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Aurora NAACP Leader: Independent Investigation Into McClain's Death Long Overdue


Over the course of these many weeks of marches and vigils across the country focusing on racial injustice, protesters have recited a litany of names of Black men and women who were killed in encounters with police. And these protests have brought some less visible cases into the spotlight. One of those was the focus of demonstrations this weekend in Aurora, Colo.

Elijah McClain, a slender, 23-year-old Black man who worked as a massage therapist and enjoyed playing violin for stray animals to comfort them was walking home from a convenience store in Aurora last August when someone called police, saying he looked sketchy.

Although he had not been accused of any crime, three police officers attempted to handcuff him, eventually placed him in a hold that is banned in many jurisdictions because it chokes off blood flow to the brain. And when emergency responders arrived at the scene, they injected Elijah McClain with a sedative. He went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and died a few days later.

Local authorities cleared those involved of wrongdoing. But after protests around the state, an online petition signed by millions of people, Colorado's governor, Jared Polis, appointed a special prosecutor to re-examine the case, and the Aurora City Council appointed a new task force this month to address police-civilian relations. Omar Montgomery is one of 13 members of that board. He's also president of the Aurora, Colo., NAACP and a former mayoral candidate in the city. And he is with us now.

Mr. Montgomery, thank you so much for joining us. I'm sorry about the circumstances, but thank you for being here.

OMAR MONTGOMERY: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, obviously, there's been a lot of national focus on police violence since George Floyd's death and Breonna Taylor's death. But this happened last August, and it's just hitting the national spotlight. But has this been an issue in Aurora all this time - I mean a focus of kind of community concern?

MONTGOMERY: Yes. Since the death of Elijah McClain, there's been activists on the ground who have been calling for Dave Young, who is the DA for Judicial District 17, to re-look at the case or send it to a grand jury. I think Polis is on the right track in regards to having an independent investigation done. The city is also simultaneously is going to have an independent investigation done.

The first person they had was a person that was from law enforcement. And so now they're scratching that and bringing a whole new group in that has a little bit more credibility with the community so that we can have both these independent investigations done and find out what really happened.

MARTIN: Yesterday on this network, the mayor of Aurora, Mr. Coffman, spoke with my colleague Scott Simon and asked him how the city is responding. And this is some of what he said.


SCOTT SIMON: You took office in December, and so the first thing you wanted to do was take another look. This is June. Why has it taken this long?

MIKE COFFMAN: Well, it wasn't taken - it was to put the issue at the front in terms of public policy. And we have.

MARTIN: Obviously, the exchange goes on. But in your view, Mr. Montgomery, has the city put this issue at the forefront of public policy?

MONTGOMERY: I think the city could do a lot more in regards to the independent committee that's being formed to see what is the best model for independent investigations, whether it's an independent monitor or if there's a independent task force, a committee. That was put on hold due to COVID.

But once the protests began to put this eye on Colorado and the Elijah McClain case, they put it back in the forefront and said, OK, let's get this committee moving. In regards to the independent investigation, it wasn't as transparent as it needed to be. I am happy that the city is open to see the mistakes, correct the mistakes, work with the community so that we can get some answers because these independent investigations should have been done a long time ago.

MARTIN: Well, as I mentioned, there were a city council appointed, a new task force this month, to make recommendations...


MARTIN: And you're one of the 13 members on that board. What do you see as your mandate? And I also have to ask, if the city's going far enough to just - to create an entire new task force, I mean, are there other things that this board is going to take a look at? And if so, like, what?

MONTGOMERY: I think - well, there's two different task force, and our task force is to figure out, what is the best model for independent investigations to take place as it relates to police abuse cases or someone dying as a result of an altercation with police?

There's going to be a different investigation group, a professional group, that's going to come in that's familiar with these types of investigations, and they're going to investigate the Elijah McClain case. The task force is going to look at issues that took place with Elijah McClain and try to figure out, what is the best model for the city of Aurora that the community can believe in and have some teeth to it so that if incidents like this happen again, and we have an independent review that the people and the city of Aurora can believe in the result?

MARTIN: That was Omar Montgomery. He is the president of the Aurora, Colo., NAACP, and he joined us from there.

Mr. Montgomery, thank you so much for spending this time with us.

MONTGOMERY: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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