A Black man, 23, died in police custody in Colorado. The governor vows state review

The governor of Colorado has promised state action in reviewing the case of Elijah McClain, who died in August after a confrontation with police in a Denver suburb.
Elijah McClain Press Conference
Rashiaa Veal holds a sign of her cousin Elijah McClain at a press conference in front of the Aurora Municipal Center in in Aurora, Colorado, in October. Andy Cross / Denver Post via Getty Images

The death of a 23-year-old Black man in police custody in Colorado is under renewed public scrutiny amid nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism, and the governor has promised state action in reviewing the case.

Elijah McClain was taken off life support on Aug. 30, six days after he was confronted by police in the Denver suburb of Aurora, as officers answered a call reporting a suspicious person in the area.

Officers applied a chokehold during the confrontation, authorities have said.

"I am hearing from many Coloradans who have expressed concerns with the investigation of Elijah McClain’s death," Gov. Jared Polis said in a statement on Wednesday. As a result, he said he has asked legal counsel "what the state can do and we are assessing next steps."

Also on Wednesday, Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman scheduled a special City Council meeting for July 6 and called for lawmakers to consider an independent probe.

Sheneen McClain, center, mother of Elijah McClain, speaks during a press conference in front of the Aurora Municipal Center on Oct. 1, 2019. Family, friends, legal counsel, local pastors and community organizers were calling for justice for the officer-involved death of her son, who died in a hospital after an Aug. 24 incident involving Aurora police.Andy Cross / Denver Post via Getty Images

"We need to bring closure to this tragic incident by making sure every aspect of it is thoroughly investigated," Coffman said.

Aurora police received a call at 10:32 p.m. on Aug. 24 reporting that a “suspicious person” was "walking on Billings Street near East Colfax Avenue, wearing a ski mask and waving his arms at the caller," officials said.

McClain often wore a ski mask when he felt cold, his family said, and it would have been in the mid- to high-60s that night, according to weather records.

"The male would not stop walking down the street from the officer," according to a police statement at the time. "The male resisted contact, a struggle ensued, and he was taken into custody."

At some point, officers called for an ambulance. Authorities later said that McClain "suffered a cardiac arrest and lifesaving measures were initiated."

The coroner for Adams and Broomfield counties found that McClain's death was due to "undetermined causes." But the coroner did not rule out whether the police chokehold - in addition to the sedative ketamine, injected into McClain by paramedics - might have contributed to his death.

"A carotid control hold was applied during the decedent's restraint," according to the report by Dr. Stephen Cina, a forensic pathology consultant. "The records indicate the the decedent was still struggling with officers after this hold was removed. He then coded after receiving a dose of ketamine."

Cina added: "I cannot determine whether a carotid control hold contributed to death via stimulation of the carotid sinus; there were no signs of traumatic asphyxiation."

Adams County prosecutor Dave Young opted not to prosecute the officers involved, saying he could not disprove, with enough evidence to win a conviction, the officers' assertion that they were right to use the level of force they employed.

A Change.org petition calling for the officers involved to be taken off duty and for an independent investigation into the case had gained nearly 2.7 million signatures by Thursday morning.

"Public confidence in our law enforcement process is incredibly important now more than ever," Polis said. "A fair and objective process free from real or perceived bias for investigating officer-involved killings is critical."

Mari Newman, a lawyer for McClain's family, said the family is grateful for supporters, but still frustrated no action has been taken against anyone involved in the man's death.

"Elijah’s family is so thankful for the millions of people who have stood up to denounce the murder of their beloved son," Newman said. "But it should not take a massive petition and national media attention for city leaders to do their jobs."

A union representative for the three officers involved in the case could not be immediately reached for comment on Thursday.