Justice Department to review use of force by Las Vegas police

The Metropolitan Police Department has agreed to open itself up to Justice Department officials, Las Vegas police said Thursday, marking the start of a months-long process that could reform how its officers use deadly force and how those incidents are investigated.

Although the details have yet to be decided, the federal Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) is expected to look at 20 years of shootings by Las Vegas officers, review the department's policies and procedures, and interview officers and civilians.

The review will start immediately and could take six months or longer, after which a report would be released to the public detailing the office's findings and possible recommendations.

The Metropolitan Police Department would not be bound by the recommendations, however. The COPS office is not working with their counterparts in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, which does have the ability to mandate reforms.

In a statement, Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie said bringing an independent set of eyes to scrutinize officer-involved shootings will strengthen the department, which saw its officers shoot and kill 12 people last year, a record for one year by the agency.

The department has had two police shootings this year, both this week. One person, who shot and wounded an officer, died.

"This is a proactive step that our department initiated to properly address community concerns about police use of force," Gillespie said.

But a civil rights activist who had called for a review of the department said the proposal doesn't go far enough.

The review is unique both for the Metropolitan Police Department and the COPS office and could lead to a unique national clearinghouse of "best practices" for officer-involved shootings, related policies and investigative procedures, according to the COPS Director Bernard Melekian.

Melekian said his office already has people in Las Vegas working with the department to learn what, specifically, the department wants them to study.

They will be limited by what the department will let them see. Large, independent studies of officer-involved shootings at other police departments required access to police records and sometimes sensitive information such as employee files. It hasn't been determined what the COPS researchers will be able to access.

"We first have to see what they want to focus on and obviously what's available to us," Melekian said.


Thursday's announcement came a day after Gillespie met with representatives from COPS and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

The COPS office provides grants and expertise to improve police departments, but it serves an advisory role, not a criminal justice one.

The Civil Rights Division has the ability to investigate the department for systemic civil rights abuses, such as the possible misuse of deadly force, and mandate changes to the agency's policies, training and investigative procedures.

Last month two civil rights groups -- the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada and the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- formally requested the division open an investigation into the Metropolitan Police Department.

Las Vegas police said that after Wednesday's meeting, the Civil Rights Division's next steps have "not been determined."

Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the ACLU of Nevada, wasn't satisfied with the announcement.

While the COPS study could be productive, he said, "it's not a substitution for the investigation we requested."

"We were asking for an independent investigation, not something that was coordinated by Metro," he added.

Their request asked for policy reforms, increased racial awareness by officers and the creation of an independent monitor, among other things.

Scrutiny on officer-involved shootings peaked late last year, after a Review-Journal series studying every shooting since 1990 found that Las Vegas police were reluctant to learn from and adapt after the incidents.

Ten days after the series, an officer shot and killed Stanley Gibson, an unarmed, disabled Persian Gulf War veteran.

Melekian knew Gillespie and called him on the second day of the series, offering to have COPS step in and perform a systemic review of the department.

"It was very clear that something was going on out there," Melekian said.


The Metropolitan Police Department has never opened itself up to an independent review of officer-involved shootings and related policies as it will for the Justice Department.

While COPS has examined specific incidents, such as the 2009 shooting deaths of four Lakewood, Wash., police officers at a coffee shop, it has never done this type of systemic review, Melekian said.

The Las Vegas study will employ academic experts, former officers and COPS staff. Melekian has worked with other groups, such as the Police Assessment Resource Center (PARC), that have done large-scale studies on other agencies. The reviews can range from simple studies of a handful of shootings to complex statistical analyses that delve into the behavioral patterns of the officers involved.

PARC and other groups routinely release their studies for other police departments and the public to view, and Melekian wants to do the same with the Las Vegas study.

He can't predict the study's findings, saying they will depend on the study's topics and scope.

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