‘Elijah Is Touching Hearts Everywhere’: Sheneen McClain On Her Son Inspiring Police Reform

Listen Now
17min 45sec
Sheneen McClain, r m
David Zalubowski/AP
Sheneen McClain, the mother of Elijah McClain, a young man who died after a stop by police in Aurora, Colo., and has spurred investigations of police practices while galvanizing calls for police reforms, is shown in the office of her attorney, Qusair Mohamedbhai, Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in Denver.

Sheneen McClain said efforts in Congress to move toward passing massive police reform  — legislation inspired, in part, by Elijah McClain’s death — makes her proud of her son all over again.

“They unleashed him, other people can see his soul, other people can see his heart,” she said. “Elijah is touching hearts everywhere … Now he’s touching the world. I’m so proud on a completely different level now.”

McClain’s son died in police custody in August 2019.

In a sit-down with Democratic Rep. Jason Crow on Colorado Matters, McClain and Crow spoke about the George Floyd Justice In Policing Act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is now in the Senate.

The bill requires more federal data collection on police activity, chips away at qualified immunity for police officers and largely gets rid of no-knock warrants in most cases. 

If passed, Crow said he was hopeful that the law would change the nature of policing and even the kinds of people who are drawn to work in law enforcement.

“The most powerful thing we can do is to make sure we have the right people in the job, the right people in uniform,” Crow said. “What we don’t do well is making sure that our law enforcement agencies reflect and come from the communities we serve.”

McClain agreed, saying one day she held her hand up in the air on her son’s behalf while passing a cop and he held his hand up too.

“I know there are police officers that are good. They’re caught between a rock and a hard place,” she said. “It would be nice if the good police officers stood up … and stood for what we believed in and stop allowing the evil ones to rule the world.”

The reform legislation faces a high hurdle in the Senate. Crow said he’s already working on earning votes from Republicans to get it passed with 60 votes. President Joe Biden has signaled support for the bill.

Crow said he’s grown close to Sheneen McClain in the past year. She lives in his district, the 6th Congressional District, and has influenced his work on police reform legislation. 

He plans to introduce another bill soon that is partially inspired by the results of an independent review of McClain’s death by the Aurora City Council. That review found officers had no reason to stop McClain in the first place.

“My obligation is to take this tragedy and not just simply offer thoughts and prayers because Sheneen knows she will always have my thoughts and prayers,” he said. “But I’m her legislator and my obligation is to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Elijah McClain’s death is currently the subject of a statewide grand jury investigation. Sheneen McClain said she was hopeful the officers responsible for the violent arrest of her son, who was unarmed, would face justice.

“The human in me just can’t believe they’ll get away with it. Somehow, some way, they have to be held accountable,” she said. “And I have to come to terms with what if they do get away with it? How do I live the rest of my life crying about my son?”

Crow said he had faith that state Attorney General Phil Weiser, who is running the independent grand jury probe, would do a thorough investigation.

“I hope ultimately justice will prevail and rule of law will be reinforced,” Crow said.

Read The Transcript

Ryan Warner: Elijah McClain's mother says it's time to end a system that allows for police brutality, Shaneen McClain's comments come as Congress considers a bill to prevent police misconduct. The George Floyd justice and policing act mirror a new Colorado law. For instance, banning carotid holds nationwide. Elijah McClain died while in Aurora police custody in 2019, an independent investigation commissioned by the city recently found officers had no reason to stop him. Meanwhile, a grand jury investigation is underway. Democratic Congressman Jason Crow represents Aurora and has been working with Shaneen on reforms. Crow and McClain spoke Tuesday afternoon with CPR justice reporter, Allison Sherry, Allison asked what they hope will come out of that grand jury investigation.

Sheneen McClain: Well, I would say a hope, but I mean, living in America so much to hope for when the country was founded on brutality. So I can't really say hope. What I would like to come from it is that there is that it stops. I mean, that was basically it. I just that's ultimately it they need to be, I feel like they need to be charged. They need to be prosecuted and they need to spend more time in jail than three years. You know, to me, Hey, alive is alive to me, you know, something like an eye for an eye. And they did it in such a way that is so evil. That's why they should have more than five years. You know, I can go, wow, we can make it all the way to a hundred. I got so many reasons.

