Although Black Lives Matter protests in Denver have been attributed to outrage over the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, many local activists and families have their own stories that hit much closer to home. A few names have come into focus (or back into focus) in Denver, as the surviving loved-ones of Elijah McClain, Marvin Booker and William Lamont Debose ask for a slice of the effort for justice to be administered to their cases.
These three cases exemplify some of the biggest problems with Colorado’s police forces, and lend support to the police accountability bill going through Colorado’s legislature at the moment. Booker — a homeless black preacher — died in 2010 while detained at the Downtown Detention Center after allegedly being tased by an officer for 20 to 30 seconds. McClain — a 23-year-old black male walking home at night while listening to music — was killed in 2019 after a horrifying encounter with Aurora and Denver police officers. Debose — a 21-year-old black male — died just last month in a public library parking lot when an officer shot him after reportedly seeing Debose reach for a gun.
Since January 1, 2020, there have been 24 officer-involved “subject-suspect-perpetrator” shootings in Colorado, according to the Gun Violence archive. That doesn’t include killings that may occur when officers use other methods of lethal force, like chokeholds. Due to laws that allow for a downright casual interpretation from police officers and district attorneys of reasonable situations to use deadly or lethal force, a civilian’s path to justice for cases like these has been a steep and narrow one. And for the Black community, the path to justice has been virtually nonexistent.
Booker, McClain and Debose’s cases each show a different way that the laws, and the interpretation of said laws, need to change in order to prevent extra-judicial killings and the use of lethal force by officers who are supposed to “serve and protect.” In all of these cases, we must ask ourselves if the same outcome would have occurred if the suspects were white. Senate Bill 217 — the Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity bill — specifically addresses many of the issues these cases present as well as others. (For updated information about the progress of SB20-217, go here).
In 2010 jail deputies killed Booker when he tried to retrieve his shoes from beneath a bench he had been waiting on while being booked for an outstanding warrant for drug possession. It was 3:30 a.m. and the 56-year-old preacher had been waiting for a long time. When he attempted to retrieve his shoes, four or five deputies jumped on him, put him in a chokehold and shocked him with a taser. There were many witnesses and cameras recorded the entire scene.
The District Attorney at the time, Mitch Morrissey, did not pursue a criminal case against any of the officers involved, although a civil case brought against the city and the officers by the family resulted in a $6 million settlement awarded by a jury in 2014. The Booker family was represented by Darod Killmer of Killmer, Lane & Newman LLP. He explained, “as the federal civil jury unanimously determined, the killing was wholly indefensible and unjustifiable, and the officers’ conduct was engaged in maliciously or in reckless disregard of Mr. Booker’s constitutional rights.”
But, even with that decision from a jury, Killmer said that no criminal charges were filed, no disciplinary actions were ever taken, no termination of employment was administered, no suspension, no counseling, no further training. Even though the verdict that the deputies had acted in violation of Booker’s rights was well-known, no justice was served beyond the city (aka taxpayers) paying a settlement to the bereaved family. Booker’s case was highly visible in 2014, but then was brought back into the spotlight first when the DA position switched from Morrissey to Beth McCann in 2017 and then again when Mayor Hancock mentioned it as a “murder” last week. The family wondered “how can Denver allow its law enforcement officers to get away with what the Mayor now concedes was the murder of Marvin?” Unfortunately, DA McCann has stated that she has no intention of reopening the matter and Mayor Hancock backtracked on his statement. When reached out for further comment on this case, McCann declined.
What you can do:
Call the Denver District Attorney (Beth McCann) at 720-913-9000 and ask her to re-open this case for criminal charges
Contact Denver’s Mayor Hancock online and let him know how you feel about this case, since he originally brought it up as an example of murder. You can even use parts of this well-written letter from the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition as long as you attribute it to the original writers
Call the Denver FBI office at 303-629-7171 and request a federal investigation into the death of Booker due to a violation of his constitutional rights
On the night of August 24, 2019, McClain was walking home from a convenience store. He was wearing a ski mask and listening to music. Someone called 911 and reported his behavior as suspicious, although the caller repeated to dispatch more than once that he did not feel in danger nor did he think the person was a danger to himself or others. When officers found McClain, at Billings and Colfax, their first requests for him to stop went unanswered. More officers arrived, immediately approaching McClain and putting their hands on him. From that moment, the entire situation went downhill, resulting in roughly 15 minutes where McClain was held on the ground, given the carotid hold twice (a modified chokehold), induced to vomiting and eventually sedated with the tranquilizer ketamine. He died in the hospital a few days later.
