A heat-of-the-moment comment in the aftermath of the standoff at Cliven Bundy’s ranch has cost two Las Vegas SWAT officers their jobs on the elite unit.
The officers were booted back to patrol after a Metro sniper posted an inflammatory comment about Bundy’s militant supporters on social media, the Review-Journal has learned.
Officer Russell Laws, 41, took to Facebook just hours after the April 12 standoff between federal and local officers and armed protesters ended without bloodshed.
A Bundy supporter in a public Facebook thread posted a news photo of a militia member aiming a rifle at officers.
Laws replied that police had their guns trained on Bundy’s people, too.
“I just wish you could see how big that guy prone with the rifles head was in the scope of the (police) Snipers .308 …. don’t worry, he wouldn’t have have felt a thing!” Laws posted.
Laws, a SWAT sniper since 2009, was not at the standoff, but it didn’t take long for Bundy’s supporters to look at his Facebook profile and determine he was a Metro cop.
“I have a .308 with a 20x too, buddy. I’m not worried about some fat, oath breaking cooterville SWAT sniper,” replied J.L. Bourne, an author of zombie apocalypse books and a former military officer.
“I’m going to archive this, and screen capture everything in case their names ever come up in a police brutality case.”
Bourne provided the Review-Journal a screenshot of the Facebook post.
“I’m extremely concerned about the militarization of our police and Officer Laws’ open fantasizing of shooting civilians is a prime example,” he wrote in an email.
Laws deleted his post, but it was too late — someone called Metro to complain about the comment. The officer admitted his mistake to his supervisors but was transferred back to patrol soon afterward.
Metro brass felt Laws’ comment, although not a direct threat, could have escalated an already dangerous situation.
Hundreds of armed Bundy supporters had gathered at the ranch in Bunkerville, about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas, to protest the federal roundup of the rancher’s cattle. Bundy hasn’t paid grazing fees for 20 years and ignored a court order to remove the cows from public land.
Metro was also worried about possible repercussions if Laws was involved in a SWAT shooting.
“How can you keep him as a sniper after he posts about shooting someone in the head?” asked a Metro officer with knowledge of the situation who spoke under the condition of anonymity. “He (Laws) should have known better.”
Laws also violated the department’s social media policy, which prohibits officers’ speech “reflecting behavior that would reasonably be considered reckless or irresponsible.”
The Las Vegas Police Protective Association, the union representing rank-and-file officers, opposed Laws’ transfer because the officer was never given a chance to appeal.
Metro has two types of transfers. Disciplinary transfers typically come with punishment, such as a suspension, and can be appealed; administrative transfers don’t involve any formal punishment and can’t be appealed.
The union argues Laws’ transfer was clearly “punishment” and the officer should be allowed to file a grievance.
But the union’s efforts to defend Laws indirectly cost another SWAT officer his position.
Laws’ supervisor, Sgt. Michael Quick, also received an administrative transfer in recent weeks.
His bosses were irked because Quick, while giving a statement to union lawyers investigating Laws’ transfer, said he didn’t see anything wrong with Laws’ comment on Facebook, sources said.
Department executives felt Quick had a gung-ho attitude and set a bad example for SWAT, which had three fatal shootings in the past year.
The union was furious with the decision, especially in light of Laws’ transfer, and are planning to sue Metro.
“We cannot allow the Department to continue their apparent practice of violating our officers’ due process rights,” PPA assistant executive director Mark Chaparian wrote in a memo to union members. “We will aggressively prosecute this case to vindicate the aggrieved officers and to protect your rights.”
Chris Collins, the union’s executive director, said Friday that he couldn’t comment on pending litigation.
Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie said he wasn’t aware the union was filing a lawsuit. He doesn’t comment on pending personnel matters, he said.
“It’s been my policy to let these matters run their course,” Gillespie said.
Laws will have a chance to make a case — but not to get his job back.
An arbitrator will soon decide whether Laws even has the right to file a grievance about his transfer. If the arbitrator agrees, Laws will have to win another appeal before can return to SWAT.
Contact reporter Mike Blasky at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @blasky on Twitter.