That's why we can count more years, you know, until their punishment, you know, but, but that's what I would like to happen. I would like for them to be prosecuted and put in jail for a long time so that not just them, but their allies, their accomplices all the injustices, everything that they claim to have been doing that day in their bravado. I want all of that to be squashed, to shame. I want everything about them to look in the mirror and ultimately know that that they're a terrible human being. And I want them to feel an adequate for the rest of their lives for the rest of their existence. Not just them, but, but all who support them, including the evil laws and the evil lawmakers. Oh yeah. I'm praying for a miracle.

Rep. Jason Crow: I want to just spend a moment and just reflect on what Mrs. McClain just said and how powerful her initial comment was. You're here. You have Mrs. McClain who lost her son in an incident that never should have happened. You know, I mean just how, how unbelievable is it that here you have a woman who's lost her son and when asked, what does she hope for? And she says that she can't help because change never happens. And you know, our country is founded on, you know, this, this white supremacy and this brutality that should all kind of shake us to our core and, and make us ask some very tough questions about what is, and is not happening. I hope ultimately that justice will prevail and that rule of law will be reinforced, right? I, I am always careful not to say that there should be a predetermined outcome.

There needs to be a, a non-biased complete and fulsome review of the facts applied to the law. You know, the attorney general I, I believe we'll do that, but more broadly, you know, from my perspective, I'm not the attorney general, I'm not a law enforcement officer, I'm a member of Congress and a legislator and, and more broadly what's important for me. And what my obligation is, is to take this tragedy, the tragedy of the McClain family, and not just simply offer thoughts and prayers, because should he know she will always have my thoughts and prayers, right? But I'm her legislator. And my obligation is to make sure that it doesn't happen again and that we make good law and good policy to fix this. And that's what I've been working really hard the last few years to do.

Allison Sherry: You know, there were a number of things the bill does you know, banning crowded holds the no-knock warrants requiring the use of federal funds to make sure everybody has a body camera. Some of the stuff duplicates, the Colorado state law that passed last year. But I wondered what was one thing you were most eager to see become law, because it will make the biggest difference.

JC: One of the things I'm very excited about it, the joke about the George Floyd law enforcement trust and integrity act is the creation of a pilot program to change the way in which we recruit our officers, because you can change the law. You can change training and policies and increase transparency and accountability, but really one of the most powerful things we can do is make sure we have the right people in the job and the right people in uniform because if you don't have the right people there, it doesn't really matter what else we do. And what we don't do well on right now is making sure that our, our law enforcement agencies, our police forces actually reflect and come from the communities they serve. So as so often the case, they come from outside the community and not from the community. And so this pilot program that will change the model of recruiting to recruit folks that come from the neighborhoods and from the community, I think would make a really big difference.

AS: So, you think that the getting new police officers or a different type of police officer might make the biggest difference of all more than the accountability built into the law.

JC: I think they all tie into each other, right? Because you, you need to have the right people on the job. And in uniform, you need to have the accountability. You need to have the oversight. You need to have the consequences for when people don't follow the law and then do a great jus things. It all ties into the reform that's needed here, the systematic performance.

AS: Is there a part of this you think would make a big difference? Mrs. McClain, in terms of changing the culture of policing,

SM: I actually agree with Congressman Crowe was saying, I think it's important that any system incorporates human behavior, because we have to know who we're dealing with. We have to know who's coming in for those types of jobs. We need to know, you know, why there isn't training why train has gone on for so long. You don't, these, these people come in here and they get to know a person's whole record just from having a badge on, and then they can do whatever they want to do with that. You know, that's the problem. That's dangerous and bred hatred. That's in bred terrorism, you know, on another level and where it's like the country is training its oppressors. And still,

AS: Do you think of this law was in effect and, and, and the law of the land, this federal law, anything would have changed the night that your son died, if there would have been any different outcomes that night?

