Multiple police officers in suburban Denver have been placed on paid leave during an investigation into photos that emerged of them near where Elijah McClain died last summer after three white officers stopped the Black man as he walked down the street and one put him into a chokehold.
Meanwhile, federal authorities announced Tuesday that they have been reviewing McClain's death to see if a civil rights investigation is warranted and will also look at whether one is needed in the case of the photos.
In a joint statement, the Colorado U.S. Attorney's Office, the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and the FBI said the review began last year and was ongoing. The Justice Department usually does not comment on investigations until they are complete, but the announcement noted that “there are specific cases in which doing so is warranted if such information is in the best interest of the public and public safety."
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The interim police chief of the city of Aurora, Vanessa Wilson, announced the internal police investigation into the photos Monday night. In a statement, she said the suspended officers were “depicted in photographs near the site where Elijah McClain died.” She did not provide more details about what the images show or how many officers were on leave.
The two photos were taken near where police stopped the 23-year-old on Aug. 24, 2019, as they responded to a report of a suspicious person walking down the street wearing a face mask, said Officer Matthew Longshore, an Aurora police spokesman. The pictures were not taken during the fatal run-in, Longshore said.
McClain’s death generated new attention after the death of George Floyd stirred worldwide protests over racial injustice and police brutality. Floyd died on May 25 after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into the handcuffed Black man's neck for nearly eight minutes.
In McClain's case, police body-camera video shows an Aurora officer getting out of his car, approaching McClain and saying, “Stop right there. Stop. Stop. ... I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious.”
In the video, the officer turns McClain around and repeats, “Stop tensing up.” As McClain tries to escape the officer’s grip, the officer says, “Relax, or I’m going to have to change this situation.”
As other officers join to restrain McClain, he begs them to let go and says, “You guys started to arrest me, and I was stopping my music to listen.”
Aurora police have said McClain refused to stop walking and fought back when officers tried to take him into custody. The officers used a chokehold that cuts off blood to the brain — a tactic recently banned in several places following Floyd’s death.
In the video, McClain tells officers: “Let go of me. I am an introvert. Please respect the boundaries that I am speaking.”
Paramedics administered 500 milligrams of a sedative to calm him down, police have said. He was on the ground for 15 minutes as several officers and paramedics stood by. McClain, a massage therapist and self-taught violinist, suffered cardiac arrest and was later declared brain dead and taken off life support.
A forensic pathologist could not determine what exactly led to his death but said physical exertion during the confrontation likely contributed.
An officer reported the photos to the department's internal affairs division Thursday. Wilson said she learned of the investigation that day and ordered investigators to make it their top priority.
The investigation was completed Monday and the results, including the photos, will be made public after police officials give a review and Wilson makes a decision on how to respond, Longshore said. The chief's decision could be appealed by the officers under investigation, which would delay the results being released, he said.
McClain's family said the photos were a “new low” for the department.
“This is a department where officers tackled an innocent young black man for no reason, inflicted outrageous force — including two carotid chokeholds — for fifteen minutes as he pled for his life, joked when he vomited, and threatened to sic a dog on him for not lying still enough as he was dying,” the family said in a statement.
The three officers who stopped McClain did not face any criminal charges after an investigation by the district attorney, but Democratic Gov. Jared Polis directed Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser last week to reopen the investigation and possibly prosecute them.
Police have been criticized for wearing riot gear and using pepper spray against some people at a protest Saturday over McClain's death, which included a violin vigil, but have denied allegations of using tear gas. Wilson defended her officers' response to what she described as a group of agitators at an otherwise peaceful protest.
“Who didn't do it the right way were those agitators who were arming themselves, that were putting on helmets and gas masks and throwing rocks at my officers,” Wilson told KUSA-TV.