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Family lawyer probing police actions in Black man's death

DENVER – The lawyer for the family of Black man who died after being stopped by suburban Denver police last year because he was “being suspicious,” said Friday she and Elijah McClain's relatives have been conducting their own investigation after an official inquiry cleared three white police officers

Mari Newman told The Associated Press she is suspicious of government investigations of cases of alleged police misconduct. It comes a day after Democratic Gov. Jared Polis appointed Attorney General Phil Weiser to re-investigate and possibly prosecute the officers.

“After over two decades of doing this work, my experience is that families cannot rely on the government to police itself," Newman said. "And so my work is to continue to seek justice through the civil justice system so we’re doing our own investigation and preparing a civil rights lawsuit.”

Newman declined to elaborate or provide details about the independent investigation.

“We know that the police can’t police themselves and we know that district attorneys don’t charge the police officers because they rely on police in their other prosecutions,” she said.

Police in Aurora responded to a call of a suspicious person wearing a ski mask and waving his arms as he walked down a street on Aug. 24. They say McClain, 23, refused to stop walking and fought back when officers confronted him and tried to take him into custody.

“I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious,” an officer is heard on a body camera recording telling McClain. The encounter happened as McClain, a certified massage therapist and self-taught violin player, was running an errand.

To subdue McClain, officers used a chokehold that cuts off blood to the brain — a tactic recently banned in several places in the wake of George Floyd’s death last month in Minneapolis. Paramedics arrived soon after and administered 500 milligrams of a sedative to calm McClain down. In less than a week, McClain suffered cardiac arrest, was declared brain dead and taken off life support.

Weiser promised a thorough investigation in a statement Thursday. He said it will be "guided by the facts, and worthy of public trust and confidence in the criminal justice system.”

The attorney general's office declined to comment on Newman's decision to pursue an independent investigation.

While the appointment of the attorney general isn't "business as usual," Newman said, it's an acknowledgement of the special circumstances surrounding McClain's death.

“A true, thorough, independent investigation should not be contingent on a case that garners the public outcry from three million signatures on a petition and international media attention,” Newman said, referring to a change.org petition online petition demanding justice for McClain.

“So while I appreciate the governor stepping up and stepping in, it’s unfortunate that that doesn’t happen in every case,” she added.

Aurora's city council will debate July 6 whether to hire another third-party investigator after a previous one was fired because he is a former police officer. Newman said she's distrustful of that process.

Three officers were placed on leave but returned to the force after District Attorney Dave Young said there was insufficient evidence to support charging them.

“Ultimately, while I may share the vast public opinion that Elijah McClain’s death could have been avoided, it is not my role to file criminal charges based on opinion, but rather, on the evidence revealed from the investigation and applicable Colorado law,” Young said Thursday.

Newman said “without a doubt” all of those involved should be fired: “Their behavior demonstrates that they are not suited to carry that badge."

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Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.