The parents of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old black man who died in police custody in Aurora, Colorado, last year, have sued the city and its police, accusing the department of a longstanding pattern of racism and brutality.
In the federal civil rights lawsuit filed on Aug. 11, parents Sheneen McClain and Lawayne Mosley said they were seeking both accountability for the loss of a “beautiful soul” and to send a message that racism and brutality “have no place in American law enforcement.”
McClain, a massage therapist, died in August 2019 after officers with the Aurora Police Department restrained him with a chokehold and paramedics injected him with 500 milligrams of the sedative ketamine, leaving him unconscious, according to the complaint. He suffered cardiac arrest, was later declared brain dead, and was taken off life support. He died in hospital days after the incident.
At the time of the incident, McClain was walking home alone wearing a ski mask with his headphones on, when three officers stopped him on a report that he was “being suspicious.” The complaint said he presented no physical threat.
“Stop right there. Stop. Stop … I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious,” an officer can be heard saying on police body camera footage.
According to the complaint, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe, please stop,” were among the 23-year-old’s final words.
His parents in their lawsuit allege that McClain was unlawfully stopped and that he had not committed any crime. The lawsuit cites previous incidents of black people being forcefully detained by Aurora police.
Aurora spokesperson Julie Patterson said the city attorney is reviewing the lawsuit but declined further comment.
In a statement released by McClain’s parents, they said that their son was a peaceful man who played his violin for cats at animal shelters to ease their loneliness and would not harm a fly.
In a statement Tuesday, the Colorado Attorney General’s Office announced that it had launched a broad investigation of Aurora Police Department patterns and practices that might “deprive individuals of their constitutional rights under state or federal law.” It is also conducting a separate inquiry into McClain’s death, the office said.
Personnel from the Aurora Fire Rescue Department have also been named in the lawsuit as defendants. The complaint alleges that paramedics attending to McClain failed to care for him when they injected him with the sedative, which impaired his breathing. It said McClain showed no signs of resisting when medics administered the sedative. The 500 milligrams dose was also too much for someone weighing about 140 pounds (65 kilograms), the lawsuit states.
Last month, interim Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson fired two police officers—Erica Marrero and Kyle Dittrich—who took smiling selfies at a memorial site for McClain. A third officer, Jaren Jones, resigned before he could be terminated, and a fourth, Jason Rosenblatt, who saw the picture and replied “haha” in a text message, also lost his job.
All four were found in violation of conduct unbecoming of an officer.
Wilson said at a press conference on July 3 that the photographs taken by the officers on Oct. 20, 2019, showed them smiling at McClain’s memorial. One showed them reenacting a chokehold that officers used on McClain.
“I am disgusted to my core,” the police chief said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.