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Las Vegas police report shows rise in uses of force

Updated June 20, 2021 - 7:24 am

Las Vegas police released a report showing that use-of-force incidents have increased over the past five years, but activists and the department disagree on what the data means.

Use-of-force incidents — including nondeadly uses of force and police shootings — tracked by the Metropolitan Police Department have increased every year since 2016, starting at 785 documented events and ending at 959 in 2020, according to the report published May 20 on the department’s website.

Bill Sousa, the director of UNLV’s Center for Crime and Justice Policy, said it’s hard to tell if the data is showing a trend in a five-year period.

Meanwhile, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the increase shows that the department’s training is working.

“It shows that low-lethal is being implemented more often than not, which as a result deadly force hasn’t become — it’s always an issue — but it hasn’t become a blatant issue to where we have a problem, a systemic problem within the department,” Lombardo said in an interview Wednesday.

Uses of force range from an officer physically restraining someone during an arrest, to discharging stun guns or low-lethal shotguns. Most calls tracked by the department include “empty hand” or “takedown techniques” involving physical restraints.

Of the 1.48 million calls for service documented by the department in 2020, 0.06 percent involved a nondeadly use of force, according to the report.

Because there are so few police shootings when compared with the hundreds of nondeadly uses of force, it’s hard to draw conclusions from the data, Sousa said. Total police shootings have fluctuated in the past five years — there were 10 in 2016, 22 each in 2017 and 2018, 16 in 2019 and 19 in 2020, according to the report.

Fatal shootings also vary, with three and four in 2016 and 2019, respectively, but 10 each in 2017 and 2020. The most fatal shootings in the past five years happened in 2018, at 18, the report said.

Racial/ethnic breakdown

The report also showed that from 2016 to 2020, police were more likely to use force against Black people than any other single racial or ethnic group.

Of all nondeadly use of force incidents in 2020, police used force against a Black person 40 percent of the time. In comparison, Clark County’s population is about 11.9 percent Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey single-year estimates.

Police used nondeadly force against a white person in 31 percent of incidents in 2020. White people make up 41.3 percent of Clark County’s population, according to the census data.

Lombardo said the department reviews each use of force, and “nothing shows that there’s a systemic deployment of force against any particular race or gender.”

“I know what direction you’re asking, whether we use force on African Americans, just because of that situation, or whether there’s systemic racism inherited into the Police Department and that’s how all police departments do it. … My answer to that question is no, ” Lombardo told the Review-Journal.

Sousa said a better way of judging the data would be to compare the demographics of people that police use force against to the demographics of people involved in calls for service. However, Metro does not track the demographics of people involved in calls for service, the department said.

When looking at individual interactions between officers and civilians, studies rarely show race playing a role in how the officer behaves, Sousa said. However, researchers still find evidence of systemic disparities. This is in part because police are more likely to be called to lower socioeconomic areas, which are more likely to have larger minority populations, Sousa said.

“We do know that at the more societal level, that members of minority communities are more likely to demonstrate these discrepancies in terms of arrests, in terms of citations, in terms of use of force,” he said.

American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada Executive Director Athar Haseebullah said police departments across the country need to be addressing issues of systemic racism.

“To suggest that systemic racism is not an issue within any police department at this point is not only shortsighted, it ignores every aspect of reality that almost every American has witnessed over the course of the last several years,” Haseebullah said.

Low-lethal tally questioned

Haseebullah also questioned how Metro tallied the nondeadly uses of force in 2020, especially during protests last summer after George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer. He said police fired projectiles at unarmed protesters multiple times, but the report shows only 30 events involving the use of a low-lethal shotgun, only one of which was against an unarmed person.

“Certainly, the numbers seem to be off even in terms of non-lethal beanbag rounds being fired, because we know that that happened several times over during the protests,” Haseebullah said.

Metro said in an emailed statement that each incident where a low-lethal shotgun was deployed was counted as a single use of force in the report.

Police struck at least two Review-Journal reporters with projectiles during a protest on May 31, 2020. The department has said officers were using pepper balls instead of rubber bullets during the demonstrations.

It is unclear if the report tallied uses of pepper balls, which the department has described as a “non-lethal projectile made with a thin plastic that breaks upon contact.”

Haseebullah also questioned data in the report showing allegations of improper use of force. In 2020, the department received 189 allegations, and eight were sustained.

In the sustained allegations, seven officers were disciplined and one resigned before the review was completed, the report said. Three of the officers disciplined were given a written reprimand, two received “minor suspension hours,” and two still had pending discipline at the time the report was published.

A separate report Metro released this month shows that of the more than 4,500 misconduct complaints in 2018 and 2019, less than 10 percent resulted in disciplinary actions. In the past, Metro has protected the identity of officers under investigation for misconduct and withheld internal affairs records.

Haseebullah said the similar lack of underlying information about specific cases in the use-of-force report makes it difficult to analyze the data.

“It’s a data dump, but outside of that it is very difficult to actually know the context behind most of these instances,” he said.

Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240. Follow @k_newberg on Twitter.

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