Federal report: Las Vegas police shootings down, department reforms up

Las Vegas police shootings are trending down, and Metro reforms are on the rise.

It’s looking good for Metro after the U.S. Department of Justice released its final progress report Wednesday after a wide-ranging, multi-year study of Metro’s policies related to deadly force.

“The department’s introspection and genuine desire to make significant improvements and serve as a model for other departments draws praise from the assessors. The department’s commitment has produced impressive results,” said the report, released by the federal Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS.

Metro implemented 72 of the 80 reforms the feds suggested since their initial November 2012 study was released, the report said, and five more reforms are in progress. Wednesday’s report used data and policy information current through last year.

And the number of police shootings have continued to drop. The rate of Metro shootings per month has dropped 36 percent since the Review-Journal published the series “Deadly Force,” its 2011 study on police shootings, one of several milestones leading to Metro reforms, the report said.

There were 24 shootings in 2012 and 2013 combined. In 2010, the year before the RJ series, Metro’s officers were involved in a record 25 shootings, the report said.

“The assessors are optimistic that the decline in OIS rates shown above represents a trend, rather than random fluctuations,” the report said.

Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie thanked the community for its patience. Looking back to December 2011 — the month Stanley Gibson was killed by police in a controversial shooting and just weeks after the newspaper series was published — Gillespie said he’s proud.

“In my 34 years of policing in this valley, there have been many days when I’ve been very, very proud of the accomplishments of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department,” he said. “I can tell you today, I am the proudest I have ever been.”

But changing a department’s culture is harder than changing a policy in the handbook.

Metro must continue to be progressive in its policies and training, the report said, and transparent with the community about incidents.

When talking about real change, numbers don’t always tell the whole story, the report said.

“OIS incidents remain historically low. Although this is positive, the assessors stress that simply counting OISs is a rather crude measure of success, and not much time has passed since the implementation of reforms,” the report said.

KEY CHANGES

Metro began voluntarily collaborating with the Justice Department to reform its deadly force policies after a rash of shootings in 2010, when officers shot 25 people, and in 2011, when officers killed a record 12 people.

The DOJ hired Virginia-based nonprofit CNA to conduct the study.

“It is not easy to subject yourself or your agency to an outside, independent assessment,” said Ronald David, who was appointed COPS director in November. “Quite often, the truth hurts. But I think the sheriff recognizes, as we do, the truth might hurt, but selective ignorance is fatal.”

Many of Metro’s reforms improved the process for reviewing police shootings and training its officers. The creation of the Critical Incident Review Team in 2010; implementation of reality-based training in 2011; and changes to the Use of Force Review Board in 2012 were “milestones” for the department, the report said.

Reality-based training for officers continued to improve, the report said, with the agency’s fourth version debuting in September.

Metro’s creation of the Office of Internal Oversight, which analyzes department policies, training methods and shooting statistics was another key step toward transparency, the report said. The office has continued to evolve, the report said, taking on new initiatives and responsibilities since the DOJ’s first report.

Training officers better in de-escalation tactics was a big step for the agency, the report said, but more refinement is needed.

The report said Metro needed to distinguish between tactical de-escalation — slowing down an operation, waiting for additional resources — and verbal de-escalation, where officers “create empathy and understanding with the suspect” to peacefully resolve a solution.

Although Metro isn’t devoting a quarter of an officer’s defensive tactics training to de-escalation, as suggested in the initial federal report, Metro’s increased efforts satisfied the DOJ’s recommendation since the last status check report was released in September.

The report also lauded Metro’s progress with its critical incident review process, which includes the department’s revamped Use of Force Review Board, previously considered a rubber-stamp board favoring officers, and new Tactical Review Board. But the report didn’t mention the controversy that dominated the headlines about the board last year, when former board chairman and Assistant Sheriff Ted Moody retired in protest of Gillespie’s decision to save an officer’s job.

Moody is now running for sheriff.

Among the report’s “in progress” reforms are a pair of recommendations highlighted by the DOJ in 2012 and the Review-Journal in 2011: The percentage of unarmed minorities, especially black men, being shot by police was disproportionately high.

Since 2007, 63 percent of all unarmed people shot by Metro were black, and more than a quarter of all black people shot by police were unarmed. The report said only one black person was shot by police last year. Antoine Hodges was unarmed, and he’s suing Metro.

All of the seven people shot by Metro officers this year were armed.

The DOJ suggested officers receive specialized training on fair and im­partial policing. Although a six-hour course is being developed by Metro, no officers have received the training.

Metro “must increase its efforts to develop a quality training program on procedural justice and deliver it soon,” the report said.

MORE WORK NEEDED

Metro has gone back and forth on the Justice Department’s recommendation to create a specialized team of detectives with specialized training to investigate police shootings.

Although Metro in 2010 developed a Force Investigation Team, or FIT, they scrapped the unit in 2012 because of lack of manpower and reverted to the old method, in which a rotating group of homicide detectives investigates officer-involved shootings.

But FIT is coming back, and with more responsibilities.

In addition to investigating police shootings, the team will investigate all uses of police-involved deadly force, including in-custody deaths at the Clark County jail and some precision intervention techniques, or PIT, officers use to stop car chases. It involves an officer using the front of a police car to strike the rear corner of a suspect’s vehicle, sending it into a spin.

The department considers PIT a deadly force maneuver if used at speeds greater than 40 miles per hour.

The report said FIT will likely be fully operational by the end of the year.

But Metro declined to implement two policies that the Justice Department said would improve transparency.

Officers involved in shootings will not be required to have their interviews with detectives recorded on video, unlike a regular citizen being investigated in a criminal investigation.

Metro felt the public release of those videos would make officers less likely to cooperate with a criminal investigation, which is their constitutional right. All Metro officers in shootings are required to give statements to internal investigators, but those are not public.

Metro argued that it’s uncommon for departments in the United States to require video statements by their officers, the report said.

But the DOJ stressed that “common practice is not best practice,” the report said, and such a policy would have strengthened the community’s trust in Metro.

In addition, the Justice Department’s recommendation that police unions encourage their officers to cooperate with criminal investigations was refused. But the decisions of the unions — especially the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, which represents rank-and-file officers — is outside of Metro’s purview, the report said.

In conclusion, the report praised Metro’s efforts on most issues. The agency has the tools in place to continue its progress, the report said.

“The assessors are encouraged by the commitment they have witnessed in LVMPD over the past two years and believe there are many learning processes in place to continue reform,” the report said.

Davis, the COPS director, said the agency should be congratulated. It’s up to community leaders to guarantee continued success, he said.

“I think the department deserves a moment of pause to say job well done,” Davis said.

Because of the success in Las Vegas, COPS has began reforming agencies in Philadelphia and San Diego, he said.

Contact reporter Mike Blasky at mblasky@reviewjournal.com. Follow @blasky on Twitter.

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