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Deadly force: Las Vegas Metro looks at revamping some policies

Following December's high-profile police killing of unarmed Iraq War veteran Stanley Gibson -- which followed shortly after the 2011 publication of the Review-Journal's multi-part examination of officers' use of deadly force -- the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department is now in the middle of a six-month study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice, looking into how and when its officers take the lives of suspects.

Monday, the ACLU of Nevada released a 62-page list of related recommendations, most calling for the addition of more detailed guidance to officers as to when they should initiate or break off vehicle chases, foot chases, the drawing and presentation of their weapons, the use of Tasers and so on.

The ACLU examined the "best practices" of a number of other urban police departments that have fewer police shootings than Metro, per year, per capita. Many of the recommendations are drawn directly from the policy manuals of those departments.

For instance, the ACLU recommends Metro change its policy from the subjective assertion that an officer can use deadly force if he "fears" for the life and safety of himself or others, replacing that with the more objective standard that officers can use deadly force when they "reasonably believe" their lives or the lives of others are in jeopardy.

The ACLU also recommends a preamble be added to the department's policy, something along the lines of the Los Angeles Police Department's guidance that: "The Department's guiding value when using force shall be reverence for human life," further reminding officers, "Members of law enforcement derive their authority from the public and therefore must be ever mindful that they are not only the guardians, but also the servants of the public."

Sheriff Doug Gillespie and his department are to be congratulated for responding Tuesday that they agree with "numerous" ACLU recommendations, asserting many of them align with changes Metro already had in mind.

The notion that Las Vegas police officers will merely file away such recommendations and go back to business as usual is unnecessarily cynical. This is the officers' profession. They will presumably be as glad as anyone else to have standards spelled out more precisely -- leaving enough flexibility to deal with the unexpected, but also leaving less uncertainty as to when the department and the public will back up an officer trying his or her best to "do it by the book."

The ACLU recommendations appear reasonable and worth adopting, with one exception.

The group recommends that officers be permitted to carry only weapons and ammunition provided by their departments. In today's legal climate, and given that weapons and ammunition are presumably obtained from suppliers that put a high premium on reliability and effectiveness, so far so good. But the ACLU also recommends Metro adopt from police in Washington, D.C., a policy that, "Members are further required to carry only the requisite amount of service ammunition as applicable to the authorized service weapon they are utilizing."

That sounds an awful lot like barring officers from carrying more than one or two spare pistol magazines -- if that.

Yes, one magazine should do the job 98 percent of the time. But in the real world, police here in the West sometimes patrol desert dirt roads far from any immediate backup. In the real world, in recent years, police here in the West have been called upon to deal with bank-robbery gangs clad in Kevlar and wielding AK-47s -- bad guys so well-armed that officers ended up borrowing rifles and extra ammo from a nearby sporting goods store.

What on earth is to be gained by forbidding an officer from carrying some extra, loaded magazines?

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