One by one, the five men — three police officers and two paramedics — walked up before the judge one afternoon this January. Their lawyers stood beside them, and the wooden benches of the Colorado courtroom were filled with family, friends and fellow police officers and paramedics.
All five faced felony charges of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide for their roles in the death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man, in the summer of 2019.
The men, in muted suits and ties, entered their formal pleas: “Not guilty.” Then they left the courtroom, staring straight ahead. In the hallway, they were engulfed by their supporters, who embraced them, patting their shoulders and forming a kind of human shield to protect them from the eyes and questions of reporters and onlookers.
The aftermath of McClain’s death must be understood as taking place in two different worlds: before and after the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police in May 2020, which ignited a national racial-justice movement that demanded accountability, reform and even the defunding of the police. But that reckoning, as it was often called, was followed by a backlash. No one in Aurora could have foretold how McClain’s death, the officers and paramedics involved and the city itself would all be swept up in that reckoning and the reaction to it.
“It turned the city upside down,” says Angela Lawson, Aurora’s only African American member of the City Council. “It brought out racial issues. It brought out disparity issues. It brought out the division that we actually have in our city.”
Without the political pressure kindled by protests, first in George Floyd’s name and then in McClain’s, the case would have been left behind in 2019. Instead, it was propelled forward, first in the streets, then in the courts. The police officers and the paramedics will be prosecuted in three separate trials in September, October and November, the last chapter in a saga that has exposed deep rifts, with politicians, pastors and ordinary citizens holding starkly different views about their neighbors, their police force and their hometown. “The folks on the left were saying all police are evil,” says Dave Gruber, a white conservative former member of the City Council. “We were saying: No, we don’t believe that. You know, we believe that most cops are good.”
In nearly three dozen interviews with Aurorans — including McClain’s family and friends, former and current officials with the Police and Fire Departments, city and state politicians, faith leaders and residents — along with reviews of police reports, autopsy reports, first-responder protocols, internal memos, independent investigations, lawsuits and video footage, a portrait emerged of Colorado’s third-largest city in the midst of its own public trial.
Aurora’s painful, conflicted journey over the past four years would raise uncomfortable questions about the meaning of public safety and illuminate both the promise and the limits of reform. There were real achievements — new legislation and restrictions from the city and the state, and in both the Police and Fire Departments — hard-fought and eked out with public pressure, but not always as fast or far-reaching as activists may have wanted. Still, at least a dozen police officers, including the three in this case, and another Aurora officer who failed to intervene in an excessive use of force case, have been charged since Colorado passed broad police-accountability legislation in 2020.
Sheneen McClain, Elijah’s mother, started a lonely vigil after his death and pushed for criminal charges in the case.Credit…Clifford Prince King for The New York Times
The appetite for major changes to policing was loudest in Aurora and across the country immediately after George Floyd’s death and the waves of protests that followed, only to fade as the political winds shifted. (Even the bipartisan federal police-accountability legislation for which Tim Scott, the Republican senator from South Carolina and presidential candidate, was a lead negotiator has stalled.) The fundamental question now is what it takes to get policing in America right, and whether incremental steps — or even a consent decree meant to force change — can ever cover enough distance.
“The community wanted justice,” says Ryan Ross, the facilitator of Aurora’s now-disbanded Community Police Task Force, who is Black. “But more than just justice for what happened, they wanted accountability, a pathway to accountability and some change that would actually eliminate this kind of tragedy from happening in our community.” He continues: “And the ability to feel like the notion of ‘to protect and serve’ actually meant that everybody was going to be protected and served. And I don’t think the community felt that way — or feels that way.”
He almost made it back.
The surveillance camera at the convenience store McClain walked to in his neighborhood on the night of Aug. 24, 2019, recorded him buying Arizona iced teas. Although the temperature was in the upper 60s, he wore a jacket and a ski mask (a neck gaiter pulled up over his nose and mouth). His mother would later explain that he was anemic and often cold, so he wore masks to keep his face warm. He was known to offer a “gratitude bow” when he left a room, and the video shows him doing so as he turned from the register.
McClain left the store and began walking through a neighborhood of low-slung apartment buildings and modest single-family homes, listening to music through earbuds and waving his arms. Though he was an unimposing figure at 5-foot-7, a passing motorist called 911 around 10:30 p.m. to report a person behaving strangely. “He looks sketchy,” the caller said, according to a transcript of the four-minute call. “He might be a good person or a bad person.” The dispatcher asked a series of questions. He answered that he did not see any weapons and did not feel he was in danger.
Officer Nathan Woodyard, then a 30-year-old who had served as a Marine for five years and with the Police Department for nearly three years, was the first to arrive at 10:43 p.m., followed by Officer Jason Rosenblatt, also 30 at the time, who had been on the force for two years, and Randy Roedema, then 37, who had served eight years as a Marine, six years with the Denver Sheriff’s Department and five years in Aurora.