SM: Well, I would like to say, yeah, but ain't nothing changed. Ain't nothing new under the sun, you know, they just probably would have found another way of doing it. And what about you Congressman?

JC: Well, you know, I'm here with Mrs. McClain and I don't think it's for me to say, try to hypothesize about what would or wouldn't have happened in, in whether Elijah would have survived. I don't think that's, that's for me to say, and it would be appropriate for me to say to a dish Janine, but you know, what I do know is that nationwide system-wide we have a problem that's undeniable, then outcomes are disproportionately negative. If you're a person of color in America. And you know, if you're, if you're a black person in our community it's far more likely that you will be stopped by police. And it's far more likely that that stop will end in tragedy or you know, adverse and that's not okay. So that's why policy matters. The law matters the recruiting and the training and the accountability of people in positions of trust matter. And you know, whether it will or would not stop any one incident. I don't think you can ever answer that question but it will make a difference overall. And that's why we have to do it.

AS: You now have to, in order to get this into law, you know, go through the us Senate, which is a little bit of a taller hurdle in some ways, because you've got to get to the 60 votes. Do you have any sense of how you're going to do that and convince, you know, nine or 10 Republicans to go along with this proposal?

JC: Yeah. Well, we're certainly taking that one step at a time. That's no easy feat to be sure. And, you know, the idea of us having to get to 60 votes is not something I think is this, this is really right at this point, you know, I think we have to force this change. We have to make it happen because it's, it's unjust. We can't allow it to continue anymore. We have a moment in time, I think to make system-wide change in addition to the justice and policing act and the George Ford law enforcement integrity act, which of course is part of the justice and police enact. I'm also working on separate and new legislation that is more specific to the recommendations that have recently come out, the independent review of Elijah's death that we're going to push forward. So we, we are not putting all of our eggs in one basket here,

RW: Representative Jason Crow and Shaneen McClain, or speaking with our justice reporter, Allison Sherry about law enforcement reform. Now that includes whether police should have qualified immunity, which protects officers accused of excessive force. There's concern that without it, many cops might quit.

JC: I think it's important that you, you do look at the qualified immunity piece misses and essential to the accountability measure. And I, I don't believe you're going to see these ex you know, accidents from police forces. I just don't think that's gonna happen. I think that those concerns are being overblown, and I've heard those concerns. I've talked to officers and departments and police chiefs, and certainly taken into account those concerns as I've crafted this legislation. But I think that the legislation is well-crafted. I think it takes into account the complexities of the situation and that the need to make sure that we do have, you know, high quality officers in these on these forces and that we're not making it hard to find a good people that want to go into the profession, but at the same time, we're holding folks accountable that need to be held accountable.

AS: And Ms. Mclean, you know, what do you think specifically about the piece of law that, that does give cops some immunity from lawsuits and that sort of thing. And I know there's, you know, this law and the state law that passed last year, that you spoke on behalf of you know, really tackles that a little and tries to chip away at some of that immunity that they have.

SM: I wasn't even aware of qualified immunity until this all happened. I thought that they were regular people like we are, but just jobs, you know, and no idea that they were paid to be special. You know? So the fact that it takes that out of the ball game for him, I think that's amazing. That's tremendous because that's one of the reasons why people sign up things like that. They get away with things that normal people aren't able to, and then they have other people to support them when they're doing wrong. You know, and that's why I think people that have that type of mentality to where they would even want to take somebodies life, all kind of just puddle together, you know, and it becomes this type of brotherhood that that's a secret society and that we all end up finding out about later. You know, so I think the whole little qualifying thing being locked to the sauce is great.

