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Police officer accused of beating videographer fired

A Las Vegas officer accused of beating a man for videotaping police was fired Monday after a lengthy inquiry into his actions.

Officer Derek Colling was terminated after an eight-month investigation into the March 20 confrontation between him and videographer Mitchell Crooks.

Internal investigators concluded in July that Colling, a six-year veteran, violated several Metropolitan Police Department policies. Police did not release the specific policy violations.

The officer had been on paid suspension since April 1.

Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie made the final decision on Colling, police said. The harshest punishment short of firing is a 40-hour unpaid suspension.

Crooks, 37, was videotaping police from his driveway the night of March 20 as officers investigated a burglary across the street from his home near East Desert Inn Road and South Maryland Parkway.

Crooks said that when he refused to stop filming, Colling beat him, with much of the altercation recorded by the camera.

Crooks was arrested for battery against an officer, trespassing and resisting arrest, but the charges were dropped.

He said Tuesday that waiting for police to make a decision has been the toughest part of the ordeal.

"It’s been driving me crazy," Crooks said. "This is a little vindication."

Crooks’ lawyer filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Colling in U.S. District Court in early November.

The 40-page document, which also names the Police Department, Gillespie and several of Colling’s fellow officers, seeks more than $75,000 in damages.

"Colling had only one malicious, illegitimate, illegal reason for questioning Mr. Crooks that night," said the lawsuit, filed by attorney David Otto.

On Tuesday, Otto said he thought Colling would have never been fired had the incident not been recorded. He said officers should be forced to wear body cameras to increase accountability.

"I’m glad he was fired," Otto said. "I just wish that Metro would have acted sooner."

The video went viral on the Internet, and local activists and national "cop watch" blogs scrutinized Colling’s actions.

Local American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Allen Lichtenstein reviewed the video and found clear policy violations.

"It raises serious questions about whether the officer used good judgment and whether he was properly trained," Lichtenstein said. "Those questions require answers."

Rank-and-file officers who spoke to the Las Vegas Review-Journal after the incident were as demoralized as the public was incensed.

"The majority of us think Colling made a mistake," one patrol officer said. "All the officers I talked to understand that citizens will see this video, and yeah, we know it looks bad."

Neither Crooks nor Colling was a stranger to controversy.

Crooks made headlines in 2002 when he videotaped two Inglewood, Calif., police officers beating a 16-year-old boy.

Crooks first tried to sell that tape and refused to give it to prosecutors. He then was jailed on old warrants for drunken driving and petty theft. Civil rights advocates decried the jailing as retribution.

He has lived in Las Vegas since 2003 and worked as a freelance videographer.

Colling has been involved in two fatal shootings in his 5½ years as a Las Vegas police officer.

In 2006, he and four other officers shot Shawn Jacob Collins after the 43-year-old man pulled a gun at an east valley gas station.

In 2009, Colling shot and killed Tanner Chamberlain, a mentally ill 15-year-old who was holding a knife at his mother’s neck.

Both shootings were ruled justified by Clark County coroner’s juries.

Chamberlain’s mother, Evie Oquendo, sued Colling and the Police Department in May.

On Tuesday, Oquendo said she was breathing a sigh of relief.

"I just wanted to make sure this didn’t happen to any other parent and he wouldn’t harm anyone again," she said. "I’m glad he’s off the streets."

But the pain of losing her son has not gotten any easier.

"It’s eaten away at me," she said.

A Review-Journal examination of all police shootings in Clark County since 1990 found that officers who use their guns sometimes show a pattern of questionable behavior beforehand or land in serious trouble after. Colling was mentioned as an example in the five-part series earlier this month.

Oquendo’s lawyer Brent Bryson said the newspaper investigation showed a pattern of abuse by Las Vegas police.

"I think there’s an element in Metro that believes they’re untouchable," Bryson said.

"Sheriff Gillespie, if he wants to regain the public trust of this community, needs to set an example and make it understood in the department that excessive force and rogue police behavior won’t be tolerated."

Contact reporter Mike Blasky at mblasky@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0283.

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