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Federal report on Las Vegas police wins praise

The U.S. Justice Department’s approach in reforming the Las Vegas police is being praised as a national model for better law enforcement by one of the nation’s top police accountability experts.

Samuel Walker, a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and author of several books on police accountability, said police departments everywhere should compare their own policies to recommendations federal authorities made Thursday in a report to the Metropolitan Police Department.

"This would be a good measuring rod for your use of force policies," he said of other departments. "People ought to look at this report and learn from it."

Release of the Justice Department report, which capped an eight-month investigation that included nearly 100 inter­views, was one of the most significant actions by federal authorities in the history of Southern Nevada policing. While the report often was critical of the Las Vegas police, it has the potential to make the department a national leader in use of force policies and training.

And the study also could be the first wave in a new, less confrontational relationship between the Justice Department and local police.

"It’s a model program for how the Justice Department can help local agencies improve their standards," Walker said. "Everybody thinks of the Justice Department as the agency that sues police departments."

But, as in the case of the Las Vegas department, agencies will be able to open themselves to federal review without fearing harsh consequences.

"If you’ve got a problem, here is a way you can respond to that,” Walker said. "You can get some outside expertise."

In the wake of an investigation into police shootings by the Las Vegas Review-Journal in late 2011, the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services contacted Sheriff Doug Gillespie with a proposal: Why not have our team come in, figure out the reasons behind the agency’s record number of police shootings, and give you a list of ways you can change?

The arrangement would require full cooperation from the department and a willingness to accept the study’s results.

While other agencies, such as the Portland, Ore., Police Bureau, have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars bringing in private consultants to do similar studies, this one would cost the Metropolitan Police Department nothing.

The alternative, an investigation by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, could have been longer, more expensive and damaging . Those investigations end not with recommendations, but with mandatory reforms.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada and the Las Vegas chapter of the NAACP later petitioned the Justice Department for such an investigation.

Gillespie leapt at the opportunity, sending a team to Washington, D.C., to learn more. The Civil Rights Division approved of the arrangement, according to COPS Director Bernard Melekian, and COPS contracted with CNA, a Virginia-based nonprofit, to do the study.


The results, based largely on interviews with cops, watching training sessions and data provided by the Review-Journal, revealed a department that had few internal mechanisms to recognize shooting trends and hold officers accountable for their actions. Training was inconsistent in some areas and non­existent in others. Officers made mistakes in at least 40 percent of shootings, the researchers found.

The CNA team released 75 findings and recommendations for the agency, many of which the department in consultation with the research team completed before the study was finished.

In six months, the Justice Department will chart the department’s progress, and will issue an updated report within a year.

Gillespie said last week that he doesn’t see why he won’t be able to complete all of the recommendations.

"I think it’s a fair and accurate assessment," he said of the report. "I believe, whether you’re an individual or an organization, it’s healthy for you to be evaluated. … We can’t expect that everything that’s going to be in this report is that you’re doing everything just fine or you’ve implemented everything, because that wouldn’t be a fair assessment."

Melekian said he expects the department to carry out the recommendations. If it does, Melekian believes he has found a new way to make changes at other police departments. If it doesn’t, the possibility still exists for the Civil Rights Division to carry out an investigation.

Both the ACLU of Nevada and the Las Vegas NAACP still want that investigation since the COPS report doesn’t require changes.

But Walker said that reaction might be premature.

"I think the appropriate thing is to give this a chance," he said. "If they fail to respond to these recommendations here … then maybe the ACLU wants to go for the next step and call for an investigation by Civil Rights."

It wouldn’t be the first intervention by federal authorities in Las Vegas.

In 1985 the Justice Department sued the Metropolitan Police Department, alleging racial and gender discrimination in its operations. The resulting consent decree forced changes in procedures for hiring and promotion.

In 1978, a lawsuit filed by inmates over living conditions at the county jail resulted in a federal court consent decree that prompted construction of the Clark County Detention Center.

In 1997, a Justice Department investigation found the new jail was unsafe, and the department made changes.

Walker doesn’t believe that should happen today. "In the year 2012, 2013, no police department should be sued by the Justice Department, because you know what to do. It’s clear what the standards are," he said.

Gillespie will have to train or retrain nearly all of his roughly 3,500 officers to implement the recommendations.

Harder still will be changing the culture of a department – and its leader­ship – that for decades made little effort to reduce shootings by its officers. In their investigation, the CNA group observed that while the department had altered some use of force policies, instructors who disapproved undercut the change by discounting the new policies in front of trainees.

That’s not unusual among police organizations, but it’s emblematic of the difficulties the sheriff faces.

"It’s not rocket science. It’s harder than that," Walker said. "You’ve got to change the mindset and … ingrained practices of a large organization."

Contact reporter Lawrence Mower at lmower@reviewjournal.com or 702-405-9781.

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