Woodyard stepped from his police vehicle and repeatedly told McClain to stop. McClain did not. In seconds, Woodyard put his hands on him. “Stop right there. Stop. Stop,” he said. “I have the right to stop you because you’re being suspicious.” McClain, who had never been arrested, responded that he was simply trying to go home. “Please respect the boundaries that I am speaking,” he said, his voice cracking. “This isn’t going to go well,” one of the officers told him.
Much of what happened next would not be seen because all three of the officers’ body cameras dislodged or deactivated, though some audio could still be heard. The exchange rapidly escalated as the three officers forcibly moved McClain to a nearby grassy area. “He grabbed your gun, dude!” Roedema told Rosenblatt. (According to the indictment, Rosenblatt would later say that he did not feel any contact with his service weapon.)
The three officers tackled McClain. Woodyard grasped him from behind in a carotid hold, a controversial law-enforcement maneuver similar to a chokehold in which the officer’s arms, locked around a person’s neck, are used to apply pressure to the carotid artery in order to restrict blood to the brain and render the person unconscious. “Is he out?” an officer could be heard asking. One of them eventually recovered his body camera, which revealed McClain on the ground, lying on his side with his hands cuffed behind his back, moaning. A K-9 officer, Matthew Green, arrived and threatened to unleash his police dog to attack McClain.
“The officers’ statements on the scene and in subsequent recorded interviews suggest a violent and relentless struggle,” an investigation by an independent panel would later find. “The limited video and the audio from the body-worn cameras reveal Mr. McClain surrounded by officers, all larger than he, crying out in pain, apologizing, explaining himself and pleading with the officers.” The investigation found that the officers “can be heard telling Mr. McClain to ‘stop,’ ‘stop, dude,’ ‘stop fighting’ and ‘dude, just stop fighting.’ They described his behavior as ‘violent,’ ‘fight[ing]’ and ‘struggling’ and repeatedly remarked on his ‘incredible strength,’ ‘crazy strength’ and ‘superior strength.’ The vast majority of this treatment occurred after Mr. McClain was handcuffed and lying on the ground.”
McClain addressed the police in a panicky stream of consciousness recorded in the audio of the body cameras. None of the officers responded to him. “I can’t breathe,” he told them. He said that he had his ID. He told them his name. “I’m an introvert,” he said. “I’m just different. That’s all. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why are you attacking me? I don’t even kill flies! I don’t eat meat!” He tried desperately to appeal to them. “Forgive me. All I was trying to do was become better. I’ll do it. I will do anything. Sacrifice my identity, I’ll do it.” His last words were “Please help me.”
Two Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics, Jeremy Cooper, then 44, and Peter Cichuniec, then 46, arrived at 10:53 p.m. in response to a call from the police officers, who told them McClain was “on something.” The independent investigation does not note either of them having checked McClain’s vital signs, examining him or speaking to him at all before diagnosing him with “excited delirium” and determining that ketamine should be used to sedate him.
The controversial field diagnosis, characterized by a perception of aggression, distress and extraordinary physical strength, is found in some police training materials and used by some first responders across the country. Though not recognized by medical and psychiatric associations, the diagnosis is often invoked by law enforcement, coroners and medical examiners to justify the lethal use of force by the police. A 2022 report by doctors at Kaiser Permanente, Harvard and the University of Michigan found the term to be a “catchall for deaths occurring in the context of law-enforcement restraint, often coinciding with substance use or mental illness, and disproportionately used to explain the deaths of young Black men in police encounters.”
Before that August night, neither of the paramedics had ever administered ketamine before. The sedative was added to Aurora Fire Rescue protocols in 2018. Now, as McClain lay on the ground before them, handcuffed and pinned down, the paramedics were required to estimate his weight for the proper dosage. McClain weighed 140 pounds, according to the autopsy report. Cichuniec guessed about 190. Cooper injected McClain with 500 milligrams of ketamine. Limp and unconscious within minutes, McClain was loaded onto a gurney. Two officers would later tell investigators that they heard McClain make “a snoring noise,” which would later be described as “agonal breathing,” a sign of ketamine overdose. He went into cardiac arrest in the ambulance, never regaining consciousness.
Nick Metz, the city’s first African American police chief, called members of the Aurora Key Community Response Team — local business leaders, clergy members and public officials — to a special meeting. He had done this before, briefing the small group on cases involving confrontations between officers on the majority-white force and Aurora’s more racially diverse residents, particularly those that had the potential to engulf the city in turmoil and draw media attention. A history of violent encounters between the Aurora police and Black residents had led to deep distrust. “We knew this city could blow,” says Thomas Mayes, an outspoken Black pastor and the president of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, who attended Metz’s meeting.
