Review of Las Vegas police, shootings has begun

A team of consultants tasked with investigating Metropolitan Police Department shootings has paid its first visit to Las Vegas, met with officers and civilians , and received a slew of police reports.

The decision by the U.S. Department of Justice to use consultants, and not federal investigators from its Civil Rights Division, was met with criticism from the two civil rights groups who called for the probe. Federal investigators could mandate change. The consulting team can’t. Its role is limited to making recommendations.

Still, both consultants and police believe the department could be forever changed by the investigation, which is expected to take as long as six months.

Police say change will begin even before the study is done.

“We’re not going to wait,” said Las Vegas police Capt. Kirk Primas, the agency’s liaison with the Justice Department. “If there’s something that needs to change, we’ll change.”

Those changes could include re­structuring its internal Use of Force Review Board, improving accountability and public disclosure, and coming up with an alternative to the current coroner’s inquest process for reviewing the facts in a police shooting case.

Las Vegans can expect an unbiased, thorough review of the police that will take into account the public’s concerns, they say. But will it be the wholesale cultural study that was asked for?

Richard Boulware, first vice president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, is doubtful. “After meeting with them, I’m even more concerned than I was before,” he said.

CAUSE FOR CONCERN

In January, following a Review-Journal investigation and the fatal shooting of an unarmed, disabled war veteran by a Las Vegas officer, the American Civil Liberties Union of Las Vegas and the local chapter of the NAACP formally asked the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to investigate the agency.

Early this month Civil Rights Division representatives said they aren’t opening an investigation. But they did meet with Sheriff Doug Gillespie, who said they told him they had three areas of concern: the high number of police shootings; the number of shootings that result from minor interactions with suspects, such as stopping somebody for jaywalking; and the low number of policy violations found in connection with the incidents.

Instead of opening an investigation, the Civil Rights Division will wait to see the results of the study by its counterpart, the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), the entity that hired the consulting team.

The study will be something new for the COPS office, which normally dispenses federal money and advice to police departments. It also will be notably different from a Civil Rights Division investigation because it will only recommend changes.

Critics have identified that as a significant distinction. But COPS office Director Bernard Melekian said that difference has been overstated. His office discussed the study with the Civil Rights Division before it began and will follow up with them when it’s finished.

“I would challenge them (critics) to view this as a step in the Civil Rights Division investigation they demanded,” Melekian said.

The COPS office has used part of a $500,000 grant to hire CNA, a Virginia-based nonprofit, to carry out the study. CNA provides analysis and recommendations on a variety of topics for public officials.

The Las Vegas police study is headed by James K. “Chips” Stewart, a former Oakland police captain and former director of the National Institute of Justice.

His team visited Las Vegas earlier this month, the first of several expected visits for the study. He met with some police representatives and members of the public, but the visit was introductory in nature.

“It seems that the community is concerned … and the Police Department wants to address those concerns,” Stewart said.

He stressed that his organization was neutral and thorough. He said he has been assured his team will have access to whatever documents it needs, and the scope of the study will expand to include any issues relating to the use of deadly force.

“We are not working for the department,” Stewart said.

The cost of the study, the size of the team and the amount of time it will spend in Las Vegas remain uncertain.

The study will take between four and six months, he estimates, and will conclude with a public report outlining the team’s findings and recommendations for change. Although the process has just begun, Stewart said the team would be looking at alternatives to the coroner’s inquest process. It has already met with Clark County Coroner Mike Murphy.

CNA will also analyze the last five years of Las Vegas police shootings. The group asked the Review-Journal for the raw data on 20 years of shootings that the newspaper compiled for its investigative report. The newspaper provided the data, which includes dozens of categories relating to how, when and where officers use deadly force in Clark County. Much of the data is available to the public on the Review-Journal’s website.

The team is also looking at the department’s Use of Force Review Board and has sat in on one of its hearings. The Review-Journal investigation showed that the board rarely found fault with officers in shootings, and Gillespie said the board’s civilian members were reluctant to hold officers accountable for mistakes.

CNA will look at the department’s training and procedures and come up with the “best practices” used nationwide, Stewart said.

“The key is, what needs to be done better?” he said. “We’re trying to move to a better place.”

STUDY VS. INVESTIGATION

That sort of study could be helpful, Boulware said, but it’s not what his group or the ACLU of Nevada asked for: a study of the culture of the department, how it interacts with minority communities and how it handles use of force incidents overall. He said he plans on asking the COPS office to expand the scope of the study to include those subjects.

Expanding its scope could make the study more like the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division investigation of the Seattle Police Department that was released last year.

That investigation into how Seattle officers use force went deep into how that agency interacted with the public. It revealed that officers who often used force were rarely disciplined, that the department’s early intervention system for monitoring problem officers was “broken,” and that its other reporting systems were lax or faulty.

The Justice Department recommended a variety of changes to Seattle police policies and procedures.

But there’s a trade-off to having a Civil Rights Division investigation, Melekian said: One can take up to two years to finish.

“We’re going to produce a set of findings in significantly less time than that,” he said.

The sheriff said the department is ready and willing to act. This, he said, is a “defining moment.”

Contact reporter Lawrence Mower at lmower@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0440.

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