Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old black man, died last summer after being detained by police and injected with ketamine by first responders in Aurora, Colorado. Nearly a year later, a Change.org petition seeking justice for McClain has gained over two million signatures in just three weeks.
Piper Rundell told CBS News that she decided to create the petition after McClain's coworker told her about his death "nearly in tears."
"Hearing that there were cases of police brutality that were happening so close to where I lived kind of inspired me to start the petition — I was just hoping I could do something," Rundell said. "When the petition got 100 signatures I was so thrilled ... I'm sure you can imagine my excitement when there were 100,000 signatures and now it's gained over 2 million."
The petition calls for the officers involved in McClain's death be taken off duty, and that a "more in-depth investigation" be conducted into the events leading up to it.
McClain was walking in Aurora on the night of August 24, 2019, when a 911 call was placed describing a man matching his description acting strange, according to District Attorney Dave Young.
"The Aurora Police Department Communications Center (Dispatch) received a 911 call from J.V. describing a suspicious black male wearing a ski mask, 'acting weird' by 'waving his arms around,'" reads the incident overview written by Young.
Officer Nathan Woodyard approached McClain and asked him to stop walking. According to Young's account, McClain "appeared to ignore" commands from the officer to stop, and "continued walking."
"As officer Woodyard approached Mr. McClain on foot, again telling him to stop. Mr McClain said, 'I have a right to go where I am going.' Officer Woodyard responded, 'I have a right to stop you because you're being suspicious,'" reads the report.
The incident escalated after Woodyard grabbed McClain's arm while officer Jason Rosenblatt grabbed the other arm. Woodyard later told a detective that he thought McClain might have weapons on him, but that he would not allow himself to be searched. No weapon was ever found.
According to the District Attorney's report: "An officer can be heard on a body-worn camera saying 'stop tensing up dude, stop tensing up.' Mr. McClain then said 'let me go, no let me go, I am an introvert, please respect my boundaries that I am speaking.'"
The situation escalated further after Woodyard and two other officers moved McClain to some nearby grass. According to Young's report, McClain can be heard saying "I intend to take my power back" as officer Randy Roedema said McClain was reaching for one of the officer's guns. All three officers then took McClain down to the ground, according to the report.
Woodyard then put McClain in a "carotid control hold," a maneuver commonly known as a chokehold where an officer puts their arm around a subject's neck, restricting blood flow to the brain. The city directed police to cease using the hold earlier this month.
McClain lost consciousness and was released from the hold, according to the Young's report. The officers then called for assistance and firefighters and an ambulance responded to the scene. A fire medic requested ketamine in an attempt to sedate McClain, and administered 500 milligrams of the drug.
According to the report, McClain relaxed after the injection, was "placed into soft restraints" and loaded into an ambulance. The same medic who administered the ketamine, however, then noticed that "McClain's chest was not rising on his own, and he did not have a pulse." He was taken to a hospital where he was declared brain dead three days later.
The county coroner declared the manner of death to be "undetermined," citing no evidence to support a ketamine overdose or whether the carotid hold contributed to his death.
Young decided not to file criminal charges against the officers involved. "Based on the investigation presented and the applicable Colorado law, there is no reasonable likelihood of success of proving any state crimes beyond a reasonable doubt at trial," he wrote in his decision.
Two months after the incident, McClain's mother, Sheneen McClain, wrote on her GoFundMe page that his death was the result of hate. "Treating humans like gutter because you yourself have unsolved issues in your being shows in guilt or hate," she wrote. "We have done this to ourselves by not standing up for each other on all levels of understanding and community values."
McClain's family called for an independent investigation and "prosecution for the murder." The city of Aurora opened an external review on June 9, but it was quickly derailed by the revelation that the attorney hired to lead the investigation was a former police officer who specialized in defending police departments from liability claims, CBS Denver reports.
Aurora Senior Public Information Officer Michael Bryant said the city is now in the process of compiling a "team of experts" from across the country to lead the review together. A report from the original investigation was expected by mid-July, but Bryant said a timeline is now unknown.
Attorney Mari Newman, who represents McClain's family, said in a statement that "only recently, in response to the petition and increased public scrutiny, did Aurora finally claim to have hired a so-called 'independent investigator,' who media quickly revealed was actually a former police officer turned lawyer, whose legal practice is dedicated to defending police who use excessive force."
"Clearly, Aurora has no intention of taking responsibility for murdering an innocent young man. Its entire effort is to defend its brutality at all costs, and to lie to the public it is supposed to serve," Newman wrote.
She said the family is "thankful for the millions of people who have stood up to denounce the murder of their beloved son by Aurora Police and medics." But added that "it should not take a massive petition and national media attention for city leaders to do their jobs."
Rundell said she recently noticed an uptick in petition signatures, attributing the surge to increased attention on social media.
"I've noticed a lot more stories about Elijah's life rather than the story of his death," Rundell said. "People are talking about what an amazing person that he was and even how he used to play music for cats at shelters so they weren't lonely. I think that this has inspired a lot of people to sign and share the story of his life."
Despite the overwhelming call for a reexamination of McClain's death, Young has said petition signatures are not enough to reopen a case. He told Colorado Politics on June 8: "I don't open up investigations based on petitions."
"Obviously, if there is new evidence to look at, I will look at the evidence in any case," he said. "But no. I'm not going to open up an investigation because people are signing a petition."
Rundell said she still hopes justice will be served. "Elijah would still be alive today if it weren't for police brutality so a conviction for the officers involved is what I'm hoping," she said. "In a system that protects these officers I believe they should at least be removed from duty."
First published on June 24, 2020 / 8:02 PM
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