Police chief defends pepper spray at Elijah McClain vigil

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FILE - In this June 2, 2020, file photo, interim Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson and Jay B. confer as protesters march north on South Chambers Road during a peaceful protest against police brutality following the death of George Floyd in Aurora, Colo. Multiple suburban Denver police officers have been placed on paid administrative leave amid an investigation into photos of them related to the case of a Black man who died last summer after he was stopped and restrained, police said Monday, June 29. Wilson said in a statement that the suspended officers were "depicted in photographs near the site where Elijah McClain died." But her statement did not provide more details about what the images show. (Philip B. Poston/The Aurora Sentinel via AP, File)

DENVER – A police chief spent over four hours defending her officers’ tactics to leaders in a Denver suburb after police unleashed pepper spray and used batons on demonstrators during a vigil for Elijah McClain, a Black man who died after police put him in a chokehold last year.

Aurora Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson said the officers were responding to a small group of agitators among the largely peaceful crowd Saturday. McClain's name is among those used as a rallying cry during nationwide protests over racial injustice and police brutality.

“We were attacked with rocks, and we had to defend our officers,” she said at an online Aurora City Council meeting Tuesday night. “My officers aren’t sacrificial lambs.”

Wilson said they were concerned agitators would try to break in to police headquarters and destroy evidence from case files inside.

Three white officers stopped McClain as he walked down the street last August after a 911 call reported him as suspicious. Police placed him in a chokehold, and paramedics administered 500 milligrams of sedative to calm him down. The 23-year-old suffered cardiac arrest, was declared brain dead and later taken off life support.

It was not not clear what action the City Council planned to take, if any. One council member questioned why protesters didn't leave when they were warned by police, but others were more critical.

“People in the crowd — myself — I don't think any of us felt unsafe until the riot police showed up,” said Councilman Juan Marcano, who was at the protest.

The City Council meeting took place after Colorado's U.S. attorney, the Denver division of the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division announced they are investigating McClain's death for potential federal civil rights violations.

The officers who stopped McClain were cleared by prosecutors and returned to the force, but the governor has ordered the state attorney general to reopen the case.

A separate internal police investigation is underway into photos of Aurora officers taken near where McClain died. Officials have not released the photos or described what they depict. Multiple police officers have been placed on paid leave during the investigation.