Police unions advise silence in inquest process

CORRECTION -- 01/04/11 -- A story Friday incorrectly stated the number of officers in the Henderson Police Officers’ Association. It has 328 members.

In a first for Clark County, the heads of the two largest police unions are telling members not to cooperate with investigators after officer-involved shootings or in-custody deaths.

The move is continuing fallout from recent changes to the county coroner's inquest process, they say. Police unions representing officers in Las Vegas, Henderson and North Las Vegas already had recommended that members stop participating in inquests, which they consider too adversarial under the new procedures. Now, in addition to not testifying at inquests, officers are advised not to make statements to investigators who gather evidence for the fact-finding process.

Without statements to criminal investigators, the Clark County district attorney's office will lose a key piece of evidence: What prompted the officer to fire?

Chris Collins, president of the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, which represents roughly 2,800 officers, said statements to investigators will be rehashed at inquests and could expose the officer to civil or criminal liability.

"We begrudgingly participated in the process and watched as it eroded away the police officer's rights," Collins said. "Now with the rules being changed, we've decided it's just not worth it."

The situation pits the heads of the police unions against county commissioners who approved the changes, public advocates and even Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie. The sheriff said he supports the new inquest process and is working on a solution to concerns about criminal investigations.

The criminal investigation is typically done by homicide detectives. Officers have long had an unwritten agreement to talk about the incident with the detectives within hours of a shooting, though they've always been able to invoke their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.

Such statements factor into the investigators' recommendation to the district attorney, who determines whether any charges are filed. If no charges are filed, the case is set for a public inquest.

The district attorney effectively runs that fact-finding process, although a hearing master can ask questions, and interested parties can submit written questions. The officer's statement to investigators has been important, at the least, for ensuring the officer's testimony is consistent.

Clark County District Attorney David Roger, who was not in favor of the inquest changes, said he doesn't expect the absence of an officer's statement to affect his decisions. He said detectives can build a complete case file on physical evidence and witness statements alone.

"We talk to homicide detectives all the time where they don't have statements from suspects," Roger said.

But the move was criticized by those who favored the inquest overhaul, which has yet to be implemented.

"Just to say, 'We're going to take all our marbles and go home,' doesn't seem like a reasonable response," Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid said.

Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said the move could damage public opinion of the police.

"What they're really saying (is) they're happy enough to show up when they'll only be asked questions by friendly DAs, but when they're asked tough questions by people not in their corner, they don't want to participate," he said.

Collins said his union recommends all officers, whether they pulled a trigger or just witnessed an incident, not talk to homicide detectives.

Henderson Police Officers' Association president-elect Norm Halliday said his union now makes the same recommendation to its 428 members.

North Las Vegas Police Officers Association President Michael Yarter said he leaves the decision up to his roughly 400 members, but he does advise skipping the inquests.

"They said this is what they were going to do," said Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who voted against the inquest changes. "I don't know if everyone thought they were bluffing."

At issue is a change commissioners made in November to allow a presumably neutral ombudsman to question officers during inquests, along with the district attorney's representative. Supporters felt the move would add integrity to a process long criticized as favoring police. Details of the ombudsman's role will be worked out Monday by the county Commission.

So far only one incident has occurred since the changes were approved. On Dec. 11, Anthony Jones, 44, was fleeing from two Las Vegas officers who shot him several times with Tasers. He later died. The officers, Mark Hatten and Timothy English, have not given statements to homicide detectives.

Las Vegas police officers still are required to give a statement about an incident at least twice: At the scene, they must talk to their immediate supervisor to determine where any shots might have gone and whether a suspect is still at large; and they must talk to internal investigators.

The latter statement cannot be used against them in a criminal case.

Union members have in the past discussed not participating with homicide investigators, Collins said, but the inquest changes brought the issue to a head.

Law enforcement experts said such refusals aren't unusual.

Michael McGill, an attorney in Upland, Calif., who frequently works for police unions in representing officers, said he advises officers not to give a voluntary statement at the scene.

"Generally, there's no reason for an officer to give a voluntary statement,'' he said. "It's going to be used for one reason: To be used against the officer criminally."

Contact reporter Lawrence Mower at lmower@review journal.com or 702-383-0440.