Two Southern Nevada civil rights groups formally called for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the Metropolitan Police Department's use of deadly force, citing a history of controversial fatal shootings and a review system that rarely holds officers accountable.
In a petition sent to the department Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada and the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People asked federal investigators to open a "patterns or practices" investigation of the Police Department's deadly force policies, training and procedures.
The petition also asked for a number of reforms, including the creation of an independent monitor and regular reviews of fatal shootings by the district attorney's office.
Richard Boulware, first vice president of the NAACP, called the request a "historic step" for Las Vegas, one that he hoped would create needed and lasting reforms at the Police Department.
News of the request was welcomed by Alma Chavez, whose son, Rafael "Ralfy" Olivas, was shot and killed by police last year. Police said the 23-year-old would not drop his knife and didn't stop advancing toward officers despite being shot four times with beanbag shotgun rounds.
Chavez said she hoped her son's death would lead to changes at the agency so "nobody has to go through the pain I'm going through. ... Hopefully, my son didn't die in vain."
The ACLU and NAACP said last month they would ask for a federal investigation after the fatal shooting of Stanley Gibson, an unarmed disabled military veteran, and a Review-Journal investigative series that identified a rising number of shootings by Las Vegas police and a reluctance to hold cops accountable.
The 35-page petition heavily cites the Review-Journal's findings while laying out the case for a federal investigation. The petition details several controversial fatal police shootings and excessive force complaints, rising litigation and settlement costs stemming from use of force, and lax or nonexistent reviews of shootings by the Police Department's Use of Force Review Board, the coroner's inquest and the district attorney's office.
"We hope that the U.S. Department of Justice acts on this petition with all due haste, because the citizens of the Las Vegas metropolitan area have been waiting, in vain, a long time for reform and accountability while Clark County police have killed 142 persons" since 1990, ACLU Executive Director Dane Claussen said in a news release.
The petition asks the Justice Department to implement many changes and reforms, including making changes to its deadly force policies, increasing civilian oversight with an independent monitor and improving officer awareness of racial and mental health issues.
Sheriff Doug Gillespie could not be reached for comment Friday, but last month, he said he would cooperate with federal investigators if they chose to scrutinize his agency.
Chris Collins, head of the rank-and-file police union, said the Police Department has nothing to hide.
"I don't believe if the DOJ comes and does an investigation that they'll find we did anything wrong," he said.
The Justice Department's Special Litigation Section is empowered to investigate possible civil rights violations by police departments, including those involving deadly force. It can conduct "pattern or practice" investigations, which focus on systemic civil rights violations such as racial profiling, excessive force and internal discrimination. The investigations aim to improve department policies, procedures and training rather than prosecuting individual officers.
In the past year the Justice Department has opened "pattern or practice" investigations into at least two big-city police departments -- Portland, Ore., and Miami -- because of officer-involved shootings.
A Justice Department spokeswoman last month said the agency was reviewing a request for an investigation in Las Vegas. It was unclear who made the request.
Any action is likely many months away.
ACLU legal director Staci Pratt said asking for a federal investigation was a last resort after decades of inaction by state and local boards, agencies, offices and courts.
"What our petition makes clear is that Metro has not been held accountable, nor made sufficient reforms, because every party that could have made a difference has dropped the ball," Pratt said in the release. "It's way past time for the U.S. Department of Justice to step in and fix Metro."
Boulware, a federal public defender, said the case for Justice Department intervention is clear, and it would be a "real travesty" if the agency declined to investigate.
However, that wouldn't stop the NAACP and ACLU from pushing ahead for change.
"We are committed to reform regardless of whether federal authorities come in or not," he said.
Contact reporter Brian Haynes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0281.