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Elijah McClain's Family Sues Police In Colorado Over His Death

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The family of Elijah McClain has filed a federal civil rights suit against the city of Aurora, Colo. You'll remember he was the unarmed 23-year-old who died in police custody last summer. Colorado Public Radio's Allison Sherry reports on the latest developments in the case.

ALLISON SHERRY, BYLINE: The incident that led to Elijah McClain's death started with a call to 911 reporting a, quote, "sketchy"-looking individual. Police stopped McClain, who was African American, as he was walking home from a convenience store. McClain's family lawyer Mari Newman.

MARI NEWMAN: Aurora police officers stopped Elijah, grabbed him, tackled him to the ground and, over the course of the next 18 minutes, inflicted multiple types of excessive force against him.

SHERRY: McClain wasn't suspected of any crime. In the altercation that followed, officers put him in two carotid holds and kept him pinned to the ground. Paramedics who arrived on the scene then injected him with ketamine, a sedative. His family's lawyers allege the dose was too much for his 143-pound body size. He went into cardiac arrest in the ambulance, and McClain was taken off life support several days later. McClain's death got renewed attention this spring in the wake of the George Floyd death in Minnesota and became a rallying cry both in Colorado and elsewhere in the country for police reform.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: I just can't breathe correctly.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I can't breathe.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: I can't breathe.

SHERRY: In the lawsuit filed in federal court on Tuesday, McClain's family allege the massage therapist and animal lover was a gentle soul, a self-taught violinist who played music on his lunch hour at dog and cat shelters. While he was pinned down by police, McClain tells cops in body cam audio that he doesn't carry guns. He doesn't hurt anyone. Protesters chanted his words during a demonstration in July.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Why are you attacking me?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I don't even kill flies.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: I don't even kill flies.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I don't eat meat.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: I don't eat meat.

SHERRY: The city of Aurora and the Aurora Police Department, which just hired a new police chief, did not have immediate comment on the suit on Tuesday. It names 13 individual police officers, a paramedic and his supervisor.

For NPR News, I'm Allison Sherry in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.