Jimmy’s Denver Gazette Column | Proceed with caution on McClain panel findings

Written by on February 26, 2021

“At 10:43 P.M. on August 24, 2019, 23-year-old Elijah McClain was approached by Aurora Police officers and told to stop while he was walking home in northwest Aurora…At 11:01 P.M., eighteen minutes after he was first told to stop, Mr. McClain was lifted, unconscious, onto a gurney and then transported to the hospital. He never recovered.”

So begins Monday’s startling report of the Independent Review Panel convened by Aurora’s City Council to reevaluate the encounter that led to the death of McClain, an unarmed Black man.

While the panel’s purpose wasn’t to “assign legal responsibility for Mr. McClain’s death or determine his cause of death,” it was to assess police actions on the scene, relevant constitutional questions and emergency medical procedures. The 157 pages examine the events in detail, identifying where the authors find holes in how the Aurora Police Department (APD) handled the situation.

When an incident involving police results in loss of civilian life, it’s important not to prejudge. Given what they do on a daily basis, putting their lives on the line for our communities, we ought to wait and see the facts before drawing conclusions.

Yet any evaluation of the facts must be candid, thorough and transparent. As an Aurora resident and a human being who cares about the lives of other human beings, including Black lives, I certainly think this must apply to McClain’s death. The independent review was warranted.

Elijah McClain should be alive today. That he isn’t is a genuine tragedy. Mistakes were made. Reform is a must.

The panel identifies several concerns in how authorities conducted themselves. For example, they believe officers lacked legal grounds to perform a Terry (investigatory) stop of McClain, as well as a frisk after stopping him. They question the use of force, how force was used (i.e., carotid holds) and possible presumptions and “implicit bias” that may have contributed to the decision, among other things.

It appears the most glaring thing officers did wrong was in the beginning. The report explains how Officer Nathan Woodyard placed hands on McClain within 10 seconds of leaving his vehicle – after not even taking time to observe McClain beforehand. (Waiting and observing has since become required procedure.)

Officers and medical personnel misjudged McClain’s weight, estimating he was anywhere from 20 to 60 pounds above his actual weight, which resulted in an excessive ketamine dosage, which was administered by paramedics to subdue him.

There were other mistakes, although it appears most decisions were made in accordance with APD policies. That’s where the panel’s recommendations come into play, and there are several salient ones.

Before I discuss them, it’s worth pointing out two criticisms. First, rather than presenting all the facts and then offering conclusions, the report fluently weaves together both facts and narrative.

This predisposes the reader against the police, such as accusing officers of using “magic language” to legally protect themselves when interviewed about the incident. Perhaps this reveals the implicit bias of the civil defense attorney on the panel, but it is worth critiquing.

Second, the report fails to provide relevant context – a contemporaneous rise in the use of, and violence related to, PCP, meth and other drugs in that area of Colfax – which is essential in fairly establishing officers’ state of mind and may help explain the decision to conduct a stop.

While those are important caveats, the panel nevertheless offers valuable insights and recommendations. They call for “reform surrounding interactions with persons with disabilities, mental health disorders, or in behavioral crisis.” McClain appears to have been heavily introverted with social anxiety. It’s critical that police be better trained to recognize and address various personality types and mental disorders, especially given the growing prevalence of such issues.

Relative to race, the panel highlights research on implicit or unconscious bias in policing, finding that APD policy forbids bias-based policing and provides bias-free training but “offers little specific detail to officers about implicit biases or how biases can affect officer judgment.”

This research – and the rationale given in the report relative to the McClain tragedy – provides valuable guidance, although what such implicit bias policies entail and how trainings are conducted is very important.

They wisely suggest improvements in use-of-force and de-escalation policies, as well as empowering Internal Affairs to unilaterally conduct reviews without “plac[ing] the Chief in a difficult position.” (Although it appears, strangely, the panel never asked former Chief Metz to explain his decision not to call on Internal Affairs.)

Needless to say, this report offers tremendous detail and meaningful perspective about what happened to Elijah McClain, along with many recommendations worthy of close consideration. Reforms are vital.

At the same time, the City Council and APD must be judicious, thoughtful and smart in what they do next. If the serious rise in Aurora crime is any indication, unduly tying police officers’ hands causes serious problems. Balance is vital, too.

Click here to read the rest of Jimmy’s February 26 column at The Denver Gazette, a sister publication of The Washington Examiner.

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