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Police reform takes shape in Aurora as a $15 million settlement is reached in Elijah McClain case

In this March 3, 2021 photograph, Sheneen McClain, the mother of Elijah McClain, is shown in the office of her attorney, Qusair Mohamedbhai, in Denver.
David Zalubowski
In this March 3, 2021 photograph, Sheneen McClain, the mother of Elijah McClain, is shown in the office of her attorney, Qusair Mohamedbhai, in Denver.

In the same week that officials in Aurora agreed to independent monitoring of police, lawyers representing members of Elijah McClain’s family and the city agreed to a $15 million settlement to resolve the wrongful death lawsuit. The legal settlement is thought to be the largest of its kind in Colorado history and one of the largest nationally.

The amount was confirmed to KUNC by Siddhartha Rathod, an attorney for McClain's mother, Sheneen McClain, after being finalized on Friday. A question of how the millions of dollars will be split remains.

"There will be an allocation hearing in the near future to determine the distribution of the settlement between the mother — and single parent of Elijah — and the biological father," Rathod said.

He added that Sheneen McClain would "give away every cent just for one more day with Elijah."

The suit alleged McClain, a 23-year-old Black massage therapist, was murdered by police and paramedics after being stopped on the night of Aug. 24, 2019. Officers tackled McClain, who was not suspected of being involved in any crime, placed him in a chokehold and pinned him down. Then paramedics with Aurora Fire Rescue sedated a handcuffed McClain with ketamine, a powerful drug. At the hospital, he was pronounced brain-dead and later taken off life support.

Three officers and two paramedics are facing charges that include manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide after a grand jury handed down a 32-count indictment.

In a press conference this week, Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson told reporters that the department is committed to reform.

“A lot of things have come to light,” she said. “A lot of things that we're not proud of, a lot of things that I had to deal with via terminations or even arresting some of our own, but I also think that we missed the boat when we don't focus on the good things that are happening in the city. I need you to believe in this agency and we are committed to make sure that we do everything.”

She made the remarks standing alongside state Attorney General Phil Weiser, who outlined the details of a consent decree – a legal agreement meant to hold the city’s police and fire departments accountable for a raft of reforms.

“First, creating specific guidance for police officers on how to exercise discretion during interactions with the community where there could be perceived or actual bias,” Weiser said. “Second, improving the use of force. Creating policies and training that will ensure it's only done when necessary and appropriate, and there's not unnecessary escalation of encounters with community members.”

The reform process is not only a reaction to McClain’s case. A sweeping and scathing investigation by Weiser’s office in September found that Aurora police used force against people of color almost 2.5 times more often than white people and that people of color were more likely to be stopped and arrested. It also found that people at risk for adverse treatment, like those with mental health issues, couldn’t rely on officers.

In his remarks, Weiser also touched on hiring practices that aim to improve diversity in the departments and reflect the community. He also spoke about the implementation of extensive data tracking related to police interactions with the public.

Aurora’s city council is expected to approve the consent decree, which gives the attorney general the ability to turn to the courts if for some reason city officials refuse to comply. There were no indications that would happen.

“This is going to take time,” Wilson said. “We have a timeline that we need to roll out, but we're committed to making these changes.”

Wilson went on to promise transparency “every step of the way and allow you to know exactly what's going on in the Aurora Police Department.”

The use of ketamine by paramedics is also part of the reform process. Paramedics injected McClain with an “excessive” dosage of the drug, according to Weiser’s investigation, which also identified a pattern of misuse of ketamine by paramedics. In 40% of cases, paramedics gave doses that exceeded the protocol, and in 60% of cases, paramedics failed to follow any protocols.

Fire officials said discussion about the drug is essentially moot because paramedics discontinued its use last year. Moreover, after the passage of a state law to rein in the use of ketamine in situations involving police, state health officials temporarily halted its use.

READ MORE: KUNC’s investigations into paramedics’ use of ketamine 902 times around the state in 2.5 years

Sheneen McClain issued a statement this week in reaction to the consent decree through her attorneys.

“Ms. McClain would like to thank the community for its incredible support, love, and commitment to ensuring that Elijah’s death would lead to meaningful reform,” it stated. “Ms. McClain raised Elijah as a single mother and his death has left an enormous void in her life. While nothing will fill that void, Ms. McClain is hopeful that badly needed reforms to the Aurora Police Department will spare other parents the same heartache.”

Editor's note: This story and headline were updated on 11/19/21 at 3:00 p.m. to reflect the finalized settlement amount in the case.

As investigative reporter for KUNC, I take tips from our audience and, well, investigate them. I strive to go beyond the obvious, to reveal new facts, to go in-depth and to bring new perspectives and personalities to light.