It is understandable, if not acceptable, that Sheriff Doug Gillespie would call a press conference and plead for patience from the public and the press in answering questions about some recent officer-involved fatal shootings.
Just over a year ago, the sheriff had to stand in front of the press and admit that much of what he had averred in a previous press conference about a high-speed collision that killed a Las Vegas police officer was completely false. It turned out that when officer James Manor plowed into a pickup that was attempting a left turn on Flamingo Road early one morning in May 2009, his flashing lights and sirens were not activated, the patrol car was traveling 109 mph in a 45 mph zone, the officer was not wearing a seat belt, and the man arrested and charged with driving under the influence and failing to yield to an emergency vehicle was not drunk and not at fault.
Late last month, the Metropolitan Police Department agreed to pay the falsely accused driver $120,000.
Since that fatal crash and two others, the sheriff has ordered his officers to wear seat belts and to drive no faster than 20 mph over the posted speed limit. He also doubled the driving training police get in their first five years on the force and spelled out a number of other restrictions.
Now Sheriff Gillespie faces two police shootings that raise serious questions about police policies and procedures. The sheriff can’t be at every incident and directly supervise ever officer’s behavior, but he is in charge of making sure officers are properly trained and with setting those policies and procedures.
On July 10 at the Costco in Summerlin, 38-year-old Erik Scott, who had a concealed carry permit for his two weapons, was shot to death by three Las Vegas officers as he exited the store. Costco employees had called police, saying Scott was acting erratically and was carrying a handgun. Police said Scott was shot after he pulled a gun and pointed it at them.
Witnesses give wildly differing accounts. Investigators have talked with more than 40 witnesses, including more than a dozen who said they saw a gun in Scott’s hand when he was shot. Review-Journal reporters talked to several witnesses who said they saw no gun and three who said Scott appeared to reach for his gun, but could not say he actually pointed it at the officers.
Some witnesses heard police yell “Drop it,” while others heard them command Scott to “Get on the ground.” Was Scott trying to comply with conflicting orders?
Reportedly, a Costco employee was on the phone with police when the shooting occurred, and the officers’ commands might be on tape. But Metro will not release the 911 recordings, saying they are part of an ongoing investigation.
Of whom? Also, it has yet to be confirmed whether the several Costco security cameras captured the shooting on video. The hard drives from the security system have been sent to a forensic lab in California. No word as to what, if anything, was captured.
The public wants to see and hear what transpired so they can know if their officers acted to protect lives or perhaps anxiously fired too soon. A scheduled coroner’s inquest has been delayed indefinitely.
Another case raising questions is the June shooting death of Trevon Cole, 21, during a marijuana raid at his apartment. Police say he made a “furtive movement,” but his pregnant fiancee said he had his hands in the air when he was shot in the head by a policeman’s rifle.
It turns out the sworn affidavit, signed by the detective who fired the shot and that led to the raid, might have contained several errors. The affidavit said Cole had a “lengthy criminal history of narcotics sales, trafficking and possession charges” in Houston and Los Angeles. No record of that criminal history has been found.
Also, the search of the apartment turned up an unspecified amount of marijuana, $702 in cash his fiancee said was for the rent, and no weapon.
Police should perform a risk/benefit analysis in carrying out operations. When does the risk to officers and citizens rise to the level of, in balance, being worth it to the community? Do nighttime raids on petty pot dealers meet the standard? Does charging toward a Costco with guns drawn meet the standard?
Speeding without lights and sirens did not.
The sheriff should tell his constituents and take appropriate action.
Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press and access to public information. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at lvrj.com/blogs/mitchell.