When two North Las Vegas police detectives were assigned to investigate allegations of criminal misconduct by two young patrol officers in December, videotape evidence quickly put the case to rest.
Footage from the Cannery, 2121 E. Craig Road, caught one of the two officers slapping a handcuffed casino patron in a back room. It also showed that both officers lied about what happened in the casino patron’s arrest report.
North Las Vegas Police Chief Joseph Forti then had a decision to make: arrest them and recommend charges to the district attorney’s office, or have the department’s Internal Affairs section handle it.
He chose the former and the two officers now face criminal charges. The case highlights a fine line in law enforcement, where police chiefs have to decide how to police their own.
“I can’t speak for other chiefs,” Forti said. “I can say that I’ve been on this department for 28 and a half years, and I’ve seen things that — if I were chief probably at that time — I probably would have done things differently.”
Other departments have handled similar situations differently. A 2001 Metropolitan Police Department case is nearly identical to the one that recently confronted the North Las Vegas department. Eight years ago, then-33-year-old Frankie Davis was sitting handcuffed in a back room of the Las Vegas Club, accused of trespassing in the downtown casino.
Las Vegas police officer David D. Miller went in to talk to Davis. Video cameras captured the two engaged in a struggle. Minutes later, as Davis was lying on his belly still cuffed and struggling, Miller punched him in the head.
Davis became motionless, his neck broken. He would eventually recover and accept a $250,000 settlement from the department.
Miller was suspended for 10 hours and ordered to participate in use-of-force training.
Critics called Miller’s punishment a slap on the wrist. A 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision on Davis’ federal lawsuit stated that there was “no question that any reasonable officer would have known that the force used was excessive.”
An attorney for the Las Vegas police department said last year that department officials found Miller violated internal policies, but didn’t feel his actions rose to the level of a “constitutional violation.” County prosecutors said Miller’s actions were a response to Davis resisting arrest.
That’s the fine line between being prosecuted or suspended.
North Las Vegas police officers Mark Alan Miles and James F. Balelo, both 27, were dealing with a patron who had been drinking and was shouting at casino security guards when they arrived at the scene. But at no point did 31-year-old Luis Enrique Vargas resist arrest or fail to comply with the officers’ commands, said the report on the officers’ arrest.
The videotape shows Miles slapping Vargas repeatedly and slamming the handcuffed California man to the ground, the officers’ arrest report said.
“Resisting arrest” can be viewed differently, depending on if you’re an officer, the person being arrested or a third party. If you’re a police officer, resisting arrest can merit the use of force, which could entail a punch to the face, the use of a Taser, or more.
North Las Vegas police Sgt. Tim Bedwell said that in the case of Miles and Balelo, no use of force was necessary. Therefore, their actions didn’t fall under a departmental violation — it became a criminal matter.
Forti said the actions of the officers certainly qualified as a criminal act. Miles was charged with oppression under color of office, a felony. Both were charged with false report by a public officer, a gross misdemeanor.
“We should be held to a higher standard because of the power that is vested in us through the state when we become police,” Forti said.
Bill Sousa, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said how an internal police investigation unfolds could depend on what sparked the investigation.
“Officers are arrested from time to time if their activities become known and if they’re really blatant,” he said.
A case might start in the department’s internal affairs section if police are working from a suspicion or a complaint, he said.
In the case of the North Las Vegas officers, the officers’ supervising sergeant was the one who triggered the investigation.
Forti said North Las Vegas police are also conducting an internal affairs investigation into the matter, which has yet to be concluded. The officers could lose their jobs. They’re currently on paid leave.
Forti said aggressive internal policing can only be a good thing, both for department morale and public morale.
“I think when the community looks at it, obviously that’s been the big controversy for a lot of years, going way back, that the police don’t police themselves, that they wait for things to become public before they react,” he said. “It’s so important that the public has confidence in their police and their police department.”
Contact reporter Lawrence Mower at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0440.