Clark County commissioners will name a new district attorney in a matter of weeks, and the timing of the application process and appointment couldn't be better.
Commissioners have an opportunity to examine and redefine the role of the valley's top prosecutor in reviewing fatal police shootings. Right now, suggesting the district attorney even has a role is a stretch.
That has to change.
A yearlong Review-Journal investigation into the use of deadly force by Southern Nevada police agencies revealed that Las Vegas officers shoot and kill more than their peers at comparable departments; that shootings frequently result from violations of department policies and risky tactics; that an insular, rubber-stamp oversight system doesn't hold officers accountable for their mistakes; and that the culture of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department is resistant to the kinds of reforms that could better protect officers and the public. (The series, published three weeks ago, can be read at www.lvrj.com/deadlyforce.)
The Dec. 12 fatal police shooting of unarmed Las Vegas resident Stanley Gibson, on the heels of the newspaper's investigative series, has spawned formal requests from the ACLU and the NAACP for a U.S. Justice Department investigation of how Metro uses deadly force. Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie, the elected chief of the department, said Thursday he would welcome federal intervention.
Such a step might never have been necessary if the Clark County district attorney played a remotely active role in examining such cases.
The Review-Journal's investigation found that while prosecutors are involved in typical homicide investigations from the start -- even responding to murder scenes -- they are completely absent from the investigatory process when a police officer kills someone. In Clark County, the district attorney won't conduct a formal review of a police officer's use of deadly force unless the department chief asks for it.
"If the DA's office ... is not doing that for any homicide, be it police-involved or otherwise, then the DA's office is not doing its job," Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the ACLU of Nevada, told the Review-Journal.
The district attorney's office used to review police deadly force investigations only in preparation for coroner's inquests, the fact-finding hearings that provided the public with the details of an officer-involved fatality. But those inquests were revamped recently because the prosecutors who questioned cops and witnesses were openly biased toward police, leading to predetermined jury findings of "justified." The new system allows more active participation from representatives of the victims. But police so far have refused to participate. Their union sued.
Meantime, Las Vegas police have killed a record 12 people this year -- including Mr. Gibson, a mentally ill veteran -- yet none has received a public hearing. The district attorney's office has not stepped into this void a single time.
How cozy is the district attorney's office with police? It has been more than 30 years since the Clark County district attorney's office has presented an on-duty fatal police shooting to a grand jury for possible prosecution. Outgoing District Attorney David Roger, who is retiring Jan. 3 despite having three years left on his term, is expected to take a job with the Las Vegas police officers' union once he leaves office.
A seven-member screening committee will review the applications of seven candidates for district attorney, interview them and recommend finalists to the County Commission. The screening committee must ask each of these applicants whether they support the as-yet untested inquest reforms and how they would review incidents of deadly force by police, using last week's killing of Mr. Gibson as an example.
No one expects the district attorney to bring every officer who kills an armed suspect before a grand jury. But Metro has serious institutional problems that demand outside review. This valley desperately needs a district attorney who has the courage and independence to provide this oversight.