By the time Lew Roberts retired in December, he had overseen more than 100 investigations into shootings by police officers, likely more than anyone else in the history of the Metropolitan Police Department.
And he had reached a conclusion: that federal officials needed to intervene.
Roberts, who for the last six years served as the lieutenant overseeing the homicide section, would like to see the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division investigate shootings by the agency.
"I think it should happen. I think it needs to happen," said the 47-year-old Roberts.
"We've had probably far too many incidents, and far too many questionable ones, to sit back and say that doesn't need to happen," he said about the agency with which he spent 24 years.
Roberts' comments come at a pivotal moment for the Las Vegas department. They follow a yearlong investigation by the Las Vegas Review-Journal into officer-involved shootings, a fatal shooting in December of an unarmed, disabled and disoriented veteran, and a call by civil rights groups for a Civil Rights Division investigation. Instead of such an investigation, a separate arm of the Justice Department has launched a study of the agency that could result in recommendations, but not requirements, for change.
In a series of candid interviews with the Review-Journal, Roberts discussed his tenure in the department, his time in the homicide section, and the officer-involved shootings he was charged with investigating. He is the only officer, current or former, to publicly call for a Civil Rights Division investigation.
Over the years, Roberts said he became disturbed by what he saw as a lack of oversight and accountability in regard to the shootings.
Representatives of the district attorney's office were effectively shut out of the investigations and afforded no opportunity for independent legal review, in stark contrast to their involvement in shootings by regular citizens. He found the department did little to reduce the number of shootings or to learn from troubling ones. The department's Use of Force Review Board was supposed to hold officers accountable, but instead was a rubber stamp -- a panel stacked with sympathetic citizens picked by the department.
Roberts said the number of problem shootings for the department is small. But he believes there is a problem and that, ultimately, the public will shape how the department responds.
He also has concerns that the department won't change on its own.
"The Department of Justice needs to come in and conduct an investigation, and whatever they come up with, you live with," he said.
'IT'S NOT OK'
Roberts was in many ways the face of the Metropolitan Police Department, speaking regularly through the media to the public about murders. He said he told colleagues and superiors of his concerns about police shootings, but could not speak publicly before his retirement.
"I've seen circumstances where I felt like we should have done more," he said. "And for me personally, I can't sit by and say everything's OK, when it's not OK. I don't want to be the guy that buries the head in the sand and two, three years down the road something happens to somebody I know, or my family."
Roberts began to have concerns in 2006, his first year as the homicide lieutenant, one that saw a then-record 24 police shootings. Homicide detectives and sergeants, in addition to handling slayings , also investigate shootings by officers.
Most of the police shootings were righteous and justified, he said. Some were not.
The department's Use of Force Review Board is tasked with ruling whether an officer's shooting adhered to department policy, and not whether the shooting was legal. The board, made up of four citizens and three officers, has cleared more than 97 percent of officers since its inception two decades ago.
"Even some that shouldn't have been," Roberts said.
Roberts' detectives presented cases to the board, and he sat in on many of the hearings. He found the board to be slanted in favor of the officer.
"I didn't like it because the citizens were picked by the department," he said. "(I'm) not saying they're bad people. They all appeared to be good people. But they were picked by the department, so in general, they were going to be pro-police."
Sheriff Doug Gillespie has expressed similar concerns about the reluctance of board members to discipline officers. He already has a separate review team presenting cases to the board. That review team was created in 2010 to critically analyze each shooting. It has resulted in changes to training and policies. About 80 percent of all patrol officers have undergone a new training course over the last six months, Capt. Kirk Primas noted.
But Roberts said he doubts whether the agency has done enough to respond to questionable shootings with permanent changes.
"For me, it's not necessarily the number" of shootings that is the problem, he said. "It's when we have officer-involved shootings that are perceived to be bad by the public, how does the department address those issues? And in my opinion, I don't think that they have."
A CONTROVERSIAL CASE
One of the highest-profile shootings came in 2010, one that Roberts said underscored the lack of independent oversight over shootings.
