One of the odd results of this week’s coroner’s inquest into the July 10 police shooting of Erik Scott is that everybody is right. Consider:
• Based on testimony from dozens of witnesses, the coroner’s jury was right to rule that the shooting was justified. The witnesses varied to an extent in recalling what they saw, but the consistent link was that Scott reached for his gun when confronted by three Metro Police officers in front of the Costco store. That move by Scott, no matter what his intentions, prompted the officers to shoot him. They believed he represented an "imminent threat."
This scenario has played out countless times in Las Vegas and across the nation. For better or worse, most people realize that if you point a gun at the cops, you’re risking your life.
• Scott’s father, Bill Scott, is right that the coroner’s inquest is a woefully inadequate system through which to reveal and grapple with all the facts, all the possible perspectives, in a given case. "They had a chance to present the truth," Bill Scott said after Tuesday’s verdict. "As we see it, the system failed miserably." The coroner’s inquest is controlled by the district attorney, who is naturally in league with the police department. There is no opportunity for representatives of the shooting victim to call or question witnesses. The one-sided nature of the coroner’s inquest contradicts the very spirit of American jurisprudence.
• Maggie McLetchie, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, is right when she says of the coroner’s inquest, "Nobody has confidence in the system anymore." Over the years, Metro officers have shot many people in many different situations, and each time a coroner’s jury has vindicated their actions. While a majority are open-and-shut cases of justifiable homicide, the Erik Scott case pales in comparison to some incidents in which officers appeared not to have a legitimate reason to have killed someone. Yet even in those cases, the coroner’s jury has cleared the cops.
• Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie is right when he says, "There are no winners here." This case is not only an unimaginable loss for the Scott family, it’s a heavy blow to Gillespie’s department, which has, because of this incident and quite a few others recently, gained a reputation as trigger-happy. Nothing good can come from a community fearing any and all encounters with police. It’s not fair to the rank-and-file officers who are professional and well-meaning, but this perception is real nonetheless and demands serious attention from Gillespie and others in a position to do something about it.
This community needs something positive to come out of the tragic death of Erik Scott and the spate of other police shootings in recent months. Here are some ideas:
• In order to build public confidence in the system, the Clark County Commission must revamp the coroner’s inquest so that it bears a closer resemblance to the time-honored adversarial trial. One narrative, carefully crafted by law enforcement officials, is insufficient to reach the truth and breeds suspicions of cover-up and conspiracy. If commissioners buckle — again — to pressure from law enforcement lobbyists, it will be clear who holds the real power in local government.
• Retail businesses need to improve training of employees to assess and deal with difficult customers. Erik Scott’s behavior in the Costco store was troubling but hardly an extreme case. Consider your own experiences with customers in retail establishments. People get angry or unruly all the time, but very few of them end up dead outside the store’s entrance. It is too much for Scott’s father to assert that "Costco killed Erik," but then again, a man is dead following a weekend shopping trip with his girlfriend. I can’t imagine Costco or any other business wants to see this scenario repeated.
• Retailers should do a better job of posting signs if guns are not permitted in their establishments. Costco apparently had a no-gun policy but no visible signs telling anybody about it. Clark County has issued more than 28,000 concealed weapon permits, which means lots of people are walking around the city lawfully carrying guns. The permit holders need to know where they aren’t allowed to bring their weapons.
At the same time, retail employees need to be better educated so they don’t immediately assume that someone with a concealed weapon is a threat.
• Sheriff Gillespie should dedicate his presumed next term to implementing a plan to improve the department’s tarnished image. I’m not talking about a feel-good ad campaign. I’m talking about an in-depth internal program to train officers in more effective ways to defuse hostile situations without people ending up dead. I’m talking about an earnest commitment to revise attitudes and try new approaches. Metro is regarded as one of the best-trained police forces in the country, but it seems to me there’s a need to rethink the approach to the use of lethal force.
The status quo is unacceptable.
Geoff Schumacher (email@example.com) is the Review-Journal’s director of community publications. His column appears Friday. He has a relative who is a Metro officer.