Cop who stopped Elijah McClain fired over chokehold photos

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FILE – In this June 27, 2020, file photo, demonstrators carry a giant placard during a rally and march over the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain outside the police department in Aurora, Colo. Multiple suburban Denver police officers have been placed on paid administrative leave amid an investigation into photos of them related to the case of a Black man who died last summer after he was stopped and restrained, police said Monday, June 29, 2020. The interim police chief of the city of Aurora, Vanessa Wilson, said in a statement that the suspended officers were “depicted in photographs near the site where Elijah McClain died.” But her statement did not provide more details about what the images show. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

AURORA, Colo. (AP) — One of the three white officers who stopped Elijah McClain was fired over photos showing colleagues reenacting the chokehold used on the Black man before he died last year, authorities said Friday. After getting a text message with the images, he replied, “haha.”

Police stopped McClain as he walked down the street last August for “being suspicious,” and Aurora Officer Jason Rosenblatt tried to use a chokehold on the 23-year-old but couldn’t because of his position, so another officer did, a report from prosecutors said.

Two months later, Rosenblatt received the photos from three fellow officers who smiled as they mimicked a chokehold near where McClain was stopped, which had become a public memorial.

A visibly shaken Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson assailed the four officers involved with the photos, saying their explanation is that they were “trying to cheer up a friend by sending that photo.”

“We are ashamed, we are sickened, and we are angry,” Wilson said. The officers may not have committed a crime, but the photographs are “a crime against humanity and decency,” she added.

After an internal investigation, Wilson fired Rosenblatt and two of the officers who appeared in the photos for conduct unbecoming of an officer. The officer who reenacted the chokehold in the photos resigned this week.

The Aurora Police Association, the union for officers, called it “a rush to judgment.” It said on Facebook that the investigation took nine days, while a standard internal affairs case takes months.

McClain’s death got new attention following nationwide protests over police brutality and racial injustice, and several police agencies have taken swift action to punish officers, including those involved in George Floyd’s death May 25 in Minneapolis.

Facing increasing pressure, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis last week ordered the state attorney general to reopen McClain’s case after prosecutors last year cleared the officers who confronted him. Two officers, including the one that put McClain in a chokehold, are still on the force as authorities look into possible criminal charges. Federal officials also are looking into a possible civil rights investigation.

Word of the photos emerged soon after Polis’ announcement. Aurora police launched an investigation last week after another officer reported the photos.

“The fact that three on-duty, in-uniform police officers thought that it was appropriate to reenact the murder, jokingly, shows that the department is rotten to the core,” said Mari Newman, the McClain family’s lawyer who saw the photos before they were publicly released. Elijah’s mother, Sheneen McClain, also saw them.

“For her, it was just devastating to see that people were mocking the murder of her son,” Newman added.

Officers stopped McClain, a massage therapist, after a 911 call on Aug. 24, 2019, reported him as suspicious because he was wearing a ski mask and flailing his arms. Police said they had a right to stop him because he was “being suspicious,” and he begged them repeatedly to let go of him, according to body-camera video.

Police placed him in a chokehold that cuts off blood to the brain, and paramedics administered 500 milligrams of a sedative to calm him down. He suffered cardiac arrest, was later declared brain dead and taken off life support.

A forensic pathologist could not determine what exactly led to McClain’s death but said physical exertion during the confrontation likely contributed.

The U.S. attorney’s office, the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the FBI announced this week they are looking into whether to launch a civil rights investigation. Federal authorities said they also were considering an investigation into the photos.

Prosecutors decided in November not to pursue criminal charges against the officers who stopped McClain. District Attorney Dave Young recently called the young man’s death “tragic and unnecessary” but defended his decision. He said he couldn’t charge the officers because the pathologist wasn’t able to determine if their actions caused McClain’s death.

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 McClain around 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.”

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.”

Aurora police have said McClain refused to stop walking and fought back when officers tried to take him into custody. The officers used a chokehold that cuts off blood to the brain — a tactic recently banned in several places following Floyd’s death.

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

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