Officials in Aurora, Colo., finalized an agreement on Friday to pay $15 million to the family of Elijah McClain to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit over the police confrontation in 2019 that ended his life, according to city officials and the family’s lawyer. Mr. McClain, a 23-year-old Black man, died after the police in that city restrained him with a chokehold maneuver that has since been banned.
The agreement, reached in principle in July, is the largest police settlement in the city’s history and among the biggest to result from similar cases in the United States, according to Qusair Mohamedbhai, the McClain family’s lawyer.
Sheneen McClain, Elijah McClain’s mother, said in an interview on Saturday that she considers the settlement an important step in seeking justice for her son’s death but said that, “There’s nothing that can return to me what I lost.” She also said that the agreement comes with its own pain. “It’s still blood money, because that money has my son’s blood on it.”
There will be an allocation hearing to determine the distribution of the settlement between Ms. McClain and Mr. McClain’s biological father, LaWayne Mosley.
On Aug. 24, 2019, police received a 911 call in which the caller said that Mr. McClain, who was walking home from a convenience store, “looked sketchy” and was wearing a ski mask and waving his arms.
The police arrived and restrained Mr. McClain, pulling him to the ground and subduing him with a “carotid hold,” which restricts blood to the brain. Mr. McClain had told the officers he was simply walking home, according to an independent review. “I’m an introvert and I’m different,” he said during the confrontation, according to audio recordings from the stop. “I’m just different,” he added. “That’s all. That’s all I was doing. I’m so sorry.”
While being restrained, Mr. McLain told the officers he couldn’t breathe, and he vomited, according to the review. When paramedics arrived about 15 minutes later, they injected him with ketamine, a powerful sedative. Mr. McClain went into cardiac arrest on the way to a hospital and died a few days later.
Mr. McClain’s parents filed the lawsuit for damages on Aug. 11, 2020, which named the city of Aurora, 12 police officers, two Fire Department paramedics and the department’s medical director as defendants.
“In a span of 18 minutes, defendants subjected Elijah to a procession of needless and brutal force techniques and unnecessary, recklessly administered medication, the combined effects of which he could not survive,” the lawsuit said.
Unrelated to the lawsuit, a Colorado grand jury indicted three police officers and two paramedics on charges including manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. No hearing dates have been set, according to Mr. Mohamedbhai.
“This tragedy has greatly changed and shaped Aurora,” said Jim Twombly, the Aurora city manager, in a statement Friday. “In the two years since he died, we have taken a hard look at our policies, our biases and our need to listen to our community.”
In 2020, Gov. Jared Polis signed a sweeping law enforcement reform bill that banned chokeholds and limited the use of deadly force. It also allows plaintiffs to bypass “qualified immunity,” a doctrine that can shield police misconduct from lawsuits seeking damages.
Earlier this year, Governor Polis signed a bill that restricts the ability of emergency medical workers to administer ketamine.
Following an investigation into policing in Aurora that found a pattern of racial bias and excessive force, the city reached an agreement with the state to make wide-ranging changes in policing policies and practices.
“Elijah, here in Colorado, was a lightning rod for social justice reform,” Mr. Mohamedbhai said.
Mr. McClain was a massage therapist who loved animals and music, having taught himself to play the guitar and the violin.
His family knew him for his drive and determination to improve his life, an energy that they say inspired those around him.
Mr. McClain suffered from asthma as a child, Ms. McClain said. But through his perseverance, he became a strong runner.
“To be able to run down the streets for hours, for miles, that was something both of us, all of us were proud of,” she said. “He was accomplishing all of his obstacles, he was hurdling over those placements in his path, and he was clearing them.”
Since her son’s death, Ms. McClain, who raised Mr. McClain as a single mother, with the two of them sometimes living in their car and sometimes in hotels and shelters, has played an instrumental role in pushing government officials to act on police reform.
“I’ve never seen such drive by a parent to just really try to move our communities forward and to bring meaning to Elijah’s senseless death,” Mr. Mohamedbhai said. “It really goes to show his light and grace and beauty.”
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