Use of deadly force goes to grand jury

It was obvious from the day he took office in January that District Attorney Steve Wolfson's reviews of fatal police shootings would be judged by how he treated the killing of Gulf War veteran Stanley Gibson.

Mr. Wolfson was appointed the county's top prosecutor just weeks after Mr. Gibson, unarmed and disabled, was gunned down in his car in an apartment complex parking lot after he had become lost and distraught. And the shooting occurred shortly after the Review-Journal published a multi-part series on police use of deadly force, identifying problems that recurred in the Gibson case. The escalation of a nonviolent situation. The mishandling of a mentally ill subject. Shooting into a vehicle. The death of a black man.

Mr. Wolfson left the Las Vegas City Council to replace David Roger, who retired as district attorney to become chief counsel for the Las Vegas police officers' union. Mr. Roger would not have landed that job if he had provided some oversight of police shootings. Rather, he provided no oversight at all, even when Las Vegas police botched a 2010 nighttime raid and killed unarmed, small-time pot dealer Trevon Cole while he was kneeling on the floor of his own bathroom.

Days before Mr. Wolfson was named district attorney, Las Vegas police agreed to pay a record, taxpayer-funded $1.7 million settlement to the Cole family. No charges were ever filed, even though an officer put false information on an affidavit to obtain a search warrant, identifying the suspect as the wrong Trevon Cole, then made major errors in the raid.

Taking on the job in this climate, Mr. Wolfson promised independence and transparency in reviewing officer-involved killings. After working his way through decidedly less controversial police shootings, he arrived at the Gibson case. On Monday, Review-Journal reporters learned Mr. Wolfson will seek to indict the Las Vegas officer who fired the shots that killed Mr. Gibson. County prosecutors will begin presenting evidence and questioning witnesses before a grand jury next week. Only a year ago, such a development would have been unthinkable in this valley.

Mr. Gibson, 43, was boxed in by two police cars Dec. 12 when he was trying to find his way home. He didn't respond to commands to exit his vehicle. Instead of waiting for a specially trained SWAT team, the officer in charge at the scene devised a plan to remove Mr. Gibson from his car: One officer would shoot out a window with a beanbag shotgun round and another would then fill the interior with pepper spray. But when the shotgun was fired, Las Vegas officer Jesus Arevalo fired seven rounds into the vehicle from an AR-15 rifle, killing Mr. Gibson.

Mr. Wolfson could have filed indictments in this case without going to a grand jury. Instead that panel, meeting in secret, will decide whether there's enough evidence to take the case to trial. It's unknown what charges prosecutors will seek, or whether other officers at the scene may still face scrutiny.

Certainly, the officer in command should be required to explain why the situation had to be escalated with shotgun fire when police could have waited out Mr. Gibson. The most important question, however, is why Officer Arevalo wasn't ordered to lower his weapon - why he still had Mr. Gibson in his sights - at the time the shotgun was discharged.

"If Wolfson believes this case is criminal, why is he hiding it in a grand jury?" asks Chris Collins, executive director of the Las Vegas Police Protective Association. "Why not take it to a preliminary hearing?"

Ironically, Mr. Roger, the man most recently elected to prosecute such cases, could end up representing Mr. Arevalo in court.

The old saying is that a good district attorney - who controls what the panel does and doesn't get to see - can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. A failure to charge would thus be curious, at this point. Also puzzling would be any offer of immunity to the officer commanding at the scene.

No one believes Mr. Arevalo went to the scene that day desiring to shoot anyone. No one wants to see him punished disproportionately as a lone scapegoat for an outcome that might have been, in some measure, caused by the decisions and actions of his superiors.

On the other hand, while police are granted wide discretion to deal with potentially dangerous situations, they're not supposed to shoot unarmed citizens who pose no discernible threat to anyone. And the problems with promiscuously deploying AR-15s should have been obvious not merely after the death of Trevon Cole, but as long ago as the unnecessary 2003 shooting death of Orlando Barlow.

Mr. Wolfson is living up to his promise to independently investigate police killings. This is especially important in the absence of coroner's inquests - the public, fact-finding hearings into officer-involved homicides that were suspended pending a police challenge to reforms in the process. Those inquests must resume as soon as possible.

What's most important now is that justice in this case eventually be reached in the open, and that the public regain some confidence that steps are being taken to reduce these deadly outcomes.