Reid Hettich, a white pastor and the chairman of the team, who was also at the meeting, recalls listening to Metz and instantly comprehending the fault lines before them. “I am thinking, This was a young Black man and white police officers and paramedics. I am thinking of the history in our country and what that brings up and understanding what kind of community reaction was about to take place,” he says. “I think all of us understood how grave the situation was.”
Elijah had taught himself to play the violin.Credit…Zariah Johnson
The next morning, Sheneen McClain, Elijah’s mother, spoke to an Aurora police representative who said her son had been hospitalized after an altercation with the police the night before. She was mystified: The boy she raised, her secondborn, was a gentle soul who had become a vegetarian because he couldn’t bear to cause harm to animals and had taught himself to play the violin. Colleagues and clients at the Massage Envy spa where he had worked for about four years would tell local reporters they knew him as a caring, empathetic massage therapist.
Sheneen, who was 46 at the time, was living in an Aurora motel with the four youngest of her six children. As a single mother, she had moved the family to Aurora when Elijah was young to shield them from gang violence in her northeast Denver neighborhood. Waiting at the hospital, she feared that Elijah must be seriously injured or worse — why else would all these officials offer such vague responses to her questions?
It was more than an hour before she was finally escorted to a room guarded by police officers. Her son was critically injured and unresponsive. “He’s hooked up to all these machines,” she recalls. “His whole body is swollen. His face is swollen. Everything’s swollen. And he looks like he’d been beaten to death.” A doctor told her that Elijah was not likely to survive. “I am a very spiritual person,” she says. “And I grew up in church believing that the only reason bad things happen is so that worse things will not happen. So in my head, I’m like, What could be worse than this?” She sat by his bedside playing the classical music he loved, hoping the monitors might flicker, might detect some, any, brain activity.
Two days later, doctors told her Elijah was brain-dead. She sat in disbelief. “The police had told me my son was violent. And that he was running the streets causing havoc,” she says. “Nothing about what was happening made sense to me.”
Overcome with grief and anger, Sheneen McClain went days later to the location where her son’s life was taken. It was private property, so she went across the street, where there was public land, and began pulling weeds. That night, she held her first vigil, joined by a handful of Elijah’s family and friends. Over the next weeks, the site, near the concrete wall of Interstate 225, would become a growing memorial, with photos, candles, plastic flowers and solar garden lights, as the vigils began to draw hundreds of people.
That September, the police finally allowed Sheneen to listen to the 911 call that summoned the police and watch the body-camera footage of the officers who confronted Elijah. She never believed that her son had committed a crime. What she heard and saw confirmed what was already in her heart. In early October, McClain held her first news conference, flanked by a civil rights attorney, local pastors, community activists and friends carrying “Justice for Elijah McClain” signs. They called for an independent investigation and for criminal charges for the officers. “Once I saw the video,” she told me, “I am doing everything I can to get justice for my son.”
Nicole Johnston, a Democratic City Council member at the time, organized a meeting later that fall at a Black church facilitated by Ryan Ross, who would go on to become the facilitator of Aurora’s Community Police Task Force. He recalls a sense of fatigue among the dozens of community members who attended, brought on by what felt like an endless stream of scandals and complaints about police mistreatment in their city that fell hardest on Black residents, from racial slurs to aggressive use of force. According to the A.C.L.U. of Colorado, from 2003 to 2018, the city settled at least 11 police-brutality cases for a total of $4.6 million. And despite the determination of Ross, Mayes and their colleagues on the task force, many of the recommendations they would submit to the City Council would essentially be shelved.
“When I left the meeting,” Ross told me, “I was depressed. I was sad. And I just remember driving home thinking, like, Oh, my God, the last thing that I want is to be at one of these meetings 30 years from now with my son.”
Ryan Ross, Omar Montgomery and Nicole Johnston at Restoration Christian Fellowship in Aurora, Colo. in December of 2022.Credit…Clifford Prince King for The New York Times
It wasn’t long before the simmering political divide over possible police misconduct arrived at the doorstep of the City Council. As supporters of McClain’s family complained that the city was not taking the case seriously enough, some began to attend and disrupt public Council meetings. At one meeting in early November, members of the public used the allotted time to demand the release of the police body-camera footage. The crowd chanted until Council members abandoned the dais and continued the meeting in another room. Candice Bailey is a community activist who grew up in Aurora, is a member of the Colorado Jail Standards Commission and had worked on police-accountability issues for years, and she was in the crowd. “At first, there were eight of us going to these meetings,” Bailey, who is biracial, told me. “And our message never changed: Elijah McClain was murdered, and A.P.D. covered it up.”
