For this first time in his tenure as attorney general for the Trump administration, William Barr testified before the House Judiciary Committee. The nation’s top law enforcement official answered questions from House Democrats regarding what has become a repeating trend of controversial interventions in matters of interest to President Donald Trump.
Amid questions about the presence of federal agents in Portland, OR and the commutation of Roger Stone, vice presidential hopeful Rep. Karen Bass sought to educate Barr on the death of Elijah McClain — and it turns out the attorney general didn't know about the case. Bass started by asking Barr whether he was familiar with McClain's killing in Aurora, CO, in August 2019. After she briefly recounted the main points of the case, Barr responded with a monosyllabic, "No."
McClain was walking home from a convenience store when he was stopped by police, who placed him in a chokehold for 15 minutes, according to reports. Based on police body-camera footage, McClain lost consciousness at least once. When medical responders arrived, paramedics injected him with the powerful sedative ketamine after he was already in handcuffs. McClain went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and died a few days later.
The autopsy report released by the Adams County coroner in November 2019 said a combination of factors could have killed McClain. Officially, his cause of death is “undetermined,” but it did list homicide related to the chokehold as a possible cause alongside accidental or natural causes. It was also noted that McClain suffered from chronic asthma.
Bass continued with her line of questioning, asking Barr, “Do you know how frequently ketamine is used by law enforcement to subdue civilians, especially people of color?” Again, Barr replied, "No." Bass asked if Barr knew whether documented reports existed of police directing paramedics and emergency medical technicians to inject ketamine during arrests. Barr indicated that he did not.
An investigation into Minneapolis police found that the practice might be running rampant and unchecked. The 2018 investigation conducted by the Office of Police Conduct Review, a division of the city’s Department of Civil Rights, found that law enforcement directed paramedics to inject people being arrested in dozens of instances in the three years leading up to the report. In total, the number of documented injections of ketamine by Minneapolis police increased to 62 in 2018 alone, up from three instances in 2012.
The powerful sedative, classified as a “date rape drug” in the city’s police department manual, can cause major side effects including changes in blood pressure, delirium, and hallucinations. It can also lead to severe cardiac and respiratory problems, reports the New York Times. Some people stop breathing once sedated with ketamine and have to be rushed to the emergency room.
Following her questioning, Bass compared the actions taken against James Holmes, the Aurora shooter who killed 12 people in 2012, to McClain on Twitter. "Help me educate him," she tweeted regarding Barr.
On July 20, Aurora City Council voted unanimously to call for an independent investigation into the death of McClain, reports CBS Denver. An investigative team has been assembled, but it is not their goal to bring criminal charges. Instead, they will examine and provide recommendations on first responder policies including calls that involve police contact, medical assistance, and ketamine use.
None of the officers involved in McClain’s arrest were fired because of their actions. One officer, Jason Rosenblatt, was fired in early July for responding “ha ha” via text to a photo of other officers reenacting a chokehold near McClain’s memorial. Colorado Gov. Jared Police also appointed a special prosecutor last month to “determine whether the facts justify criminal charges against members of law enforcement.” Currently, no charges have been filed.