the August 2019 death of McClain as such cases have gained more attention nationwide after the death of George Floyd.

A lawyer for McClain's family on Friday also said they are planning to hold their own independent investigation into the 23-year-old's death and the official inquiry that cleared the three white police officers of wrongdoing.

Attorney Mari Newman told The Associated Press the decision reflects her suspicions toward government investigations of cases of alleged police misconduct.

It comes a day after Democratic Gov. Jared Polis announced he was appointing Attorney General Phil Weiser to re-investigate and possibly prosecute the officers.

"After over two decades of doing this work, my experience is that families cannot rely on the government to police itself," Newman said. "And so my work is to continue to seek justice through the civil justice system so we're doing our own investigation and preparing a civil rights lawsuit."

Newman declined to elaborate or provide details about the independent investigation.

"We know that the police can't police themselves and we know that district attorneys don't charge the police officers because they rely on police in their other prosecutions," she said.

Police in Aurora responded to a call of a suspicious person wearing a ski mask and waving his arms as he walked down a street on Aug. 24. They say McClain, 23, refused to stop walking and fought back when officers confronted him and tried to take him into custody.

"I have a right to stop you because you're being suspicious," an officer is heard on a body camera recording telling McClain. The encounter happened as McClain, a certified massage therapist and self-taught violin player, was running an errand.

To subdue McClain, officers used a chokehold that cuts off blood to the brain - a tactic recently banned in several places in the wake of George Floyd's death last month in Minneapolis. Paramedics arrived soon after and administered 500 milligrams of a sedative to calm McClain down. In less than a week, McClain suffered cardiac arrest, was declared brain dead and taken off life support.

Police in Aurora, Colo. stopped 23-year-old Elijah McClain because of a report about a suspicious person wearing a ski mask. His family says he wore it to keep warm. Bodycam video captured the arrest which preceded his death.

McClain's name has circulated throughout social media since Floyd's death, with some highlighting his case as yet another unarmed Black man to die and others demanding some form of justice.

A petition on Change.org, calling for the officers involved to be taken off duty and a more "in-depth" investigation be conducted, has garnered more than 3.4 million signatures.

"He was an angel among humans," Newman said of McClain. "He would go to play his violin on lunch hour to animals who were waiting to be adopted so they wouldn't be lonely."

Weiser promised a thorough investigation in a statement Thursday. He said it will be "guided by the facts, and worthy of public trust and confidence in the criminal justice system."

"Elijah McClain should be alive today," Weiser said. "His life mattered and his death was tragic. The pain, frustration, and anger that his family and many Coloradans are feeling from his death is understandable and justified. Whenever someone dies after an encounter with law enforcement, the community deserves a thorough investigation."

The attorney general's office declined to comment on Newman's decision to pursue an independent investigation.

Body camera video released by Aurora police can be viewed here. Warning: Content may be disturbing.

While the appointment of the attorney general isn't "business as usual," Newman said, it's an acknowledgement of the special circumstances surrounding McClain's death.

"A true, thorough, independent investigation should not be contingent on a case that garners the public outcry from three million signatures on a petition and international media attention," Newman said.

"So while I appreciate the governor stepping up and stepping in, it's unfortunate that that doesn't happen in every case," she added.

Aurora's city council will debate July 6 whether to hire another third-party investigator after a previous one was fired because he is a former police officer. Newman said she's distrustful of that process.

Three officers were placed on leave but returned to the force after District Attorney Dave Young said there was insufficient evidence to support charging them.

"Ultimately, while I may share the vast public opinion that Elijah McClain's death could have been avoided, it is not my role to file criminal charges based on opinion, but rather, on the evidence revealed from the investigation and applicable Colorado law," Young said Thursday.

Newman said "without a doubt" all of those involved should be fired: "Their behavior demonstrates that they are not suited to carry that badge."

Material from The Associated Press, CNN and ABC News contributed to this report.