“The Council did not get it right,” Allison Hiltz, who was a white progressive City Council member and the chairwoman of the Public Safety Committee at the time, told me last month. “We did not move quickly enough and did not ask the right questions of the police and city leadership. We caused harm to the community and hurt to Elijah’s family.”
That Election Day, two Council seats (the Council is made up of 10 members plus the mayor) were taken by progressives who had campaigned on criminal-justice reform.
Three days later, the autopsy report was released. Stephen Cina, the forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy, concluded that McClain’s death was due to “undetermined causes.” He noted that “the decedent was violently struggling with officers who were attempting to restrain him. Most likely the decedent’s physical exertion contributed to death. It is unclear if the officers’ actions contributed as well.” He added that “while on scene, the decedent displayed agitated behavior and enhanced strength.” The report noted other possible factors, including the carotid hold, an “idiosyncratic drug reaction” to ketamine or “excited delirium.”
Dave Gruber, a retired Air Force colonel and conservative Council member at the time, told me that friends began bringing up the Police Department over dinner and while playing golf, telling him they felt that the police were being unfairly judged. In a City Council meeting on Nov. 18, six conservative members sat on the dais wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the “Thin Blue Line” flag; two said publicly that they wanted to show support to the police. Gruber told me that he and the others decided days before the meeting to wear the shirts, a strategy that he said left-leaning members had used before to support their own causes.
During public comments at the meeting, Kristin Mallory, then the chairwoman of the Arapahoe County Democratic Party (Arapahoe is one of three counties Aurora straddles), called the shirts “shameful.” Charlie Richardson, a conservative Council member who lost his seat in the election, said that “this next Council will be the most anti-police Council that this city has had in its history.”
Four days later, the Adams County district attorney, Dave Young, declined to file charges against the officers involved in McClain’s death, citing the autopsy report and insufficient evidence. Within hours of Young’s decision, Chief Metz called a Friday night news conference and released the 911 recording and some of the body-camera footage publicly for the first time. He offered condolences to McClain’s family. He called McClain’s death a “tragedy.” But he insisted that based on what the officers said, “Elijah grabbed the grip of an officer’s holstered gun.”
The officers had been placed on administrative leave, but now they were cleared and had already returned to the streets. “I think overall the officers did a good job,” Metz said, adding shortly afterward, “I have confidence in my officers.” As for the K-9 officer who threatened to unleash his dog to attack McClain, he admitted: “That comment that was made was inappropriate. It was unprofessional.” But, he continued, “the officer is a very good officer. He made a mistake.” Metz said he would order further reviews of training and protocols. There was one more question, he said: “How do we work with the community from here?” (Metz then retired weeks later.)
At the same news conference, Deputy Chief Stephen McInerny of the Fire Department defended his paramedics and their use of ketamine to sedate McClain, saying that “based on multiple reviews, Aurora Fire has concluded that the patient care provided to Mr. McClain was appropriate given the circumstances.” McClain, he said, “was exhibiting signs of excited delirium.”
The case seemed to be over: McClain had violently resisted arrest and had posed a threat to the officers, who struggled to subdue him as he tried to take one of their guns. After he had been choked and cuffed on the ground with his hands behind him and threatened with a dog, it had been necessary to inject him with ketamine. They had offered their condolences. It was done.
Protesters and police in Aurora, including Vanessa Wilson, then the interim chief of police, kneel together during a peaceful protest following the death of George Floyd in 2020.Credit…Philip B. Poston/The Aurora Sentinel, via Associated Press
The killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police during nine horrifying minutes recorded on video by a bystander on Memorial Day 2020 triggered an earthquake that couldn’t have been predicted. As the video spread across social media and news outlets, Americans took to the streets. Protests that rolled over racial divides unfurled in nearly every city across the country in an explosion of raised fists, handmade signs and chants that grew louder with no sign of subsiding as the days wore on. In Aurora, the new interim police chief, Vanessa Wilson, a veteran on the force for more than 20 years, presented herself as a reformer who wanted to restore the department’s reputation by ridding the force of rogue officers and personally connecting with the city’s Black community. On June 2, Wilson even marched and knelt with protesters against police violence.
Sheneen McClain and Candice Bailey and a small group of supporters and activists had continued to try to make sure Elijah’s death was not forgotten. Now, as crowds swelled, they saw a chance to remind Aurorans — and those far beyond Aurora — that their outrage and calls for justice could be turned to another case, another death in police custody, one that happened right in their hometown. As a huge march moved through Denver on June 2, McClain stood with state legislators on the steps of Colorado’s Capitol. “I’m Elijah McClain’s mom. Elijah is a native of Colorado. Can I tell you how much it hurt me to see y’all rally for somebody in another state but not for my son last August? Can I tell y’all that?” she said, her voice raised above the crowd. “I am appreciative that you guys are out there now. Maybe you guys were a little too busy in August last year. But he needs y’all now, still.”
