A police chief has defended the tactics of officers who used pepper spray and batons on protesters gathered during a demonstration and violin vigil for Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old unarmed Black man who died after he was put in a chokehold during a police stop last year.
The defence by Aurora interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson came just hours after the FBI revealed that it had last year opened a civil rights investigation into McClain’s death, which has gained national attention amid a movement for racial justice in the US.
Wilson said during a virtual city council meeting that police had been targeting a small group of agitators when the officers cracked down on a mostly peaceful gathering meant to commemorate McClain’s love of music on Saturday.
Friends have said McClain, a local masseuse and self-taught musician who died after the August 2019 police encounter, used to take his violin and guitar to animal shelters during his lunch break to entertain the cats and dogs.
“We were attacked with rocks, and we had to defend our officers,” Wilson said during the Tuesday night meeting. “My officers aren’t sacrificial lambs.”
She added police were concerned protesters would try to break into police headquarters and destroy evidence from case files inside.
Councilman Juan Marcano, who was at the demonstration, responded: “I don’t think any of us felt unsafe until the riot police showed up”.
McClain’s case has gained national attention amid protests sparked by the police-killing of George Floyd in late May. Millions have signed a petition calling for further investigation. That came after an internal review by the Aurora Police Department cleared the officers involved of wrongdoing, and the district attorney said there was no criminality in the incident.
The governor of Colorado on June 25 appointed the state’s attorney general as a special prosecutor to investigate the death.
A joint statement from the Justice Department’s civil rights division, the FBI and the US Attorney for Colorado revealed on Tuesday that a federal investigation had been launched into the case last year.
The agencies said releasing the existence of a continuing investigation is done only when it is in “the best interest of the public and public safety”.
“Recent attention on the death of Elijah McClain warrants such disclosure,” the agencies said.
A caller had reported McClain, who was wearing a ski mask, to police for suspicious behaviour on August 24, 2019. McClain, who was walking home from a shop, did not immediately answer when officers attempted to stop him. His family later said McClain was anaemic and wore the ski mask because he became cold easily.
In police body-cam audio, McClain can be heard telling officers to let him go, telling them he is an “introvert”, and to respect his boundaries.
An officer can later be heard telling McClain – who is heard crying, struggling for air, saying he cannot breathe, and apologising to the officers – he will sic a dog on him if he doesn’t stop “messing around”.
During the encounter, authorities said an officer put McClain in a chokehold, which was allowed by the department at the time. McClain was later injected by medical responders with ketamine as a sedative and suffered a heart attack in the ambulance, he died days later when his family removed him from life support.
The most recent update in the grim saga came after authorities on Monday announced that several officers had been placed on paid leave during an investigation into photos of them taken at the site of McClain’s death following the incident.
Police chief Wilson said only that the officers were “depicted in photographs near the site where Elijah McClain died” without offering further details.
Local media has since reported, citing unnamed sources, that the officers were re-enacting the chokehold manoeuvre used on McClain in the images.
McClain’s family, in a statement, said the photos were a “new low”.
“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,” they said.