Deadly force: Sheriff revamps key policy

Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie has taken a huge step toward invigorating public confidence in the Las Vegas police force by overhauling the Metropolitan Police Department's use of force policy for the first time since the 1990s. The new policy, released Monday, makes significant revisions.

A dozen civilians were killed by officers in 2011, the last of them the most controversial: unarmed, mentally ill veteran Stanley Gibson was gunned down in his car at an apartment complex parking lot. That incident was a textbook example of police escalating a situation that could have been handled without violence, and it amplified calls within the community for reforms within a department long resistant to them.

Sheriff Gillespie's rewrite of the use of force policy is important because it serves as the new foundation for expectations of officers as well as the training they'll receive. The new policy declares that officers "place minimal reliance upon the use of force. The department respects the value of every human life and that the application of deadly force is a measure to be employed in the most extreme circumstances."

The policy also advises officers to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations: "Officers shall perform their work in a manner that avoids unduly jeopardizing their own safety or the safety of others through poor tactical decisions." The language reminds officers they can retreat to create more distance between themselves and erratic suspects to increase their options.

It's important to note that in the great majority of Las Vegas police shootings over recent decades, officers clearly acted appropriately to protect themselves or others. But this new policy should greatly reduce the kinds of shootings that erode the public's trust in the department - such as the needless killing of Mr. Gibson or the 2010 death of small-time marijuana dealer Trevon Cole in a botched nighttime raid of his apartment. And there are signs that Sheriff Gillespie and the department already are making strides in changing their use-of-force culture: Mr. Gillespie reports that officers have fired shots at civilians just five times in the first half of the year, the lowest number for a six-month period in 10 years.

Ultimately, the strength of this policy will be proved on the street. But this is a positive, important step by Sheriff Gillespie - one that gives Southern Nevadans reason to believe fewer people will die at the hands of police.