Elijah McClain (1996–2019) was a massage therapist in Aurora who was walking down the street when approached and killed by Aurora Police and Aurora Fire Rescue officers on August 24, 2019. The death of McClain, a young Black man whom his family described as “exceedingly gentle,” was immediately protested as unnecessary. Prosecutors initially refused to charge the responding officers, but the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 renewed local calls for justice for McClain.
Following intervention by the state and immense public pressure, in September 2021, the three police officers and two paramedics involved in McClain’s death were charged with manslaughter. McClain’s death and later events surrounding the case made national news and put a spotlight on the Aurora Police Department, whose violent and racially biased practices were later highlighted by a Colorado Department of Law investigation. The investigation was the first to occur under the state’s Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity law, passed in the wake of the Floyd protests.
Elijah McClain was born in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood and had five brothers and sisters. His mother, Sheneen McClain, moved the family from Park Hill to Aurora to get away from gang violence. As a teenager, McClain played the guitar and violin. He also cared a lot about animals, playing music for them at local shelters and becoming a vegetarian. His friends recalled him as an “oddball” who was kind and passionate about life. McClain found his calling in massage therapy by the time he was in his twenties. A fellow massage therapist who became his friend said that McClain “was never into, like, fitting in. He just was who he was.”
On the night of August 24, 2019, McClain left a gas station on East Colfax Avenue and began walking home to his nearby apartment, which he shared with his cousin. Having received a 911 call about a “suspicious person,” Aurora Police officers approached the twenty-three-year-old. The caller said nobody was in danger; McClain was dancing to music and wearing a ski mask but had no weapon. Officers Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt, and Randy Roedema aggressively contacted and restrained McClain for about fifteen minutes. They put him in a chokehold and continued to manhandle him after he was handcuffed. The officers claimed he was resisting arrest, but an audio recording revealed the young man was struggling to breathe (the officers’ body cameras had fallen off during the incident).
At that point, Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec, paramedics with Aurora Fire Rescue, arrived and injected McClain with a 500-milligram dose of the sedative ketamine—more than one and a half times the appropriate dose for his weight. The drug sent the young man into cardiac arrest. McClain was hospitalized for days until he was taken off life support and died from the altercation on August 30, 2019.
The Aurora Police Department did not release audio or video from the McClain incident until October 2019. The department report claimed that the young man “began to resist the officer contact and a struggle then ensued” before he was administered ketamine and taken into custody. On November 8, 2019, the coroner for Adams and Broomfield Counties announced the cause of McClain’s death to be “undetermined.” On November 22, the district attorney for Adams and Broomfield Counties announced that the officers in the McClain case would not be charged, prompting outrage from the family and supporters.
Lawsuit and Later Investigations
McClain’s case received renewed attention after the massive protests in response to George Floyd’s death in the spring of 2020. More than 800,000 people signed an online petition for justice for McClain in just two days. On June 25, Governor Jared Polis announced a state investigation into the McClain incident. Two days later, hundreds in the Aurora community gathered for a violin vigil to celebrate McClain’s life and call for justice. Interstate 225 was briefly shut down as demonstrators blocked the highway. Later, Aurora Police descended upon the violin vigil in full riot gear, breaking up the peaceful demonstration with pepper spray and baton prods. National and even international press condemned the response, but the Aurora Police Department defended its use of force.
In August 2020, McClain’s family filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Aurora and the officers involved in his death. Theirs was not the first lawsuit to allege misconduct and racial bias by the Aurora Police; the city had already shelled out some $4.6 million to cover previous settlements. The McClain lawsuit compiled a range of disturbing details, including the entire audio transcript of McClain pleading with officers to let him breathe and documented evidence of the Aurora Police’s alleged abuse of people of color.
In February 2021, three Aurora Police officers—Erica Marrero, Jaron Jones, and Kyle Dittrich—were found to have taken mocking photos of themselves in front of a memorial dedicated to McClain, reenacting the chokehold used on the young man before his death. The officers were fired, and the incident served as a scathing reminder to the community of how trivial McClain’s death was to the Aurora Police.
In September 2021, after a grand jury investigation, state Attorney General Phil Weiser announced manslaughter charges for the three police officers and two paramedics involved in McClain’s death. That same month, Weiser’s office released the findings of its broader investigation into the Aurora Police Department—an investigation made possible by Colorado’s new police reform law passed after the Floyd protests. The report concluded the Aurora Police “culture leads to the frequent use of force, often in excess,” that the department “does not meaningfully review officers’ use of force,” and that Aurora Fire Rescue “had a pattern and practice of using ketamine in violation of the law.” The Aurora Police Department is cooperating with the state’s recommendations in the report. On November 18, 2021, the city of Aurora settled with the McClain family for $15 million.