Las Vegas cops are on the defensive.
In the past two weeks, they’ve endured a critical Review-Journal investigation of officer-involved shootings, one of the most troubling shootings in Metropolitan Police Department history and calls by civil rights groups for a federal investigation.
"The cops feel like they’re under attack," one veteran supervisor said. "They feel like they’re being attacked by the media. They feel like they’re being attacked by the ACLU and NAACP."
The Review-Journal spoke with several current officers to gauge how the confluence of negative events and publicity is playing out within the organization. They agreed to speak only if their names were not used.
They talked about feeling like an agency under siege, the specter of looming federal oversight and the problematic shooting that brought it all to a head.
Monday’s shooting of Stanley Gibson left many officers second-guessing the decisions and tactics that ended with the death of the disabled Gulf War veteran.
Gibson, 43, was off his anti-anxiety medication and stricken with paranoia as he tried to find his new apartment Sunday night. In his confusion he ended up at an apartment complex a few blocks away, prompting suspicious residents to call police about a prowler.
Officers confronted Gibson in his car and pinned his Cadillac between two patrol cars while they tried to get him to surrender.
After a 30-minute standoff, police fired a nonlethal beanbag shotgun round through a window of Gibson’s car with the plan to pepper spray and arrest him. But their plan might not have been understood by officer Jesus Arevalo, a nine-year department veteran, who reacted to the beanbag shot by firing seven shots from his AR-15 semiautomatic rifle into the passenger side of Gibson’s car.
Gibson, who was unarmed, was the 12th person shot and killed by Las Vegas police this year — a record number for the agency.
The shooting prompted Sheriff Doug Gillespie to hold a rare same-day news conference and set his agency abuzz with questions about the decisions made that night.
"Why not just isolate and call SWAT?" the veteran supervisor said. "The guy is pinned and can’t get anywhere. Why push it?"
A patrol supervisor said SWAT officers should handle any situation involving a barricade.
"It was just a terrible plan," he said. "And it’s frustrating because it was such a bad plan. Even if that plan works, it’s a stupid decision."
He said no one knows what Arevalo saw or heard before he fired because he wasn’t giving statements to investigators.
"We don’t know why he fired, but if he wasn’t aware of the plan and he thought someone was firing at him, whose fault was that?" he asked.
Like last year’s controversial shooting of Trevon Cole, where mistakes were made before anyone pulled a trigger, the supervisor was most critical of the tactics before the gunfire.
"There was a breakdown by our leadership here," he said. "In any tactical situation like that, the goal is to save someone’s life. And that didn’t happen."
A veteran patrol officer summed up the thoughts of many within the department.
"It was a terrible shooting," the officer said. "Nobody said it’s a good shooting. … Comments were made that this is the one that is going to bring in the feds."
That statement was almost prophetic. Hours after the officer made it, the local chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People publicly called for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the Police Department’s use of deadly force.
In their calls, both groups cited the Review-Journal’s five-part series into officer-involved shootings.
The yearlong investigation identified a rising number of shootings by Police Department officers and a reluctance by the agency to hold problem cops accountable.
Many officers dismissed the series as a one-sided attack on them and their colleagues. But some thought it shed light on many long-simmering issues that need to be addressed.
The veteran patrol officer said the newspaper series contained a lot of interesting information but shared a common feeling among police when it comes to the news media.
"You guys are so quick to point out all the faults of the agency, but not nearly as quick to point out the good things with the agency," the officer said.
The officer said excessive use of deadly force is not a problem within the department, but certain shootings "raised eyebrows," such as last year’s controversial shootings of Erik Scott and Cole.
The officer said there is a mentality, especially among younger officers, of resorting to the gun sooner rather than later. Older officers tend to use less lethal force and more hand-to-hand combat.
"Back in the day, we would do whatever we had to do to get suspects in custody," the officer said. "If their head bounced off the ground, so be it."
The veteran patrol officer said it’s better to have a suspect’s head bounce off the ground than to use deadly force.
The officer welcomed a federal investigation of the department but said any probe should go beyond officer-involved shootings to include the agency’s day-to-day operations and the effects of "oppressive leadership" on officer morale.
The veteran supervisor said outside scrutiny will help fix the things that need fixing while showing that, for the most part, the Police Department’s policies, procedures and training are solid.
"We don’t have anything to hide," he said.
One patrol cop who has used deadly force on the job said he was frustrated with recent events. Most patrol officers were still processing the newspaper’s series when the Gibson shooting happened, he said.
"We felt attacked by the R-J and now this happens, and you’re just shaking your head," he said. "We don’t want to lose the public’s trust, but we know this looks really bad. I think the officer made a tragic mistake that he’ll live with for the rest of his life, but now the rest of Metro has to deal with that."
Review-Journal reporters Mike Blasky and Antonio Planas contributed to this report. Contact reporter Brian Haynes at email@example.com or 702-383-0281.