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Las Vegas Metro against bid to scrap coroner’s inquests

CARSON CITY — Breaking with other law enforcement agencies, the Metropolitan Police Department came out Thursday against a bill to scrap the coroner’s inquest system in Clark County.

Police lobbyist Chuck Callaway said during an Assembly Government Affairs subcommittee hearing that Sheriff Doug Gillespie supported changes to the inquest process that were approved by the Clark County Commission.

Callaway said it is important to allow the changes to go forward. He said a fair inquest process is needed to secure the public trust by airing out what caused police to use deadly force.

He said if the Legislature approves Assembly Bill 320 and ends coroner’s inquests, citizens will blame legislators for passing the bill whenever there is a shooting and the public cannot find answers.

Members of the subcommittee took no action on the bill, proposed by Assemblyman John Hambrick, R-Las Vegas, and endorsed in a hearing Tuesday by the Las Vegas police union. The bill must be approved by the full Assembly Government Affairs Committee by today, or it is dead for the remainder of the session.

Chris Collins, head of the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, testified that Gillespie’s opposition to the bill should not be "weighed any more heavily" than that of Henderson Police Chief Jutta Chambers, who sent a letter in support of AB320.

In a Tuesday hearing, Collins argued the inquest process isn’t needed because the district attorney can look into police killings and determine whether anything was done wrong. The families of victims can file lawsuits, he added.

Clark County is the only one of the 17 Nevada counties with coroner’s inquests.

Earlier this year, the County Commission approved changes after inquest juries found officers were justified in two contentious cases: those of Trevon Cole and Erik Scott. Cole was killed by police while unarmed in his apartment, and Scott was killed outside a Costco by officers who said he drew a gun.

An inquest has not been conducted since the County Commission changed the process. The changes included allowing families to have representation at inquests and disclosing investigative files before hearings.

During the Thursday hearing, a line of witnesses besides Callaway asked legislators to kill the bill.

"I am shocked we are here today," said Heather Spaniol, who identified herself as a Las Vegan. "If this is passed, it is a license to kill again as they have done before."

Frank Hawkins, president of the NAACP in Las Vegas, said those who favor the bill "do so out of fear" and called the matter a Clark County issue that legislators should avoid.

"If you change it (the inquest process), the Legislature would be undermining the will of the people of Clark County," said Rebecca Gasca, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada. "The public has a right to know what happened when an officer takes a life."

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