AURORA — The police officers who wrestled Elijah McClain to the ground as the unarmed Black man walked home in 2019 went “hands-on” too quickly, Aurora’s interim chief of police said Thursday in an about-face from the police department’s initial stance in the case.
Interim Chief Art Acevedo, who joined the police department more than three years after McClain’s death, commented on the officers’ actions days after former Officer Randy Roedema was sentenced to 14 months in jail with the option for work-release on assault and criminally negligent homicide convictions in McClain’s death.
“We don’t want our officers to go hands-on so quickly, unless there’s an actual threat to them,” Acevedo said during a Thursday news conference.
The position is a reversal of the department’s initial stance in the McClain case, in which investigators from the Aurora Police Department and Denver Police Department cleared the officers of all wrongdoing.
Aurora police contacted 23-year-old Elijah McClain on the night of Aug. 24, 2019, after a 911 caller reported that McClain was wearing a ski mask and waving his arms as he walked. Officer Nathan Woodyard went hands-on with McClain within eight seconds of approaching him.
Woodyard, Roedema and a third officer, Jason Rosenblatt, tackled McClain to the ground. Woodyard used a chokehold on McClain, who struggled to breathe and begged for help until Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec arrived and injected McClain with an overdose of ketamine, leading to his death.
“We failed Elijah McClain as a department, we failed (his mother Sheneen) McClain as a department, we failed our community as a department. We also failed the officers that encountered him that night,” Acevedo said. “…They failed because of the attitude, the mindset of: ‘You ask someone to do something, you tell someone to do something and then you make someone do something.’ If you look at the approach to Elijah McClain, we went from ‘asking’ to ‘telling’ to ‘making’ very quickly, and we should not be going hands-on and making someone do something unless there is an immediate threat. It’s tragic.”
Asked what police will do differently in similar situations going forward, Acevedo said officers should better explain their actions.
“There’s going to be a lot more talking,” he said. “It’s a consensual contact, right? We are going to discuss it, we are going to talk to him, and then if we don’t have legal cause to detain, we are training our people to get back in the car and do one of two things: leave, or just watch the person.”
An independent investigation commissioned by the city found the Aurora officers did not have a legal basis to stop or detain McClain. Acevedo said Thursday that the police department is already seeing officers better handle such situations.
“We needed to do better and thank God, as a result of that tragedy, our men and women are doing phenomenal work,” he said.
All five first responders were charged with crimes in connection with McClain’s death. Roedema and paramedics Cooper and Cichuniec were convicted. Then-officers Rosenblatt and Woodyard were acquitted. The paramedics are due to be sentenced in March.
Following the paramedics’ trial, Aurora Fire Rescue Chief Alec Oughton said he was “discouraged” by their felony convictions “for following their training and protocols in place at the time and for making discretionary decisions while taking split-second action in a dynamic environment.”
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