Police reviewing officer-involved shootings

Las Vegas police officers had been chasing their suspects on foot before firing at them in seven of the department's first 15 shootings of the year.

In several other incidents, officers found themselves shooting into the dark at suspects, some of whom were unarmed.

Are the trends indicative of a larger problem in the Metropolitan Police Department?

A new team has been created to answer that question and others in an overhaul of the way the department investigates officer-involved shootings, the term used anytime an officer fires his weapon in the line of duty. Recommendations by the new critical incidents review team, established in July, could lead to changes in policy and training in the department.

"What we're talking about is really a cultural change," said Lt. Jim La­Rochelle, who heads the team. "Can we get into a position where we accept constructive criticism with the goal in mind to get better?"

Las Vegas police have seen 21 officer-involved shootings this year, including two of the most controversial in recent memory:

■ Trevon Cole, 21, was shot while unarmed in his dimly lit apartment during a police drug raid and investigation, both of which were riddled with mistakes.

■ Less than a month later Erik Scott, a 38-year-old graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, was shot outside a Summerlin Costco store.

Each shooting is subject to an investigation to determine if it was legal, and an administrative review to determine if it violated department policy.

In the past, homicide detectives did both investigations. Now, the critical incidents review team, a separate unit whose members have experience in training, will do the administrative review.

Meanwhile, the department in October will launch a use of force investigative team that will do the criminal investigations. The makeup of that team is still under discussion.

Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie called the changes a step toward a more critical review of department actions and policies.

"I think we in policing have to continually critique how it is that we do things," Gillespie said last week.

LaRochelle's four-member team is a first for the department: It reports directly to the undersheriff, where homicide investigators have six layers of management, and it can examine any department procedures and recommend changes, where homicide investigators looked only at individual shootings.

"Can that make people un­comfortable? Yes," LaRochelle said. "But for us to truly get better, we have to have that honest, candid conversation and be accepting of it."

Shortly after the team was assembled they noted the trend in foot chases and shootings. In response, the team researched how other large police agencies handle them, and found that few have formal policies on the issue.

Las Vegas officers receive some training, but that might be inadequate, La­Rochelle said.

The team is still evaluating how dangerous foot pursuits are for the public and for officers, and what training could limit that danger.

The team also has looked at several shootings, including the death of Cole, that occurred in low-light situations. LaRochelle's team found that 70 percent of officer-involved shootings nationwide happen in low light, but it determined the Las Vegas department's ratio is not that high. Again, the department does some training for low-light shooting, but it may want to do more, LaRochelle said.

LaRochelle and his team are creating regular training scenarios to test officers in those conditions. The training, in which officers are armed with paintball guns, will mimic conditions they might face, such as a suspect reaching in his waistband for a cell phone or a gun, forcing officers to decide whether or not to shoot.

The critical incident review team scenario came from models from other departments, such as those in San Diego and Los Angeles, LaRochelle said.

The team is not limited to looking at officer-involved shootings at people. It also will review shootings involving dogs; any on-duty officer death and any death of a person in custody or at the hands of officers. It can also be assigned by the sheriff to look into any other major incident, such as shootings in casinos.

The team then can recommend changes in training, policy and practices to the department's use of force board, which reports to the sheriff. Those recommendations then can be passed throughout the department, which wasn't always done before.

"We have to have that candid conversation about the tactics out there, and we haven't done that to the standard which our agency wants in the past," LaRochelle said.

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