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  • Writer's pictureMario Nicolais

Reforms caused by Elijah McClain’s death are the most important outcome

The pain in Sheneen McClain’s heart will never dissipate. The wound left on Aug. 24, 2019, when her son, Elijah McClain, died at the hands of police and paramedics will fester until the day she leaves the world.

Walking out of court on Thursday, her raw, open nerves were once again evident. One police officer involved had just been convicted of lesser crimes while another was acquitted entirely.

The mix of emotions for her must have been a terrible collection of rage and sadness and loss and grief. That is a mother’s pain that can neither be wholly empathized nor ever put into words. It can only be heard through a cracked voice that comes before guttural sobs and righteous anger.

Sheneen McClain lost her son and her world and there is nothing that will ever bring him back. But in the interim, she was also stripped of her faith in change and progress and hope for the institutions our country is founded upon. “This is the divided states of America, and that’s what happens,” she proclaimed on the way out.

She is right. Our country is divided. It has been for its entire existence and has done little to heal the original sins inherent from its founding. Simply put, the institutions in our country have roots in history that denigrated and dehumanized multiple minority populations.

As it relates to police, that leads to increased suspicion and heightened reactions and confrontation. That in turn leads to mistrust and wariness from the people targeted, which can come off as insubordination or disobedience and aggression to officers. And the cycle continues.

It is impossible to miss it in the video of Elijah McClain being arrested.

Walking down the street, police approached him in an aggressive manner in response to a call they received from a neighbor. A young, innocent Black man confronted by multiple aggressive police, McClain’s survival instinct kicked in. He began pleading and trying to explain himself. His panicked response triggered police, who escalated without listening. Police engaged in immediate physical restraint, including a chokehold that left McClain vulnerable and victimized.

One shot of ketamine and he slipped out of this life, even if he did not physically die for another few days.

Worse? His death did not receive the investigation and response it deserved until nearly a year later when the George Floyd murder captured national headlines. Only then was a special prosecutor appointed to review McClain’s death. Only then did his mother’s pleas fall on receptive ears. Only then were steps taken to increase accountability and avoid similar tragedies in the future.

That is not the pattern that serves our community best.

Yet there is hope for the future. In combination with protests following Flyod’s murder, McClain’s death helped to spur long-overdue police reform in Colorado. And it was not just a reactive bill shoved down the throat of law enforcement. Instead, it was a first-of-its-kind collaborative effort that included police. They understood more accountability and training would protect them as much as people they came into contact with every day.

So far, the results have been positive. In the first year after its passage, multiple officers faced charges for violent conduct and failure to intervene when another officer crossed the line. That has two benefits: it sends a message to all law enforcement that accountability is real and it makes it clear that abiding by new methods is necessary.

It also may help to whittle away at the mistrust that has existed in the community for decades.

That does not do a lot to salve Sheneen McClain’s pain. Her son is still dead, it took significant change to bring the people responsible for his death to face charges and the end result has not been what she hoped for. With another officer and the paramedics still to face trial, it seems likely the same pattern will repeat.

I do not know if she will have any tears left to cry by the time those trials end. She may be permanently numbed by then.

But it is the mothers who will not know her suffering who will benefit. Mothers with sons who will benefit from better police procedures and protocols, ones that avoid deadly physical interactions and focus on alternative measures. Those are the unshed tears the tragedy of Elijah McClain helped protect.

It would be naive to believe that we will not have another incident of unwarranted force in the future. But significant reduction is a step in the right direction. It is the only thing that can be done to honor McClain now.

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