Less than a week after his death, Mari Newman, attorney at Killmer, Lane & Newman LLP, started requesting documentation from the Aurora police department. “There was a lot of intentional efforts [by police departments involved] to keep Elijah’s family and me as their lawyer in the dark about what was going on. They were doing their best to be as opaque as possible,” Newman recounted. On November 22, 2019, District Attorney Dave Young of the 17th Judicial District reported to Police Chief Metz that no criminal charges would be pursued for any officers who were involved. Oddly, Newman nor the McClain family were notified of this decision or the press conference ahead of time.
The report that was issued from the Aurora Police Department regarding the investigation into the death of McClain is a sizable document that mashes together Young’s letter to Metz, autopsy reports, the 911 transcript and press releases from various departments. Inside, if you are brave enough to study it all, you’ll find a highly politicized set of documents that fortify the systemic issues that Aurora PD is notorious for — racism, abuse of power, police brutality, lack of transparency and compliance of fellow officers.
The autopsy report, as Newman pointed out, was approved by the chief coroner Monica Broncucia-Jordan and concluded that no cause of death could be determined, even though McClain was an otherwise healthy individual. In Colorado, coroners are elected or appointed and must pass a certification, but do not need to be doctors. The autopsy itself was conducted by Doctor Stephen Cina. According to this report, chief coroner Broncucia-Jordan is not a medical doctor. Newman insists that an independent medical doctor would have had different opinions. About the coroner’s report, she said that it “ignores the obvious answer — that if the officers hadn’t stopped him he would still be alive today.”
DA Young said about the case that “the tragedy started because he had headphones in, which he can do and there’s nothing wrong with that, but the officers get a 911 call and they show up and they think he’s ignoring him… I wish they would have just had a conversation with him. But at the end of the day, the officers didn’t commit a crime.”
When I asked Young why the actions of the police officers after “legally stopping” McClain were not illegal, he insisted that McClain was experiencing a state of “excited delirium” leading to “almost superhuman strength” which led the officers and Aurora Fire Department to administer two modified chokeholds and a drug in a high dose.
Newman fervently contradicts Young’s statements. She explained “excited delirium is kind of a law enforcement created syndrome to justify police killings. Even in those cases that have some basis, excited delirium has specific physical features. The first is acting aggressive, lashing out. He didn’t do that, he was totally passive and restrained. The second is the physical feature of body temperature (hypothermia), which he didn’t display. The intense physical exertion was obviously only because he was underneath law enforcement officers who were holding him down and not letting him breathe.”
Reading through all of the documents that explain McClain’s case will help you get a feel for the whole situation or to understand if you agree with the DA’s decision or with Newman. You can also watch (and more importantly listen to) the body camera footage from multiple officers who were involved. It will show you in excruciating detail why this case proves that police need to be held more accountable and why Young’s decision wasn’t right. Newman and the McClain family are working on a civil lawsuit against the city of Aurora and the police department at the time of this article’s publishing.
As of June 9, 2020, the Aurora Police Department announced five new policies it will implement — authorization to fire a weapon (telling someone they are about to fire at them), banning the use of a carotid hold, the duty of other officers to intervene, forcing officers who have been involved in a confrontation to step away to cool down and not requiring officers to stop a person who has been identified as “suspicious” unless the officers think the person is a serious threat. Of course, most of these new policies are in direct response to McClain’s murder — and a letter by some of Aurora’s City Council members to the town manager insisted that an independent investigation into his case should be pursued vehemently. For more information about this new development, go here.
What you can do:
Call the Aurora Police Department at 303-739-6050 to file a complaint against one of the officers involved in McClain’s case. Their names are Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema.
