A New Report Shows Elijah McClain Was Killed by a Cascade of Constitutional Violations
A new report on Elijah McClain’s fatal 2019 encounter with police in Aurora, Colorado, concludes that the 23-year-old black man’s death followed a series of unconstitutional decisions, the questionable use of force, and reckless medical care by EMTs who injected him with an outsized dose of ketamine. In the 157-page report, an independent panel appointed by the Aurora City Council also criticizes the police department’s slipshod investigation of the incident, which provoked local protests and became yet another exhibit in the national conversation about police brutality and racially biased law enforcement.
On a Saturday night in August 2019, McClain had just bought a bottle of iced tea at a local convenience store and was walking home when he was accosted by Officer Nathan Woodyard. The officer was responding to a 911 call from a teenager who thought McClain “look[ed] sketchy” because he was wearing a ski mask and making “all these kinds of signs” with his hands. The caller added that “he might be a good person or a bad person.” He said no one was in danger and he had not seen any weapons.
Woodyard ordered McClain to stop, but McClain, who was listening to music through earbuds and apparently did not hear the command, continued walking. He was holding his cellphone in one hand and the bag with his purchase in the other. “Within ten seconds of exiting his patrol car,” the report notes, “Officer Woodyard placed his hands on Mr. McClain. Mr. McClain had no observable weapon and had not displayed violent or threatening behavior. No crime had been reported. The officers later said they stopped Mr. McClain because he was overdressed and wearing a mask, in an area one officer referred to as ‘high crime,’ and a caller had reported his unusual behavior.”
In addition to an open-faced ski mask, McClain was wearing sweat pants and a long-sleeved shirt, which might have seemed strange on an August night but is understandable in light of his anemia, a symptom of which is cold extremities. Aside from his clothing and the “unusual behavior” reported by the 911 caller, Woodyard had no reason to suspect that McClain was doing anything illegal.
The Supreme Court has said the Fourth Amendment requires “reasonable suspicion of criminal activity” to justify an investigatory stop. “Officer Woodyard’s decision to turn what may have been a consensual encounter with Mr. McClain into an investigatory stop—in fewer than ten seconds—did not appear to be supported by any officer’s reasonable suspicion that Mr. McClain was engaged in criminal activity,” the panel’s report says. “This decision had ramifications for the rest of the encounter.”
Woodyard, who was “joined immediately by Officers Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema,” then decided to frisk McClain, a step that is legally justified only if police reasonably suspect the subject is armed. Yet the 911 caller had not reported any weapons (a point that was noted in the police dispatcher’s message), McClain was plainly holding nothing but his phone and the bag from the convenience store, and Woodyard himself later said he “felt safe making an approach” because McClain “didn’t have any weapons.” The panel’s report says “we were not able to identify sufficient evidence that Mr. McClain was armed and dangerous in order to justify a pat-down search.”
McClain, whose walk home had been forcibly interrupted for no good reason, was understandably dismayed. He repeatedly asked the cops to leave him alone and let him continue on his way. “I have a right to walk to where
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