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Legal observers arrested at Las Vegas protest dispute sheriff’s claims

Updated June 18, 2020 - 5:21 pm

A group of legal observers and their attorneys gathered Thursday to dispute allegations from Sheriff Joe Lombardo that the observers provoked their own arrests at a weekend protest.

At least seven attorneys and law students, trained by the National Lawyers Guild to monitor and document interactions with police and demonstrators, were detained Saturday night during a demonstration along the Strip against police brutality.

Lisa Rasmussen, a lawyer for three of the legal observers who also work as Clark County public defenders, called for a “useful conversation” with the Metropolitan Police Department regarding the arrests and future protests.

She also said community leaders involved in the protests would meet with Metro brass this week, which a police spokesman confirmed, indicating that “upper staff” would participate in a closed-door discussion.

Before speaking to journalists, Rasmussen played a video that showed the culmination of Saturday’s protest and officers forcefully arresting at least one legal observer.

Deputy Public Defender John Piro, who was among those arrested, narrated the video and described being “boxed in” and “trapped” by police near Las Vegas Boulevard and Russell Road, where he said protesters were left confused about where to go after police issued a dispersal order.

“There is no video of my clients agitating,” Rasmussen said. “There’s no video of my clients breaking the law. There’s no video of my clients obstructing traffic on a street. … What I think is clear from the video that we’ve shown you is that Metro has continued to have an outsized response to peaceful protests on the Las Vegas Strip. And we’d like that to change. We think that there’s room for dialogue.”

Earlier this week, Lombardo said the legal observers were “antagonizing and obstructing officers” before arrests were made. The legal observers were detained, some for several hours, including one who was booked into the Clark County Detention Center, and were issued citations for a misdemeanor charge of failing to walk on a sidewalk where provided.

On Thursday, Piro rejected the allegations against him, evoking the 1965 civil rights protest in Selma, Alabama, when authorities called Martin Luther King Jr. and fellow demonstrators “outside agitators.”

“Metro has taken the referees out of the game,” Piro said, referring to his arrest and the arrests of photojournalists in Las Vegas late last month. “And they have called us agitators, and I am concerned with that language. … It’s dehumanizing language. It creates an us-versus-them framework. And what it’s used to do is to dehumanize us as legal observers and create justification for unjust actions.”

He added: “You didn’t see a legal observer touch any officer. Let’s make that clear.”

Defense attorney Dayvid Figler, who represents law student Emily Driscoll, another of those arrested, said the police actions could send a message to discourage others from acting as neutral observers. While those arrested on Saturday had not returned to protests, Figler added that other lawyers and law students have been encouraged to document demonstrations.

“There doesn’t need to be confrontation at all,” Figler said. “This doesn’t need to escalate. There’s no reason to have a militarized zone in our beloved city. What we need to do is impress upon the Police Department that there is a better way, that there is a more thoughtful way, and that the transparency that they claim can be put into action.”

He also offered an apology to Metro officers who were “feeling antagonized, feeling scared or frightened in any way that they couldn’t do their jobs safely. I am deeply sorry that that is the perspective.”

Figler and Rasmussen said they have had no communication with prosecutors about the charges. Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson could not be reached for comment.

Contact David Ferrara at dferrara@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039. Follow @randompoker on Twitter.

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