By June 6, protesters were holding up their hands in the rain at a rally for McClain that Bailey organized at the Aurora Municipal Center. The Denverite, an online news site, reported that “the crowd did not chant George Floyd’s name once. Instead, they chanted, ‘Elijah McClain.'” Bailey spoke to the protesters. “Today, I see all of your faces. And although it happened because of George Floyd,” she said, “if we’re not dealing with the atrocities, with the murders, with the brutality inside of Aurora, we have no business shouting another person’s name.”
As thousands flooded Aurora’s streets, highways and parks, McClain’s name became a national rallying cry, linked with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police officers in Louisville, Ky. Thousands of emails and phone calls echoing the demands for justice poured into city offices from as far as France and Vietnam, creating public pressure on a scale that eclipsed the previous fall. What seemed over and done just seven months before was now undone.
Though Metz plainly said the officers did nothing wrong, Wilson announced new policies in mid-June amid the growing protests, including a ban on the carotid control hold that was used on McClain. The new directives also called for officers to intervene when they witnessed misconduct. Ten days later, amid mounting protests on the Capitol steps, the Colorado Legislature passed statewide police-accountability legislation that went further — prohibiting the use of chokeholds in arrests, making it a crime for officers to observe misconduct without reporting it and making it easier for civilians to sue officers for wrongdoing. Curtis Gardner, a white moderate Republican councilman elected in 2019, told me that the protests forced conversations in Aurora about policing that, he acknowledged, “probably pushed some of those policy changes along.”
Days later, Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, announced that he had appointed the state attorney general, Phil Weiser, to conduct an investigation into the circumstances of McClain’s death. “The State rarely steps in to investigate, and potentially prosecute, an incident over the individual decisions of district attorneys,” Polis’s executive order noted. “This, however, is the truly exceptional case where widely reported facts are not addressed in any current investigation.”
On the last Saturday in June, protesters shut down Interstate 225 in Aurora. Later that day, on the lawn of the Municipal Center, another crowd assembled to listen to a violin vigil, as string musicians from across the country, who had traveled to Aurora to honor McClain, played “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black national anthem, and “Amazing Grace.” But the crowd, and the musicians, were met by police officers in riot gear wielding pepper spray.
At a special City Council meeting three days later, Wilson said that the officers were responding to a small group of “agitators” and that they had feared protesters would ambush Police Headquarters. “We were attacked with rocks, and we had to defend our officers,” Wilson said. “My officers aren’t sacrificial lambs.”
On July 3, just days after the police chief’s defense of her department, she had to take a very different stance. Wilson told the public that she had fired three officers and that one more had resigned. The reason: The previous October, three of them took smiling selfies at the site where McClain had been stopped by the police. Two of the officers who took the photos had arrived at the scene after McClain was choked and handcuffed. In one photo, the officers mockingly re-enacted the chokehold that Officer Woodyard used on McClain. They texted the photos to at least two other officers: Woodyard and Rosenblatt, who had also confronted McClain. Woodyard deleted the text. Rosenblatt replied, “Haha.”
Officers Erica Marrero, Jaron Jones and Kyle Dittrich of the Aurora Police Department in a selfie taken across the street from an Elijah McClain memorial in October 2019.Credit…Aurora Police Department
Hours after Wilson released the photo, at least 600 people massed outside Aurora’s District 1 police station to demand the firing of all the officers involved in McClain’s death. They refused to stand down, even using ropes, boards and picnic tables to block the station doors, trapping the police inside. Five protesters were charged by Dave Young, the Adams County district attorney who declined to charge the officers, with felonies, including attempted kidnapping, because they blocked the police station, and inciting a riot.
Anger was welling on the other side of the police barricades. Officers felt broadly mischaracterized as violent or racist, and they had their own support in the community. A post about the demonstration on a national pro-police Facebook page called Back the Blue drew more than 600 comments calling the Aurora protesters “criminals” and “crazies” who needed to be held accountable.
“I was hearing from folks saying we have to support our police because they are getting beat up by the legislators, the press and the people on the left,” Gruber, the conservative Council member, told me. As in other places around the country, many officers began to leave the department. In 2020, 87 officers resigned or retired from the 744-member force. In 2021, 126 more would leave. In 2022, 75 officers left, followed by 57 so far this year.
“Immediately after McClain died,” Doug Wilkinson, the former president of the Aurora Police Association (the force’s union), told me in an email, “Chief Metz publicly supported the officers, because they did nothing wrong. Immediately after Chief Wilson took over, she threw the officers under the bus.” He added that veteran officers were smart enough to retire or quit; those who didn’t began to “stop enforcing the law against Black people if it looked like it was going to turn violent.”