File a complaint online with this link
Call District Attorney (Dave Young) at 303-659-7720 and ask for justice for the officers involved in McClain’s death, an independent review of the murder by a non-law-enforcement-entrenched investigator
Donate to the GoFundMe set up by Sheneen McClain (his mother)
William Lamont Debose
On May 1, 2020, Debose was driving in a car with two other people at a high speed. He was tracked by helicopter while driving south on I-25 and on-the-ground police were notified when he exited on Colfax Avenue going west, pulling the car over for a traffic stop. A passenger got out of the backseat of the car with his hands up and the car reportedly drove away. The helicopter tracked the fleeing vehicle to the public library parking lot nearby and officers followed. Two passengers in the car, Debose and his wife, initially got out of the vehicle with their hands up but then ran away. The officer pursuing Debose fatally shot him when, he said, Debose reached for a gun. Now, more than a month after Debose’s death, no body cam footage has been released to the family or the public.
Although this one has less evidence than McClain, Booker or countless other cases, it addresses a few major issues — should civilians be shot when running away from police? And would Debose have been shot if he were not black? Currently, Colorado law has the “fleeing felon” statute, which allows police officers to use deadly force on a person who is running away, or who might be about to commit a crime even if they haven’t done anything wrong yet.
Update June 18 at 6:57 p.m.: the body camera footage has been released. Go here to view it.
Preventing Future Deaths
Public opinion is a powerful tool. After more than a week of protests in downtown Denver, lawmakers have stepped up to introduce SB20-217 and address the issues of police brutality and systemic racism directly. In an email to 303, Denver’s DA McCann explained she supports many pieces of the new SB20-217, most notably the repeal of the fleeing felon statute, banning chokehold, increasing the use of body cams, creating a statewide tracking system of bad apple officers and having them de-certified and the duty of an officer to intervene. In order to speak up about this bill, contact your state representative and let them know how you stand on it.
But it doesn’t stop with this bill. Passing it is one step, enforcing the new laws is another. Citizens who want transparency and accountability in law enforcement departments need to call their representatives and senators and remind them, hound their mayor and governor about it and record instances where they witness police officers acting out of line (and send it to the ACLU).
“Police brutality is not new, but recent developments such as cell phone cameras and body-worn cameras have made it more provable in many instances,” attorney Killmer commented. “I am optimistic that the commitment to make necessary changes is real and will allow us all to work to eradicate such brutality and misconduct.”
Unfortunately, signing petitions for past cases might not help as much as fighting for policy change will. According to DA Young, in order to re-open a case “[there] has to be relevant evidence that would help prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime was committed and the involved officer(s) actions were not justified under the law.” He insists that introducing a petition of signatures by individuals will not hold up in a court with a judge as a viable path to re-open a case. Of course, public opinion has prompted the discovery of new evidence with criminal cases in the past — most notably the highly publicized Adnan Syed case that was re-investigated after the broadcast of the podcast Serial.
Newman, the attorney for McClain’s family, has been working with Representative Leslie Herod on SB20-217 for months. She said, “we initially starting discussing [this bill] in the context of the horrifying treatment of many of my clients. And so the bill is designed to address issues that are significant problems right here in Colorado. They aren’t esoteric, theoretical issues. They’re all cases involving Colorado law enforcement abuses.”
How Policy Change Can Address These Issues
Although Booker, McClain and Debose cannot be brought back to life with phone calls, petitions or complaints, it’s important to understand how their deaths could have been prevented so that policy change can ensure similar lives aren’t lost to senseless violence in the future.
- Booker should never have been tackled or restrained in the first place. He had a right to retrieve his shoes and was not posing a threat to himself or anyone around him. SB20-217 does not allow officers to use physical force in non-volatile situations.
- The officers who were involved in this case should not still have jobs in law enforcement. A jury of citizens decided that the officers’ actions were indefensible and unjustifiable. Under some of the new guidelines in SB20-217, both the officers involved in the death and any officers who looked on without stopping it might face de-certification and termination.
- McClain should never have been stopped in the first place, even though DA Young states that the stop was justifiable. With the new police accountability bill, any stops made by officers must be reported and published in a publicly-available database to hopefully prevent cases like this, where McClain was obviously racially profiled. He had no weapon and was not causing harm or imminent threat to anyone around him and therefore was wrongfully detained and subdued. Additionally, the new Aurora PD policies enacted on June 9, 2020, take away the mandate that officers must make contact with someone whom a 911 call is made about.
