Police chief speaks about discipline plans for officers involved in McClain altercation

AURORA, Colo. (KDVR) – The Aurora police chief said she does not want to jeopardize the ongoing criminal investigation into Elijah McClain’s death by sharing plans for potential officer discipline.

“I know it’s on the minds of everyone,” said Vanessa Wilson, the Aurora police chief.  “It has been a question that I have answered continually through the time of taking over as the chief of police.”

Two officers who were directly involved in the Elijah McClain altercation remain on the force, including Nathan Woodyard and Randy Roedema, but neither officer has been disciplined for his involvement in the incident.

The third officer, Jason Rosenblatt, was fired in July after his involvement in a photo-text scandal that appeared to mock McClain’s death.

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Monday, a group of independent consultants who reviewed the McClain altercation on behalf of the City revealed it found many of the officers’ actions during their encounter with McClain to be unjustified.

“It’s important that everyone listening understands that this is a criminal case at his point,” said Wilson during a virtual press conference held by Aurora city leaders on Tuesday morning.

In January, the state attorney general referred the criminal investigation into McClain’s death to a grand jury.

It is not known when that investigation, done in secrecy, will be complete.

“It is completely inappropriate for me to comment on wrongdoing or anything that I should elaborate on until that grand jury has the opportunity to look at this case with their eyes and for the attorney general to come back with recommendations for either indicting or not indicting,” Wilson said.

Flawed investigation handled by Major Crimes Unit

The chief also would not discuss discipline plans for members of the Major Crimes Unit who handled the Aurora Police Department’s investigation into the incident after consultants hired by the City found the department’s investigation was concerning.

“The post-event investigation was flawed and failed to meaningfully develop a fulsome record.  These facts trouble the Panel,” the independent review found.

The review suggested that Aurora investigators inappropriately asked leading questions of the involved officers trying to illicit “magic language” that might somehow help them avoid discipline or accusations of wrongdoing.

“Denver detectives were alongside our detectives,” said Wilson.  “A representative from the Adams County District Attorney’s Office was also monitoring the interviews.”

Wilson said she could not speak further about what would happen next due to the grand jury investigation.

“I can say that there were more than just the Aurora Police Department’s eyes on this investigation,” she said.

Wilson said she recognized that the team of independent consultants found that the investigation was not up to their standards. 

“We’ll be looking at training and best practices moving forward,” she said.

“We will evolve, and we will become the police department that the community can trust. I know that trust is broken, and I know we have a long way to go,” she said. Wilson said she had already implemented several new directives over the course of several months to help address some of the issues uncovered in the report.

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Independent monitor

Wilson said she is on-board with the city manager’s plan to establish an independent monitor to assist with oversight and accountability.

“I have to agree with it because I feel that is the only way we are going to regain the trust of the community,” said Wilson.

“A system of accountability should not be dependent on who sits in the chief’s chair. It needs to be put into place so that it functions and represents the community’s desire for constitutional, unbiased and respectful policing that holds officers accountable,” said Jim Twombly, the Aurora city manager. “I believe an independent monitor can help us achieve that.”

Aurora Fire Rescue

Aurora Fire Rescue leaders, meanwhile, are working on training plans and strategies to improve patient advocacy after the independent consultants reported a culture that medics had been deferring to police despite the need to provide medical attention to a patient.

“That type of culture exists, perhaps, when it is a call where a person is in police custody,” said Fernando Gray, the Aurora fire chief.

“Chief Wilson and I are actually going to partner together and make sure that within the Aurora Fire Rescue and also within the Aurora Police Department policies that there will be verbiage that basically clearly defines a process for us to transition care,” he said. “I do think that is something that needs to be corrected.”

Consultants found medical personnel stood back for several minutes before offering medical treatment to McClain and trusted the officers’ assessment that McClain had been suffering from an extremely agitated condition called excited delirium.

“Aurora Fire appears to have accepted the officers’ impression that Mr. McClain had excited delirium without corroborating that impression through meaningful observation or diagnostic examination of Mr. McClain,” the independent review found.

“In addition, EMS administered a ketamine dosage based on a grossly inaccurate and inflated estimate of Mr. McClain’s size. Higher dose can carry a higher risk of sedation complications, for which this team was not clearly prepared,” the report found.

Ultimately, Dr. Melissa Costello, who reviewed the department’s actions, said the consultants could find no definitive evidence that ketamine had a role in McClain’s death.  However, she said his clinical status was declining prior to the administration of ketamine, and sedation may have led to difficulty in assessing the fact that he was continuing to decline.

The consultants said young Black patients consistently have their weight overestimated.

Gray said the department has been working to address issues of implicit bias and a medics’ ability to estimate a patient’s weight.  He said the department already instituted a new protocol for all drugs for which a drug’s dose is determined by a patient’s weight.

“If an accurate weight cannot be obtained by the patient or a family member,” Gray said, “several crew members are required to determine their own, independent weight estimations to see if their estimations are in agreement.”

Gray said the department has instructed the medical direction team to develop other training plans and strategies to address the recommendations they received. The plan will be presented to Aurora City Council during an April meeting, he said.

The City continues to maintain a ketamine moratorium for at least the next 30 days, as city leaders and council members continue to read and react to the independent review and advice for best practices.

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