On Aug. 4, Wilson, now formally hired as Aurora’s police chief, had to publicly apologize again, after officers ordered a Black mother and her daughter, younger sister and nieces, ages 6 to 17, out of their parked car and forced the children to lie face down on the hot pavement, mistakenly believing that the car had been reported stolen. A witness who recorded the encounter on video said the officers drew their guns and handcuffed the mother and two of the children. “I am sick to my core that these children were traumatized the way they were,” Wilson told a local radio station. “I hope the community knows that I’m serious about change, and I’m serious about moving this agency forward, and hopefully healing in the community as best we can.”
Gardner, the moderate Republican Council member, says the series of misconduct episodes made it easier for people to make sweeping generalizations. “Most of our officers do a great job,” he says. “But again, there have been some incidents that have made the community question that, and rightfully so. I also think for the police, there’s been a lot of frustration that, Hey, I’m having to pay the price for the actions somebody else took.”
On Aug. 11, the state attorney general, Phil Weiser, announced an investigation into the Aurora Police Department’s patterns and practices — the kind of investigation that can result in a consent decree in which a local department must agree to state or federal oversight. On the same day, McClain’s parents filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Aurora claiming that their son’s death was a result of “Aurora’s custom, policy and practice of unconstitutional racist brutality,” naming several officers, the paramedics and the medical director of Aurora Fire and Rescue. (It would be settled at the end of 2021 for $15 million.)
Paul Poole, a retired Aurora police sergeant.Credit…Clifford Prince King for The New York Times
“It was rock bottom for this agency,” Paul Poole, who retired last year as a sergeant and one of Aurora’s 10 highest-ranking Black officers, told me. “There have been things that have happened over the years that we have been able to weather,” he says, but this case and the fallout was “the worst I have ever seen in my 41 years on the Aurora police force.”
He was just its fifth Black officer when he joined. “My goal was: I’m going to get inside. I’m going to start a whole new game,” he says. “I’m going to be a part of change. Because I had never, up to that point, seen one Black person in uniform in the Aurora Police Department.”
He believes most on the force were upstanding officers, but he had seen his share of casual racism over a four-decade career. Poole says he was told by a colleague that the only reason he was on the force was because of affirmative action. He also says that “the N-word” had been used in his presence by other officers. Over the years, he says, other Black and Hispanic officers told him similar stories but were afraid to speak out because they feared retaliation or harassment. (“A.P.D. has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to discrimination,” a spokesperson for the city said in an emailed statement.) He believes that the department cultivated aggression rather than de-escalation in dealing with the community. “The message is: Us against them.”
Where there was first official denial that anything wrong happened, shoes were now dropping one after another in a series of momentous decisions that seemed as if they might finally bring changes to Aurora.
A group of independent investigators approved by the City Council released a withering report in February 2021, concluding that the police officers and paramedics mishandled the encounter with McClain every step of the way, from the initial decision to stop him to the unnecessary use of force.
That summer, as the state attorney general’s investigation into McClain’s death presented evidence to a grand jury, the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy, Stephen Cina, amended his original report, noting that “since then, this office has received additional material for review, including extensive body-camera footage, witness statements and additional records. It is worth noting that these materials had been requested prior to release of the initial autopsy report, but the material was either not provided to us or not provided to us in their entirety.”
The revised report determined that the cause of McClain’s death was “complications of ketamine administration following forcible restraint,” a starkly different finding. “Simply put, this dosage of ketamine was too much for this individual, and it resulted in an overdose,” Cina wrote in the amended autopsy. “I believe that Mr. McClain would most likely be alive but for the administration of ketamine.”
On Sept. 1, 2021, the grand jury handed up a 32-count indictment of Officers Rosenblatt, Roedema and Woodyard and the paramedics, Cooper and Cichuniec, with all of them facing felony charges of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. But the Aurora Police Association, which its president says is supporting the indicted officers through its legal defense fund, took an adversarial stance in a statement: “Immediately after Elijah McClain’s death, then Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz stated clearly that Mr. McClain was not murdered by Aurora Police Department officers. Nothing has changed. Our officers did nothing wrong.” It continued: “The hysterical overreaction to this case has severely damaged the Police Department. Inevitably, the public are the ones who’ve paid the price.”
Two weeks later, Weiser’s state investigation of the department delivered another blow, concluding that it practiced racially-biased policing and used excessive force. It was confirmation of what many African Americans had long believed about the Aurora Police Department. From January 2018 to February 2021, the report said, African Americans accounted for half of all police interactions involving force, though they represented just 15 percent of the population. The investigation also found that the department’s hires failed to reflect the diversity of the city. Just 1.1 percent of Black applicants who met the minimum qualifications were offered a job, compared with 4.2 percent of white applicants.