- The use of two “carotid control holds” on McClain caused him to unjustifiably suffer and probably contributed to his untimely death. These holds, along with chokeholds and any other compression of the airway will be banned under SB20-217. The carotid hold is also now banned under new Aurora PD policies.
- During this entire horrifying situation, nine officers and two sergeants were present. Three officers were the main perpetrators, but that leaves eight people who were complicit. SB20-217 and the new Aurora PD policies make it criminal to not interfere when another officer is committing a crime or using unnecessary force. If someone is unjustly killed by an officer, the officer(s) and any officer who doesn’t interfere will face decertification and consequently may lose their badge forever.
- The body-worn camera (“body cam”) footage was intentionally tampered with, and in some cases, dislodged by officers restraining McClain. SB20-217 has strict rules about body cam footage, including that any tampering will be considered a sign of guilt.
- The investigation by DA Young came with no suggestions for how the police departments should re-train their officers or change their policies. Under new guidelines, the DA may notify departments when a violation has occurred and request for the “pattern or practice” to be eliminated or altered, or else be sued by the DA office. This puts more pressure on DA’s to make meaningful decisions rather than political ones.
[Update June 19 at 11:51 a.m.]
With the release of the body cam footage 49 days after the incident, Debose’s case still poses questions when it comes to police accountability and also attests to the importance of transparency. The first note to make is that footage gives the public and Debose’s family more accurate information about the events of the night, and therefore supports SB20-217 and the extensive body cam regulations put in place. With timely releases of footage, police departments can avoid misconceptions or accusations about their own truthfulness. The biggest question that comes from watching this particular footage, however, is why did this traffic stop turn into a foot-chase? Will new accountability measures and training procedures teach officers better de-escalation tactics in scenarios like this? Will officers learn to retreat and call for help rather than chase and put themselves in danger? Why did Debose feel the need to run from a police officer or evade a traffic stop? Hopefully, with the implementation of SB20-217, some of these issues will be addressed.
- With body cam footage of Debose, the accounts of the police could be verified or proven false. Since the main reason why Debose was shot is the report from an officer that he was reaching for a gun, it is imperative for objective outsiders to study the film and determine if there was enough of a risk for the responding officer to fire his weapon. In order to do that, the footage needs to be released and should be publicly available. SB20-217 will make sure that all footage is first released to the victim or victim’s family 24 hours before releasing it to the public, and that will happen no more than 45 days after the incident.
- The “fleeing felon” statute allowed the officer to shoot Debose regardless of whether he was reaching for a gun or not. Even though the report says that Debose reached for a loaded weapon, the fact is that under current laws it is within a police officer’s right to use deadly or lethal force on a person who might commit a felony or who might be a felon already. With the SB20-217, an officer may only use deadly or lethal force if there is an imminent threat to their own safety or the safety of others, repealing the “fleeing felon” statute. Of course, this might be the case with Debose (if he really was reaching for a loaded gun), but until we see the footage of the exchange it is impossible to know the truth.
- The officer who shot Debose is a corporal in a gang unit. Although the officer in question has no previous record, the question is why a gang unit was responding to a “typical traffic stop.” With new guidelines under SB20-217, all traffic stops must be reported back to their departments with a litany of information about why the stop was made, who was stopped and what happened during the interaction. That database will then be publicly available. The idea behind this compilation of data is to make officers feel more accountable about their actions in the field. Will they think twice before reacting to a situation aggressively?
Find Your Legislator: the official site to find who your Colorado senators and representatives are
Gun Violence Archive: a database with information regarding all gun-related violence, with a section dedicated to officer-involved shootings
Reporting Crimes Committed by Cops: follow these steps to make sure your complaint is heard
What Are My Rights If I Protest The Police? An article written by the Civil Rights Litigation Group, a Denver law firm
Colorado Police Misconduct Laws: read about your rights in interactions with the police
Police Misconduct Laws: a description of the laws enforced by the Department of Justice and how to file a complaint
Editor’s note: We’ve updated the article to clarify that Doctor Stephen Cina performed the autopsy for Elijah McClain and it was only approved by the chief coroner, not performed. Also, we updated the statement made by his lawyer to clarify it referred to an independent doctor.
The article was also updated on June 19, after DPD released body camera footage related to the case of William Lamont Debose.