That's amazing because it, it takes control. Auger has to, and it, it makes them think about what they've done and the ones that, that didn't say anything. It makes them think about what they've been a part of and the ones that are too scared to say anything. It's like, why wouldn't you do everything you can to have good police officers and a good police? Like, why not? If, if, if all the bad people are making threats about all, everybody's about to leave. Well, let's see who leaves with you. Big mouth. You know, I was driving by this police officer one day and I was just doing it cause I was like totally off. And I put my hand in the air, you know, for my son and he put his hand in the air too, you know, so I know that there's police officers that are good, they're just caught in between a rock and a hard place. Like, like, I don't know, I don't, I don't know what it feels like to be them. You know what I'm saying? But it would be nice if the good police officers stood up and stop allowing the evil ones to just rule the world.

AS: Congressman what's next. You mentioned to bill that you were going to introduce that's was inspired by the IRB report or the independent investigators report from the city of Aurora.

JC: That's right. Yeah. Well, first of all, I think it's really important to say how much we need to listen to the victims and survivors and their families here. This is a process that I think has to be driven in large part by those who are most closely impacted and affected by these issues. And that's why I've reached out to Mrs. McClain early and often to get her views on these issues. And we don't always agree, right? We don't agree on everything. There are, there are areas in which we have disagreed before it goes out, always listened to her. She knows that I'm always have a voice and I'm always available and accessible. And I've learned a lot from her. You know, the bottom line is she's lost her son. I have not you know, she has to live in a society and a country under, under certain issues and with systematic racism in a way that I don't.

JC: So, it's really important that I come at this with humility and with honesty and with an open mind and heart and listen to that experience. And that's what I'm going to continue to do. What's next is we're going to continue to have the conversations in the community. We're going to continue to draft you know, our, our additional legislation based on the IRB assessment and recommendations, because there's a lot of facets to this problem. And you know, we've just started to, to address some of the biggest facets through justice and policing and law enforcement trust and integrity act. But there's more to do.

AS: And Ms. Mclean, you, and you've spoken about this before, but your son's death inspired a pretty large movement here, you know, to try to fix and change and, and embark on police reform. I wondered how that felt for you personally, because you know, people are happy that there's going to be some changes perhaps, and the state law that passed and, you know, but, but you're, you're the one sort of, as the Congressman just said, you're the one having to live with the fact that your son is not here every single day. And I wondered how that felt personally to have him both be the sort of reason behind some of these big changes in policing, but also the fact that you're dealing with this on a personal basis in

SM: It makes me proud of him in a different way. You know, when, when he was my son on earth living as an earth land, you know, he was an amazing person, period. You know, he was gentle, he was kind, she was compassionate and he was a killer, you know, he had the Midas touch and, and for that to be stripped away from the world because of somebody else's own issues within themselves, you know, it makes me look at him in a completely different way because they, they unleashed him in a way, because now other people can see his soul. Other people can see his heart and Elijah Elijah's touching good hearts everywhere. He touched in people everywhere and that's something different than what he was doing before he was touching the people that got to know him on a personal level before, you know, in a, in a close-knit circle.

And now he's just touching the world, like I'm so proud on a completely different level now. And it's like, like I be telling people that how Viking be you know, talking about their falling was, and things like that. And they go from crying to cheering them on and, and Darren, anybody to say anything about them. And that's how I feel like I am like, I he's my ancestor now. And he builds that I give the, the native call for, you know, like weaker because you showed us the way type deal, you know? So

AS: I love the image that he's your ancestor now. I love that.

SM: Yeah. He's, he's awesome. He's like, he's so awesome at a completely different lower now. Like, and I be thinking like that, that's what my son was like, all that was in that little body, you know, like it's the Navy and he's not even done yet. There's like, like Mr. Crow said, there's so many things that still have yet to be done because of the people that have been touched by life and story, his life and his death, you know, I was just saying something the other day, like when you're destined to do great things with your life, it's not even death can stop it.

RW: Elijah McClain's mother, Shaneen, speaking with our justice reporter, Allison Sherry along with Congressman Jason Crow who represents the districts where the 23-year-old McClain died in police custody in 2019, the house has passed the George Floyd justice and policing act. It's currently in the us Senate.