It also concluded that Aurora Fire and Rescue had a pattern and practice of administering ketamine in violation of the law. Deputy Chief Stephen McInerny defended that practice in his public statement after McClain’s death. But when I talked to him this March, he offered a different opinion. He said that ketamine, the use of which was banned by the city in 2021, should never be used. “There was a pressure that was put on the firefighter-paramedics to act. It’s a problem throughout the country in big metro areas, where the police department has been conditioned and trained to basically say that ‘this patient is suffering from excited delirium,’ which is what happened here,” McInerny said. “It’s a flawed medical protocol. Once you inject a drug, you own the problem.” (McInerny was fired in 2021 for policy violations, including referring to an Indian job applicant as a “dot head.”)
Aurora entered into a consent decree with the state after the attorney general’s investigation, which would include dozens of reforms around racial-bias training, hiring and use-of-force guides. (“While the Aurora Police Department has embraced the consent-decree agreement and is fully committed to meeting the requirements set forth in the agreement, we do not concur with the conclusions reached by the Colorado attorney general’s office, which are based on opinion and anecdotal evidence,” a city spokesman said in an emailed statement.)
The findings were released during the 2021 local campaign season, as Aurora voters headed to the polls in the first election since George Floyd’s death and the protests that followed — and amid an aggrieved sense among some that the pendulum had swung too far. Though the candidates for City Council did not appear to speak to the McClain case directly, many said they were concerned about public safety and rising crime rates. (Murders, assaults and violent sex crimes were all up since 2020.)
Gruber, the conservative City Council member who decided not to run for re-election that year, told The Denver Gazette that “I think it’s important that we have conservatives on the Council that can counter what we’re seeing from the far, far left that we have on City Council now.” As the chairman of the Public Safety Committee, he was aware that complaints from Black residents about police mistreatment were a “bubbling narrative within the city for a long time.” Gruber told me that the conservatives on the Council recognized the need for some police reform, and that the discussions were “heated but reasonable” before the waves of protests in the summer of 2020: “After George Floyd, things started going off the rails.”
On Election Day, three Republican candidates, all endorsed by the local branch of the Fraternal Order of Police, won their races, ushering in a conservative majority. The most outspoken of the trio, Danielle Jurinsky, went on a Denver talk-radio show not long after taking office and called Chief Wilson “trash,” suggesting that the way to halt the number of police officers leaving the force would be to remove Wilson immediately.
That winter, Chief Wilson fired Doug Wilkinson, the president of the Aurora Police Association and an officer on the force, after he sent an email to the union’s hundreds of members complaining about the consent decree and the department’s efforts to increase diversity in hiring. “To match the ‘diversity’ of ‘the community,'” Wilkinson wrote, “we could make sure to hire 10% illegal aliens, 50% weed smokers, 10% crackheads and a few child molesters and murderers to round it out. You know, so we can make the department look like the ‘community.'”
Wilson was fired by the city manager, Jim Twombly, in April 2022 amid pressure from the conservative faction on the City Council. Twombly told me that the firing was not politically motivated. He says he no longer believed that Wilson could lead the department out of its troubles and that she had been better at reaching out to the community than at improving internal operations.
Last November, Wilson’s attorney filed a notice of claim against the city, indicating the intention to sue for wrongful termination. I asked her why she thought she was fired. “Because I embrace police reform. And I was doing what the consent decree wanted me to do,” she told me. “I believed in what we were doing. And I believed that we had a problem and nobody wanted to talk about it.”
Wilson acknowledged that the department had lost the trust of the community. “There was a lot of hatred toward A.P.D. Everybody started just piling on. It was two years of, every day, there was something wrong,” Wilson told me. “There’s still this amazing majority, I would say, of really good people who are just trying to do good work. And then there’s some that just believe: We’re untouchable.”
Thomas Mayes, a local pastor, says he was called by the Aurora police chief to a meeting of community leaders after McClain was hospitalized. “We knew this city could blow,” he said.Credit…Clifford Prince King for The New York Times
One morning last summer, I met Thomas Mayes, the Black pastor who attended Chief Metz’s meeting of city leaders after McClain’s death, for breakfast at the Black Bear Diner in Aurora. It was one of his favorite places, he told me, because it was unpretentious, a rustic throwback that reminded him of his grandfather’s hometown, Muskogee, Okla. As we talked over pancakes and coffee, I noticed that a number of uniformed police officers stopped by our table to greet Mayes warmly.
I asked him if he thought good policing was possible.
“Oh, absolutely, absolutely,” Mayes, a Vietnam veteran, told me. “The policing problem is that you have 90 percent good police officers, but that 10 percent or 5 percent, whatever the scientific number is, is enough to taint it. It’s like saying, ‘I have a whole pitcher full of Kool-Aid with a few drops of arsenic in it.’ It contaminates the entire pitcher.”
