Thousands across the country have come together to protest the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain, who died after being put in a chokehold while in the custody of the Aurora Police Department in Colorado. Amid those who came out to honor and support justice for McClain were some Aurora police officers who chose to act inappropriately at the young Black man’s memorial.
Multiple officers have been placed on administrative leave pending an internal investigation after allegations that the officers took photos reenacting a chokehold at the spot at which McClain was arrested and wrestled to the ground, CBS News reported.
The city’s interim police chief, Vanessa Wilson, released a statement Monday acknowledging she learned of these allegations on Thursday. They were “reported to Internal Affairs by an Aurora Police Officer alleging multiple Aurora Police officers were depicted in photographs near the site where Elijah McClain died.” According to the statement, all the involved officers were “immediately placed on administrative leave with pay in non-enforcement capacities.” Wilson added that upon conclusion, the investigation will be shared publicly “in its entirety. This will include reports, photographic evidence obtained, officer’s names, and my final determination which can rise to the level of termination,” Wilson said.
Wilson did not detail the content of the photographs or confirm when they were taken. A spokesman for the department declined to comment further on the investigation, noting that it is ongoing, The Washington Post reported.
While it remains unclear when the photos were taken and who the officers are, the alleged actions they took are not only inappropriate but inhumane. “People congregated to pay tribute to [McClain], to call for accountability for his death, and to play their violins in his honor,” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes said on Monday. “And then Aurora police basically re-created the dynamic of McClain’s death.” In addition to having taken these photos, the Aurora police department allegedly pepper-sprayed and threatened the demonstrators who peacefully gathered to protest McClain’s death on Saturday.
The department acknowledged this action and attempted to defend it by citing violence as the cause for the use of force. “Pepper spray was used after a small group of people gathered rocks/sticks, knocked over a fence, & ignored orders to move back. Tear gas was not used,” the department said on Twitter. Siding with the department’s use of violence, Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman called for a city council meeting on Tuesday to discuss the department’s handling of Saturday’s peaceful protests and vigil. “We are hearing many questions and concerns from the community about the tactics used by the Aurora Police Department during Saturday’s protests, and council needs to hear first-hand specifically what happened,” Coffman said in a press release. “The tragic death of Elijah McClain brought out many peaceful people over the weekend who want their voices heard, and unfortunately there were disruptions that overshadowed the broader message. I look forward to working with City Council to understand more and make sure we are upfront and transparent with our residents.”
On Aug. 24, 2019, McClain was stopped by three white officers on his way home from a convenience store after a 911 caller described a “suspicious person” matching his description, Adams County District Attorney Dave Young said in a police summary of the incident. According to the audio of the call, while the caller reported a suspicious person, they made no mention of any crimes.
Officers claimed McClain resisted contact, which prompted them to wrestle him to the ground and place him in a chokehold, the incident report said. In a video, McClain can be heard telling the officers: “I can’t breathe correctly.” Paramedics were then called, and they administered a sedative. On the way to the hospital McClean suffered cardiac arrest and was declared brain-dead. He was taken off life support days later.
McClain’s heartbreaking story has prompted more than 4 million people to come together and sign a Change.org petition seeking justice for McClain and demanding all officers involved in his death to be taken off duty. While placed on administrative leave following McClain’s death, the officers in the case, including Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt, and Randy Roedema, were later reinstated after prosecutors declined to file charges against them, CNN reported.
Despite Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’ announcement last week that a special prosecutor would investigate McClain’s case, the officers in question remain uncharged and only face the repercussion of being removed from patrol duty as of last week. The decision to remove them from duty was taken not in an effort to enact justice for their brutality, but as an act of protection for the officers. “This was done in an effort to protect those officers,” a spokesperson for the city of Aurora told CBS News Friday.