Las Vegas man accuses police of assault


At 3 a.m. June 14, Walt Churchill awoke to loud pounding on the door of his east valley home.

Churchill left his wife, Vicky, in the bedroom and went to the living room. Before he reached the door, two Metropolitan Police Department officers entered through the unlocked entrance, guns drawn.

"I asked them, 'What are you doing here? Why are you here? You're not supposed to be in my house,' " he recalled.

The officers told him they were investigating a disturbance call at his residence, he said.

Churchill was incredulous. He and his wife had been asleep for hours, he told the officers, and he asked them to leave. The officers told him they had a right to check the house and ensure the safety of the residents, he said.

Churchill -- more forcefully -- told the officers to get out. Seconds later, the 72-year-old man said, he was facedown on the carpet, arms behind his back and wrists cuffed.

He was detained for 45 minutes as police interviewed him and his wife, he said. A sergeant and two other officers responded later to the scene. The call was cleared and Churchill was released.

Churchill said he was told by officers that police had the wrong address. No one apologized to him. A Las Vegas police sergeant who was on scene declined to comment last week on the incident.

"They had no warrant, no right to do what they did," said Churchill, who is speaking to lawyers about what occurred.

"There was no evidence of a disturbance at my home, no yelling, nothing. So why were they there?"

The incident at Churchill's home illustrates the challenge of balancing an individual's right to privacy with law enforcement's obligation to thoroughly investigate, especially when domestic violence may be involved, police said.

On Tuesday, the department completed an internal review of Churchill's complaint. The investigation found no evidence of excess force and deemed officers justified in entering the home, said officer Barbara Morgan, department spokeswoman.

"It was completely justified," Morgan said. "He was combative, put in handcuffs, no force was used. There were no injuries."

Lt. Rob Lundquist, who oversees the Domestic Violence Detail for Las Vegas police, said, in an average year, the department responds to almost 60,000 disturbance calls. Of those 60,000 calls, officers will write reports on about 24,000 cases.

In a perceived emergency, officers are permitted to enter a home without a warrant, he said.

"Domestic violence is one of those things you can't say, 'You're not coming in my house,'" Lundquist said. "We have to make sure everyone's safe."

And because of the emotionally charged nature of the calls, officers must be prepared to deal with every scenario, he said.

Lundquist said even situations that seem calm when officers arrive can be deceiving. If an officer doesn't exercise due diligence, the consequences can be deadly.

"We've had plenty of calls over the last several years where somebody's been beat up, hurt and afraid for their life, held hostage in their own house," he said. "If you respond and only contact the one person who opens the door, think everything's fine and leave -- and now that person dies -- we have culpability."

Aside from protecting victims, police must also protect themselves, he said. Officers have been wounded or killed while responding to calls involving domestic disputes.

In 2006, Sgt. Henry Prendes was fatally shot while approaching a home as he responded to a domestic disturbance call. At the time, he was the first Las Vegas police officer to be killed in the line of duty in 17 years.

In 2007, three Las Vegas officers were shot while responding to a domestic disturbance at an apartment complex. All three officers survived with minor injuries.

"Sometimes a perpetrator will tell a family, or a loved one or a friend, 'I'm not going back to jail,'" said Lundquist. "It really comes down to their mind-set. If they're not compliant, we don't know their state of mind or what they're capable of."

Officer Marcus Martin, a police spokesman, said the confusion at Churchill's home was because of cell phone records.

In the early morning hours of June 14, a woman called 911 to report that her husband had hurt her. She ended the call before giving an address.

Martin said cell phone records for that number listed Churchill's address at Three Crowns Mobile Home Park, near Lamb Boulevard and Washington Avenue.

"It was a violent call, and she (the caller) claimed she was being hurt," Martin said. "There was no way of knowing it wasn't at this particular trailer."

Upon further investigation, police discovered the phone belonged to Vicky Churchill's niece, Teresa Leach, who lived with her husband in North Las Vegas. The billing address, however, listed the Churchills' home.

After the incident, Churchill said he called Teresa Leach and discovered the phone in question had been missing since June 13, when she left her purse at a grocery store.

The woman's husband, Robert Leach, 75, later confirmed this. The missing phone was returned June 15, Leach said, and the woman who returned the purse was given a small reward. North Las Vegas police officers also checked their home to make sure everyone was OK.

No one seems to be sure who made the call. Robert Leach said it wasn't his wife, a native of the Philippines who has been in the United States for a year.

"She doesn't speak English," Leach said. "We have no idea who was using the phone that night."

Lundquist said that in a situation like Churchill's, where police believed a violent offense had taken place, officers had every right to be cautious.

If a person appears combative or agitated, that's a red light to police, he said.

"Our question is, are they agitated because they're involved in something we don't know about?" he said. "Our primary focus is making sure that environment is safe, to protect them and us while we're trying to sort it out.

"Oftentimes they will be handcuffed, if agitated. It's the easiest way to control the situation until we can sort it out."

Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, could not speak specifically about the case.

In general, Lichtenstein said police must exercise their best judgment when responding to disturbance calls.

"I don't know how the officers behaved, I don't know how he (Churchill) behaved," he said. "It's possible, and I'm not saying it happened, he became irate himself and became a threat. Or maybe police screwed it up and made assumptions not warranted by fact. Those things need to be determined by a finder of fact."

Churchill said he doesn't believe police had the authority to come into his home, and doesn't believe they were justified in putting his face to the floor and a knee in his back.

He feels that officers "beat him up," and owe him compensation. He plans to pursue a lawsuit and a complaint to the department's Citizen Review Board.

"I'm a senior citizen and the cops attacked me," he said. "I don't care who you are, assaulting a senior citizen is a serious felony."

Contact reporter Mike Blasky at mblasky@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0283.

 

Rules for posting comments

Comments posted below are from readers. In no way do they represent the view of Stephens Media LLC or this newspaper. This is a public forum. Read our guidelines for posting. If you believe that a commenter has not followed these guidelines, please click the FLAG icon next to the comment.