Mayes, who is making a second run for City Council this year, told me that his father warned him, when he was a teenager, that the Aurora police had a reputation for hostility toward Black people. “There have been so many questionable incidents with the police involving Black residents,” Mayes said. “The thing is, we are not asking for special treatment — just equal to the way they treat white residents.”
The issues of race and policing remain some of the most vexing in America. Mayes was one of a number of Black stakeholders I spoke to in Aurora over the past year — politicians, police officers, pastors and community activists — who stood apart from the “All cops are bastards” and “Defund the police” rhetoric that had come to characterize many of the protests of 2020. Like Black voters across the country who have indicated support for fair policing in national polls, they took pains to explain that they were not against policing itself. But they were deeply frustrated by the two-steps-forward-one-step-back wearying process of trying to secure meaningful accountability and reform — along with the basic right to equal protection in their communities — even in a city and a state that had enacted some of the most substantial changes since 2020.
“My understanding of criminal justice and policing goes back a long way,” Rhonda Fields, a Black state senator who lives in Aurora and was among the sponsors of Colorado’s police-reform legislation, told me this year, “and it really comes from the community and my own personal experience.” Her son and his fianc?e, who had been scheduled to testify in a murder trial, were threatened by the suspects and killed in 2005. The killers were arrested and convicted, giving her a sense of what accountability could look like. But after McClain’s death, Fields says, she kept returning to the same troubling questions: “What is it going to take for law enforcement to be much more guarded and much more careful about their actions? Is it training? Is it a mind-set? Is it the culture?”
This January, Matthew Green, the K-9 officer who threatened to sic his dog on McClain and had resigned in 2021, was rehired by the Aurora Police Department as a patrol officer. “It’s just really hurtful,” Fields told a local radio station when the news broke. “It’s embarrassing to see this repeated pattern.” Fields was unsparing with her criticism: “If you do wrong in the Aurora Police Department, you’re either rewarded or you get your job back.”
Aurora had just brought in Art Acevedo, the former police chief in Austin, Houston and Miami, as an interim chief. He told The Aurora Sentinel, a local news outlet, that the decision to rehire Green was made without him.
But Acevedo told me he had made another change after McClain’s death. “We are not going to talk about excited delirium,” he says. “We’re just going to be factual: What the suspect’s actions were. Here’s how we responded to that resistance. Here’s what we did.”
He says that he took over a shrunken and demoralized force now facing the rigorous demands of the state’s consent decree. “You’ve got to make sure that people understand the policies, the procedures and the training that they’re being subjected to,” he told me. “I think even our biggest critics will say that the officers will do what they’re trained to do. However, the key component that’s missing quite often in law enforcement is we set the bar high, but then we don’t enforce the standard.”
Omar Montgomery, president of the Aurora N.A.A.C.P. and a co-chairman of Aurora’s Community Advisory Council, told me that the divide in Aurora over policing came down to a fundamental question that had entirely different answers on the two sides of the American divide. “It’s about how everyday people think about public safety. What does public safety look like — and does it look the same for everybody?”
A memorial in Aurora near where Elijah McClain was confronted by the police in 2019.Credit…Clifford Prince King for The New York Times
In Aurora, as in many American places, the mayor has more limited duties, and the city manager, an appointed role, is the one who functions as the head administrator of the town. Jim Twombly is 70 and a white independent who held that title during Aurora’s upheaval. He did not speak with me until about three weeks before his retirement this April. Though he had not said so publicly until that point, he told me he believed that the officers involved in McClain’s death had “acted too quickly and went hands-on with Mr. McClain” after “behavior that was not really threatening in any way.”
He said he also knew that the public harbored deep skepticism about the city’s efforts to restore trust. “My biggest regret is that I didn’t step in more forcefully earlier in the Elijah McClain aftermath,” Twombly told me. “And I think some of that was deference to the police leadership that, in retrospect, I shouldn’t have shown.”
It wasn’t just the arrest of McClain and what followed that gnawed at him, Twombly said. And the question he asked himself next is the one that has coursed through all of the protests, the lawsuits, the coming trials and the attempted reforms. It still lingered over Aurora, and over the country. “If this can happen to Elijah McClain,” he asked, “can it happen again?”
Kitty Bennett contributed research.
Sources for top image: (clockwise from top left): Andy Cross/The Denver Post, via Associated Press; Kevin Mohatt/Reuters; Zariah Johnson, Andy Cross/The Denver Post, via Getty Images; Andy Cross/The Denver Post, via Getty Images; Philip B. Poston/The Aurora Sentinel, via Associated Press; David Zalubowski/Associated Press.
Audra D.S. Burch is a national correspondent for The New York Times covering race and identity. In the last several years, that coverage has included exploring the legacy of George Floyd and how police departments around the country have faced calls for reform.