DENVER — The parents of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who died last year after officers in suburban Denver put him in a chokehold and paramedics injected him with a sedative, sued police and medical officials Tuesday, accusing the Aurora Police Department of a longstanding pattern of racism and brutality.

In a federal civil rights lawsuit, 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.”

The lawsuit alleges that Elijah McClain was unlawfully stopped on the street last August and that officers later sought to justify their aggressive treatment of the massage therapist by filing an assault charge against him and making a notation in a police report suggesting that he was connected with a gang.

Aurora spokesman Julie Patterson said the city attorney is reviewing the lawsuit but declined further comment.

McClain’s parents said in a statement released by their lawyer that their son was a creative and peaceful man who played his violin for cats at animal shelters to ease their loneliness and would not swat a fly.

His death got new attention after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis stirred worldwide protests over racial injustice and police brutality. Aurora police have drawn outrage for McClain’s death and other run-ins with people of color.

On Aug. 24, 2019, police stopped McClain as he walked down the street wearing a ski mask with his headphones on after they got a 911 call from someone who reported him as “sketchy.” His family said he wore the mask because he had a blood condition that caused him to get cold easily.

Police body-camera video shows an officer getting out of his car, approaching McClain and saying, “Stop right there. Stop. Stop. … I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious.”

In the video, the officer turns around McClain, who seems startled, and repeats, “Stop tensing up.” As McClain tries to escape the officer’s grip, the officer says, “Relax, or I’m going to have to change this situation.”


Demonstrators march over the death of Elijah McClain on June 27 in Aurora, Colo. David Zalubowski/Associated Press

As other officers join to restrain McClain, he begs them to let go and says, “You guys started to arrest me, and I was stopping my music to listen.”

Police put him in a chokehold, and paramedics gave him 500 milligrams of ketamine to calm him down.

Police have said McClain refused to stop walking and fought back when officers tried to take him into custody and that they thought he was trying to take an officer’s gun, which the lawsuit disputes.

In the video, McClain tells officers: “Let go of me. I am an introvert. Please respect the boundaries that I am speaking.”

McClain suffered cardiac arrest, was later declared brain dead and taken off life support. A prosecutor said last year that there wasn’t enough evidence to charge the officers, but the governor directed the state attorney general to open a new investigation. The city also is investigating its policies on using force and ketamine.

The lawsuit claims one officer jammed his knee into McClain’s arm “with the sole purpose of inflicting pain by forcefully separating Elijah’s bicep and triceps muscles.”

It also says two of the officers reported that all three of them simultaneously placed their body weight on McClain after a chokehold. One officer estimated that the collective weight on McClain, who weighed 140 pounds, to be over 700 pounds.

The lawsuit comes just over a week after Aurora police were criticized for putting four Black girls on the ground and handcuffing two of them while investigating a car they suspected was stolen. It was later found it wasn’t stolen. The department also just got a new permanent police chief, who said she’s committed to rebuilding the public’s trust and wants to empower police to think about whether they are acting on their biases.

Chief Vanessa Wilson has called McClain’s death tragic. As interim chief, she told officers in response to the case that they no longer had to contact a person reported as suspicious if they were not committing a crime.

When photos surfaced of officers reenacting the chokehold used on McClain, she moved quickly to fire three officers, including one who was involved in stopping McClain. She called the photos “a crime against humanity and decency.”

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