The day that Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser (D) announced a 32-count indictment in the death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year Black man from Aurora, was a day that almost didn’t happen.
In Aurora, two police officers, one former police officer and two paramedics will face charges in the death of McClain. The police officers and paramedics are charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. Manslaughter is a Class 4 felony in Colorado punishable by up to six years in prison, while criminally negligent homicide is a Class 5 felony punishable by up to three years in prison.
On Aug. 24, 2019, nine months before George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, Elijah McClain was walking home from a convenience store listening to music on his headset when he was approached by an officer. From that moment, every part of the system to serve and protect failed. Though McClain committed no crime, he was immediately restrained. The officers eventually brought him to the ground, claiming he had reached for one of their guns while they were pinning him against a wall to handcuff him. The encounter escalated with McClain eventually losing consciousness as an officer applied a carotid control hold which restricts blood to the brain. And like George Floyd, he told police, “I can’t breathe,” as three officer held him while handcuffed on the ground.
The law enforcement system failed. An independent panel obtained by the City Council determined that police officers who stopped McClain had no apparent reason to suspect a crime had been committed. It also determined that a subsequent internal police investigation was flawed.
The emergency medical care system failed. When medical paramedics arrived, they injected McClain with ketamine, a powerful sedative. The amount of ketamine given was inappropriate and was for someone 77 pounds heavier than the 143-pound McClain. The indictment stated that the paramedics failed to follow medical protocols before and after they injected McClain. McClain was already handcuffed when medics arrived at the scene. The paramedics did not talk to McClain, check his vital signs or properly monitor him after giving him the powerful drug. McClain went into cardiac arrest and died a few days later.
The judicial system failed. The Adams County district attorney announced that criminal charges would not be filed, saying there was not enough evidence that the officers had broken the law when they used force on McClain.
The subsequent George Floyd arrested on May 25, 2020 changed the social climate both nationally and internationally. It brought about a heightened level of attention, scrutiny and protest in regards to all unjust deaths of Black citizens at the hands of law enforcement. Attention, scrutiny and protest prompted Gov. Jared Polis (D) to have Attorney General Weiser open a criminal investigation in the McClain case. For without those protests, it is unlikely the three officers and two paramedics would have been indicated.
Indictments are not enough in wrongful deaths — we need convictions. Convictions are not enough — we need sentencing with teeth. The murder conviction of Derek Chauvin resulting in a 22½ year sentence in the George Floyd death case should be a statement to those in law enforcement concerning the changing social climate of accountability. We need a strong conviction and sentencing in the Elijah McClain case to reinforce that statement. This case shows that paramedics should also take note.
Now, we see that the former Georgia District Attorney in the Ahmaud Arbery case has been indicted. Jackie Johnson was just indicted for wrongfully showing favor to the men who have since been charged with the murder of Arbery. District attorneys everywhere should take note concerning the violation of oath while serving the public.
When police officers, paramedics and district attorneys start to consistently go to jail for any wrong doing in the line of duty, it should make all of those holding positions of public trust consider their own individual actions and choices when faced with life and death situations. Unfortunately, we know the reality of our society. Personal and professional accountability are not characteristics willingly embraced by every man and women throughout the law enforcement and the judicial ranks. Accountability has to be forced. The indictment in the Elijah McClain case almost didn’t happen. For that reason, it shows that concerned citizens have to always pay attention, show scrutiny and peacefully protest if necessary.
Marshall is the founder of the faith-based organization TRB: The Reconciled Body and author of the book “God Bless Our Divided America.”