On June 11 of that year, Trevon Cole was shot by narcotics detective Bryan Yant, a 10-year veteran who had been involved in two previous shootings. Yant made mistakes during nearly every step of the investigation, and most of the evidence contradicted the officer's story that Cole lunged toward the officer in a threatening manner. Cole was unarmed.
As Roberts' detectives were investigating the case, "It became clear that we had a situation that was not good," he said.
He and some of his detectives were concerned that Yant might have been so reckless that the officer was criminally negligent in killing Cole.
Had Yant been a citizen, those concerns would have prompted homicide detectives to contact the district attorney's office to formally review the case. But Yant was a police officer, and Roberts had to go through his chain of command to get approval for such a review. He eventually won an audience with Gillespie, then-District Attorney David Roger and the top brass of both agencies.
Roberts said he told them his concerns about the case and was then asked to leave the room.
"To this day, I don't know what they talked about," he said. "I just know that the end result was, was that a 40-hour suspension was given and that was it."
Roger, now an attorney for the union representing most Las Vegas police officers, said he doesn't remember Roberts expressing his concerns about the case. Roger and his staff had their own concerns -- including not believing Yant's story -- but they didn't think the detective's actions constituted criminal behavior. Police never submitted the case to Roger for potential prosecution.
Steve Wolfson replaced Roger last week. He said he doesn't have plans to reopen the Yant case, and even if he did, the statute of limitations for some laws might have expired.
"I don't think it's in this community's best interest to open up old wounds," Wolfson said.
He or some of his senior staff will be responding to the scenes of future officer-involved shootings, a departure from the practice of the district attorney's office for decades.
Regardless of whether it was legal, Roberts feels the Metropolitan Police Department should have used the incident to institute significant reforms to reduce the number of problem shootings.
"That was, in my opinion, our opportunity to really make some substantive changes, take a leap forward, and that didn't happen."
Gillespie did restrict warrants allowing forced entry, like Yant's, from being served by anyone other than specially trained units such as SWAT.
But Roberts felt that Yant should also have been fired. Gillespie last month told the Review-Journal that he doubted whether he could have successfully fired Yant, considering both an inquest jury and the Use of Force Review Board cleared the detective. Yant was given a 40-hour suspension for the mistakes surrounding the shooting, and Gillespie assigned him to a desk job where he won't interact with suspects.
Roberts said he's not angry with the department, that it's not a corrupt organization, and that in many ways the agency and its officers shine. The issue of shootings is a problem, however, he said.
"There's a lot of things that the department does fabulous, that they're excellent at," he said. "This isn't one of them."
Ultimately, the public will decide what the Metropolitan Police Department does about shootings, according to Roberts.
"This is a very important issue, and it's an issue because people generally don't feel the need to really get involved unless it happens to them. And maybe it needs to be Erik Scott not on drugs at Costco in Summerlin for people to get pissed off," he said, referencing the high-profille case where an armed West Point graduate on prescription medication and behaving erratically was fatally shot by police.
"Maybe that's what needs to happen," he said. "But I guess for me, right is right and wrong is wrong. It doesn't matter who the person is. If there's an issue, it needs to be addressed and the public needs to know about it. And I don't know that that's happened."
Roberts said he doesn't have all the answers. However, he does believe the coroner's inquest process, where the facts of a case are aired in courtlike proceedings, should be scrapped in favor of having the district attorney review the case and release its findings. The inquest recounts what happened during the shooting but provides little other information or oversight, he said.
A district attorney review should be paired with greater disclosure and accountability from the Metropolitan Police Department, he believes. The department released an extraordinary number of shooting reports for the Review-Journal's investigation last year, but it doesn't release those reports regularly. Roberts said that should change.
"Sitting on this side of the table, as a citizen, I'd want to know, exactly, what happened during the investigation, what was the outcome of the investigation, and what happened to the officer. And then what is the department doing to ensure that it doesn't happen again?"
He believes the department can change, but not without significant help from outside experts and the public.
"It seems like such a simple fix, but it's become very difficult," he said. "Sometimes doing the right thing is the hard thing to do."
Contact reporter Lawrence Mower at email@example.com or 702-383-0440.