New hearings on officer-involved shootings to replace inquests


Inquests could be back on track soon - but after a serious makeover.

Clark County commissioners on Monday voted to scrap the decades-old process for fatal police encounters and start holding "police fatality reviews," a lighter version that drew ire from local advocates.

The reviews would be similar to inquests - witnesses and officials will state what they know about the incidents in front of a hearing master. But fewer people would testify, they wouldn't do so in front of a panel of citizens, and the hearing wouldn't be held in a courtroom.

Commissioners were driven by a need to divorce themselves from the old process, which was controversial almost since its inception, but still provide an open process for families and the public to learn about the incidents.

"We want this to remain a fact-finding thing and not cross the line into a more judicial realm," Commissioner Mary Beth Scow said. "I feel this does that."

The first review under the new process - the controversial 2011 shooting of Stanley Gibson, the disabled Gulf War veteran who was shot seven times by a Las Vegas police officer - could be as soon as next month.

On Monday, Gibson's wife, Rondha, held up a round from an AR-15 rifle - the weapon officer Jesus Arevalo used to kill her husband - and pleaded to commissioners to adopt a different proposal.

"What's it going to take before this county sees what's going on?" she said.

Commissioners had a choice between adopting the police fatality reviews or proceeding with inquest changes adopted in early 2011. Those changes allowed for an ombudsman representing the family to cross-examine witnesses, including officers involved in the death.

That change proved a crippling blow to the process. Police filed lawsuits alleging it violated their due process rights. Inquests were put on hold, and although the Nevada Supreme Court disagreed with the officers, commissioners had little appetite to start a new round of legal battles with police.

Part of the appeal of the police fatality reviews is that it requires almost no police involvement.

Under the system, a review wouldn't take place until after the district attorney has cleared the officers of criminal charges. From there, a hearing officer, such as a lawyer, would set the date. A prosecutor would choose the witnesses, and an ombudsman representing the family would be named.

The witnesses would include the detective who investigated the death, the district attorney who ruled it legal and probably the medical examiner who performed the autopsy. But from there, it's a mystery who else might be called.

Under the previous inquest system, nearly anyone and everyone involved in the incident, from civilian witnesses to the officers who contributed to the death, were called. Inquests sometimes lasted days. But under the new reviews, the witnesses are up to the prosecutor. District Attorney Steve Wolfson said key eyewitnesses might be called, but the intent is to limit the length of the hearings.

The hearing master, ombudsman and prosecutor presenting the review all have the ability to ask questions of the witnesses. Once each person has been called, the hearing is over. There is no panel of citizens to rule the incident justified, excusable or criminal, as they did for decades.

The entire proceeding would be televised and open to the public in a space such as the County Commission chambers.

The new process is fine with Chris Collins, executive director of the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, which represents the department's rank-and-file cops. He said officers can participate in the new hearings if they want.

"We'll advise them not to," he said.

Public advocates blasted the board's decision. Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said the hearings would be nothing more than a "glorified press conference."

He said he would rather see no hearings than what the board chose. "If you're not really going to be looking at these things, don't pretend to," he said.

The county will try three hearings under the new format, then staff will report back on their success.

The board voted 4-2 for the new process. Commissioners Tom Collins and Lawrence Weekly voted against it.

Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who wanted to move forward with the 2011 changes, wasn't at the meeting. The board was told that her flight to Las Vegas was delayed until Monday afternoon.

Contact reporter Lawrence Mower at lmower@reviewjournal.com or 702-405-9781.

 

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