Federal authorities said Tuesday that an ongoing review into the death of a black man who died after being put into a chokehold by police began last year to see if a civil-rights investigation is warranted.
Multiple Aurora, Colo., police officers have been placed on paid leave amid an investigation into the August 2019 death of Elijah McClain. In a joint statement, the Colorado U.S. Attorney's Office, the Justice Department's (DOJ's) Civil Rights Division and the FBI said a review began last year.
The DOJ said it normally doesn't comment on investigations but that “there are specific cases in which doing so is warranted if such information is in the best interest of the public and public safety" and that "recent attention on the death of Elijah McClain warrants such disclosure."
It announced that Aurora officials are cooperating with the inquiry.
“We are also aware of recent media reports about Aurora police officers being placed on administrative leave pending an internal investigation into a photograph in which those officers appeared," the statement said. "We are gathering further information about that incident to determine whether a federal civil rights investigation is warranted.
“We will have no further comment until both of those reviews are completed.”
The officers were placed on leave after photos emerged Monday showing them near the site where McClain died, according to Aurora Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson.
McClain was stopped by three white police officers on Aug. 24 after reports of a suspicious person walking down a street wearing a mask, said Officer Matthew Longshore, an Aurora police spokesman.
Police body camera video appeared to show an officer telling him: “Stop right there. Stop. Stop. ... I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious."
At one point, the officer tells McClain to relax "or I'm going to have to change this situation."
"You guys started to arrest me, and I was stopping my music to listen," McClain reportedly replied.
Police claim he refused to stop walking and fought back when the officer tried taking him into custody. He was placed in a chokehold and later died after suffering a cardiac arrest and was taken off life support.
A forensic pathologist could not determine what exactly led to his death but said physical exertion during the confrontation likely contributed.
“This is a department where officers tackled an innocent young black man for no reason, inflicted outrageous force -- including two carotid chokeholds -- for 15 minutes as he pled for his life, joked when he vomited and threatened to sic a dog on him for not lying still enough as he was dying,” McClain's family said in a statement.
The three officers who stopped McClain did not face any criminal charges after an investigation by the district attorney, but Gov. Jared Polis directed Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser last week to reopen the investigation and possibly prosecute them.
The case gained renewed attention after the death of George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis police custody. Video footage of the incident showed an office holding his knee on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes.
Aurora police were roundly criticized over the weekend for wearing riot gear and using pepper spray on protesters during a rally over McClain's death.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.