The City of Aurora has spent the better part of a year trying to bury news related to the August 2019 death of Elijah McClain, a young black man assaulted by Aurora police officers even though he was unarmed, had committed no crime and was merely dancing to music while wearing a ski mask. And all signs point to officials using similar tactics regarding the release of a photo in which cops reenacted the chokehold at the site where they took down McClain.
That image has not yet been shared publicly, and attorney Mari Newman confirms that neither she nor McClain's family, which she represents, has seen the photo, despite a pledge from Aurora's interim police chief, Vanessa Wilson, to release it "promptly" upon the conclusion of the investigation, which she said was completed earlier this week.
Not only has this promise already been broken — the video showing George Floyd being killed by Minneapolis police was released more quickly — but the City of Aurora appears to be repeating past attempts to minimize any potential public-relations damage.
Friday afternoons are a time when government agencies traditionally release bad and/or controversial news, since people already thinking about the weekend are likely to miss it. (The procedure is known colloquially as the "Friday-afternoon news dump.") It was on just such a Friday, on November 8, 2019, that the Office of the Coroner for Adams and Broomfield counties chose to announce that the official cause of McClain's death was "undetermined."
Newman wasn't surprised. As she told us at the time, the fact that the autopsy report "was released quietly on a Friday afternoon gives you some indication how they want to go about this."
Rather than being shamed by this transparent tactic, Aurora doubled down a couple of weeks later, inviting select media outlets to a press conference on the evening of Friday, November 22, to talk about why District Attorney Dave Young had decided not to criminally charge officers Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema in the case (a decision he's still defending). And this wasn't just any Friday. It was the Friday before Thanksgiving week, a period during which even news of the outrageous variety tends to be placed on the back burner in favor of food, family and anticipation of a day off.
Lo and behold, we're on the cusp of another holiday weekend: the Fourth of July. And even if Aurora officials release the photo later today, July 2, they will have already accomplished the purpose of reducing its potential audience. Many people have tomorrow off because the Fourth falls on a Saturday, and are likely planning to leave town within hours or at least tune out the news media in favor of focusing on good times.
In the meantime, Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman has been attempting to do damage control, as epitomized by a sit-down with CBS4 yesterday. But these days, his megaphone isn't nearly as large as Newman's. Through much of July 1, she was quoted in a CNN crawl about the McClain case and the announcement by federal agencies that they've been investigating the matter for months — and that's only one example of the network's interest in the subject. "I've been on with Chris Cuomo, and with Don Lemon, too," she says. "It's gotten crazy."
She adds, "Of course, it's an incredible tragedy that it's taken the death of George Floyd and everybody else in between for this case to finally reach the national awareness it has."
Having not yet seen the image of the police reenactment, Newman admits that "it's difficult to know how to respond — but just when you think the Aurora police can't get any worse, they reach a new low. We're talking about the same department that tackled an innocent young man and inflicted fifteen minutes of multiple kinds of excessive force, including two carotid chokeholds, who stood over him joking, who said, 'Don't get that on me' while he's vomiting from the pain, who threatened to sic a dog on him because he wasn't lying still enough while dying. There were multiple officers, including a sergeant, who stood over all of this and failed to intervene to stop the torture. The officers were all exonerated, of course, and then this past weekend, they spewed pepper spray on peaceful protesters and mourners playing their violins as a tribute to Elijah's life. And now, the photo."
As for the federal investigation, she concedes that it "came as a total surprise" — and she definitely wonders about its thoroughness, given that no one has reached out to her or the family. "I would have expected to be contacted by now," she says. "But Aurora has a long and sordid history of both racism and police brutality, so a federal civil-rights investigation is long overdue, and I'm hopeful that it will be the meaningful investigation that's so sorely needed."
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At the same time, she says, "I'm not holding my breath for the government to effectively police the police." After all, U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn, among those leading the probe, declined to press criminal charges against the Colorado Springs police officers who fatally shot black teenager De'Von Bailey in the back while he was running away the same month that McClain died. "I would like to hold out hope that under the scrutiny of the national media, they'll do better as they're evaluating Elijah McClain's murder," she allows.
Earlier this week, we noted that if Aurora fires officers over the reenacted death-scene photo yet punishes no one for effectively ending McClain's life, the irony will be visible from outer space. "Even if they suspend them for one day without pay, that's more discipline than was meted out against the officers who killed Elijah," agrees Newman.
Not that she has faith that Aurora will do the right thing in any aspect of the McClain tragedy. As she puts it, "Actions speak louder than words."
But maybe not on a holiday weekend.