The Elijah McClain Case
Officer patrol encounters with someone who is “different”
A tragic encounter between a citizen and police officers began at 10:40p.m. on August 24, 2019 after a 9-1-1 caller reported an individual who“looked sketchy” and was wearing a ski mask and waving his arms while walking through an apartment community in Aurora, Colorado. The
individual was 23-year-old Elijah McClain. According to reporting from the New York Times, McClain, who was wearing earbuds and listening to music, couldn’t hear the officers at first, and after failing to respond to several verbal commands, he finally told the officers he had the right to continue on his way home. Within 10 seconds of exiting his patrol car, one of the officers placed his hands on Mr. McClain. Within five minutes, McClain had stopped breathing after being wrestled to the ground, placed in a now-banned carotid hold, and hand-cuffed. Within fifteen minutes of the initial encounter, paramedics injected McClain with an overdose of the powerful drug ketamine. He went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and died a few days later.
Elijah McClain was unarmed, he had committed no crime, and according to an independent report of the incident, the officers “were not able to identify sufficient evidence that Mr. McClain was armed and dangerous in order to justify a pat-down search.” The report asserts that officers “failed to ask basic, critical questions,” and notes that officers “applied pain compliance techniques and restraints to Mr. McClain continuously from the first moments of the encounter until he was taken away on a gurney.”
“The body-worn camera audio, limited video, and (Aurora Police Department) Major Crime’s interviews with the officers tell two contrasting stories,” the report states. “The officers’ statement on the scene and in subsequent recorded interviews suggest a violent and relentless struggle. The limited video, and the audio from the body-worn cameras, reveal Mr. McClain surrounded by officers, all larger than he, crying out in pain, apologizing, explaining himself, and pleading with the officers.”
Body camera footage provided to the press shows McClain telling the officers, “I’m just different. I’m just different, that’s all. That’s what I was doing. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why were you attacking me?”
Stan Campbell, retired Oklahoma City Police Police Lieutenant and founder of D.O.P.E. the Movement, admits that McClain’s choice to wear a ski mask in August gave the officers some reason to be suspicious. Nonetheless, Stan says, “Officers should be trained to key-in on when someone says something that offers an alternative explanation for
unusual behavior, and they should take pause.” In McClain’s case, there was in fact an alternative explanation. His family later revealed that he suffered from anemia and often wore the mask because he got cold easily.
Initial reports suggested that McClain was on the autism spectrum, and although his mother said he never received an official autism diagnosis, Stan says, from a practical perspective, the young man’s behavior was consistent with someone on the spectrum. Stan has partnered with noted autism specialist Dr. Pam Wiley, establishing a program called Spectrum Shield where young adults with moderate to high-functioning autism can participate in a 3-day camp and experience simulated officer patrol encounters with real cops. The program allows both the officers and the
civilian participants an opportunity to learn what makes such an encounter “different” – to use the word Elijah McClain applied.
“Across the nation, there’s absolutely not enough training for law enforcement in reference to those on the spectrum,” Stan says. Whether or not McClain was technically on the autism spectrum, Stan suggests that if the officers involved in the McClain incident had gone through proper training on how to deal with someone on the spectrum, they would likely have identified McClain’s behavior as strange but non- threatening, and they could have approached the situation differently.
Following the scathing independent investigation of the McClain tragedy, Colorado Governor Jared Polis appointed a special prosecutor, and two years after the incident, a grand jury indicted the three officers and two paramedics involved in McClain’s death. McClain’s family filed a civil lawsuit stating, “In a span of 18 minutes, defendants subjected Elijah to a procession of needless and brutal force techniques and unnecessary, recklessly administered medication.”
As a retired police lieutenant, Stan has sympathy for fellow officers, and while he cannot justify their actions, he says can understand why the officers in the McClain tragedy initially responded the way they did. Stan explains that officers respond to a call based on the information they receive from dispatch, and in this case, when they encountered an individual wearing a ski mask in the middle of summer who matched the description of someone described as acting “sketchy,” it was reasonable for them to be on guard. That, however, does not justify the speed at which the officers resorted to physical force. “In many cases, officers really need to slow down,” Stan says. “They shouldn’t put themselves in a position where they can be assaulted or killed, but if someone is not giving cues that they are going to be violent, officers don’t have to be so aggressive.”
D.O.P.E. the Movement is dedicated to educating citizens and officers alike on how to De-Escalate Officer Patrol Encounters. There are a number of lessons to be learned from the Elijah McClain case. Foremost, the tragedy makes it clear that there needs to be more training for law enforcement officers so they know how to recognize and effectively engage with individuals on the autism spectrum. Through his work with Spectrum Shield, Stan has discovered that many parents of autistic children and young adults are resistant to getting or acknowledging an autism diagnosis, but he stresses that recognizing what makes someone “different” is the first step for preparing them to have safe interactions with police officers. Stan encourages parents of children on the spectrum to introduce their kids to law enforcement officers in a controlled setting. Most law enforcement agencies have a public information officer or a community liaison, and they are generally very open to coordinating interactions between members of the community and the officers who serve that community. Not only do such interactions make autistic children more comfortable with police officers, it helps police officers better understand the behavior of individuals on the spectrum.
Law enforcement agencies have the primary responsibility for identifying the need to train their officers how to deal with citizens on the spectrum and putting those programs in place. If you are a law enforcement officer in an agency that does not have such training, you now have an opportunity to raise awareness of this issue in your department. If you are the parent of a child or young adult with autism, you have the opportunity to reach out to the law enforcement agency in your jurisdiction and be an advocate for autism training and education. In this way law enforcement agencies and citizens can work together to de-escalate officer patrol encounters for those on the spectrum.
SHAWN VINCENT – LITIGATION CONSULTANT
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