Colorado officers under investigation after troubling photos surface of them near Elijah McClain memorial

McClain was a 23-year-old Black man who died in 2019.

Photos have surfaced of Colorado police striking troubling poses near where an unarmed Black man was placed in a chokehold last summer and later died, prompting their chief to order an immediate internal investigation that she said could lead to their termination.

Interim Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson issued a statement late Monday night saying she has pulled multiple officers from street duty and made the probe into photos depicting them near a memorial for Elijah McClain a "top priority."

Wilson said she placed the officers on paid administrative leave "in non-enforcement capacities" after being informed on Thursday of the allegations stemming from the photos that were brought to the attention of the department's Internal Affairs bureau by an Aurora police officer.

"I was apprised of allegations reported to Internal Affairs by an Aurora Police Officer alleging multiple Aurora Police officers were depicted in photographs near the site where Elijah McClain died," Wilson said in her statement.

She added that she ordered an "accelerated investigation" that was completed Monday evening and plans to soon publicly release the results of the probe "in its entirety."

"This will include reports, photographic evidence obtained, officer’s names, and my final determination which can rise to the level of termination,"
 Wilson said.

She did not immediately provide details of what the photos showed the officers doing.

Sheneen McClain, Elijah's mother, provided a strongly worded statement to ABC News, saying, "It’s bunch of smoke, Aurora Colorado has failed in providing justice to its citizens by allowing corrupt officials and police officers to roam the streets. I am not surprised that these photos are showing up now because the whole department is corrupt. Killers being protected by cowards and cowards being protected by killers. Aurora Colorado’s senior officials should be ashamed of their leadership, it seems like they did a lot of following others to hell!"

A joint statement issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the Denver division of the FBI said it was aware of the photographs and it was "gathering further information about that incident to determine whether a federal civil rights investigation is warranted."

The development came as the Aurora City Council has scheduled an emergency meeting for Tuesday night to discuss why police in riot gear on Saturday used batons and pepper spray on apparently peaceful protesters at a park, some playing violins in honor of McClain, who also played the instrument.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis announced on Thursday that he was appointing a special prosecutor to reinvestigate McClain's death and file charges if "the facts support prosecution." The FBI, U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Colorado and the DOJ's Civil Rights Division also said it had been gathering facts for a "potential" civil rights investigation since 2019.

McClain was walking home in Aurora, a suburb of Denver, after buying iced tea at a corner store on Aug. 24, 2019, when he was stopped by police, Mari Newman, an attorney for McClain's family, told ABC News last week.

He was wearing a ski mask on a warm night -- which Newman attributed to him getting cold -- when a person called 911 at 10:30 p.m. to report him acting "sketchy," according to an audio recording of the 911 call released by the Aurora Police Department.

The caller told a 911 operator that a man, later identified as McClain, "has a mask on" and "he might be a good person or a bad person." The caller went on to say no weapons were involved and when asked if he or anyone else was in danger, the caller said "No."

Police body-camera footage showed McClain walking on the sidewalk when three officers approached him, with one telling McClain multiple times to stop. But McClain, who was apparently listening to music at the time, continued to walk.

According to the body-camera footage, an officer put his hands on McClain, saying, "Stop tensing up." McClain replied, "Let go of me" and told the police that he was "just going home."

The officers took McClain to the ground and placed him in a carotid control hold -- which involves an officer placing his arm around a person's neck, restricting the flow of blood to the brain from the carotid arteries, according to a letter from Dave Young, the district attorney for Adams and Broomfield Counties, to then-Aurora Police Chief Nicholas Metz.

McClain, who was placed in handcuffs, is seen in body-camera footage at one point throwing up after the struggle with officers while he is on the ground.

According to Young's letter, paramedics called to the scene said McClain remained combative and possibly suffered from a condition known as excited delirium. McClain was later administered, by paramedics, what Newman alleged was an "excessive dose" of ketamine, which is used by medical practitioners and veterinarians as an anesthetic.

After McClain was put in an ambulance, he went into cardiac arrest, according to police. He died several days later.

A pathologist who conducted an autopsy was unable to conclude that the actions of any law enforcement officer caused the death, Young said in a statement he released last week.

While Young said McClain’s death "was both tragic and unnecessary," he declined to file criminal charges against the officers, saying, "In order to prove any form of homicide in the State of Colorado it is mandatory that the prosecution prove that the accused caused the death of the victim."

“Based on the facts and evidence of this investigation I cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers involved in this incident were not justified in their actions based on what they knew at the time of this incident," Young said.

ABC News' Ella Torres contributed to this report.

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