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Nation of Islam fundraising: Selective enforcement or protected speech?

Eighteen-year Las Vegas police officer Laurie Bisch keeps running for sheriff against her boss, Doug Gillespie. She says her independent attitude sometimes makes her feel "like a woman without a country" when she goes to work — though officers have been known to approach her in private and thank her for raising issues others fear to confront.

Bisch was recently assigned to the Bolden Area Command, which is headquartered on a side street just southwest of what used to be known as Drive-By Corners: the intersection of Lake Mead and Martin Luther King boulevards.

A few weeks ago, she responded to a call: A driver had complained some men were out in the street at the corner of Rancho Drive and Charleston Boulevard, aggressively soliciting funds from motorists and blocking traffic when the light changed.

She drove there, asked the three men whether they had a permit to be in the street aggressively selling their Nation of Islam newspapers to motorists stopped at the red light, determined they had no permit and wrote them citations for violating NRS 484B.297, which specifies: "A person shall not stand in a highway to solicit … any business from the driver or any occupant of a vehicle. A person shall not, without a permit … solicit any contribution from the driver or any occupant of a vehicle."

While Bisch was writing her citations, the three men did not seem chagrined, she reports. They were laughing. Indeed, while she was there, her cell phone rang. It was an officer from her station house, informing her "there’s a deal" under which members of the Nation of Islam are not cited for selling their newspapers, nor for soliciting and collecting funds from vehicles stopped in the streets at red lights.

Bisch issued the tickets anyway.

‘HANDS-OFF POLICY’

Later, she says, "I was told ‘This is political. We don’t mess with them,’ and ‘When it comes to the Nation of Islam guys, we have a hands-off policy.’ " Bisch says one of her superiors explained that when there are crimes in predominantly black West Las Vegas, members of the Nation of Islam step in and help police solve them.

Bisch says she asked for an example, but her superior could not immediately provide one.

In addition, Bisch says she was told there was no sense issuing the tickets to members of the Nation of Islam because Las Vegas City Attorney Brad Jerbic wouldn’t prosecute them.

She called that office, identified herself and asked if all this were true. She says Assistant City Attorney Ben Little told her if she were the only officer ticketing these aggressive panhandlers, who appear to all be black men, her actions might be interpreted as racist.

Bisch says she responded that she’s written hundreds of citations under this statute over the years, "and you can pull them up and check — the majority were to white adults."

Bisch says she was told both by her superiors and by Little that in order to prosecute such an offense, she would have to locate a witness who was willing to return with her to the station, write out a voluntary statement that they’d witnessed the offenses, and file a criminal complaint. Even then, she would need a sergeant’s permission to proceed, she says.

That’s completely at variance with the way officers normally write tickets for misdemeanors, when it’s considered enough for the officer to have seen the offense with her own eyes, Bisch points out, adding that police dispatchers get dozens of calls per month from people who feel frightened or intimidated by the solicitors in question.

The calls are handled with a "broadcast and clear" command, she says. That is, no officer is instructed to respond.

‘A RELATIONSHIP ISSUE’

The Nation of Islam, led nationally by Louis Farrakhan, is believed to have 20,000 to 50,000 members nationwide. Farrakhan preaches that white people are sub-human devils who "are potential humans. … They haven’t evolved yet."

A phone message left last week at the Muhammad Mosque 75 on D Street was not returned.

"Back in the ’90s … the city attorney wouldn’t prosecute on those tickets," Sheriff Doug Gillespie says. "So if we can’t write tickets, we can’t ignore it. So rather than write citations, what we do is we meet from time with the Nation of Islam" to discuss what activities are permitted.

Capt. Larry Burns has been in command of Metro’s Bolden Area substation since January. He denied that officers are advised not to roll on complaints about aggressive fundraising in the streets by the Nation of Islam "newspaper salesmen."

"No, no, no, we roll on those calls," he said. "The officers are certainly not given an order to not ticket. What we typically do, if we receive a call, if there’s an individual that makes a call to police, if they feel they’re in danger in any way, shape or form, we make every attempt to meet that individual and get a voluntary statement from them. And that hasn’t happened in a very long time. …

"This issue of individuals who are proselytizing and offering things for sale has been going on as long as I’ve been a police officer, for 25 years," Burns said, adding that issues of religious freedom were at play. Issuing the citations is often futile, he argues, because "those things are routinely dismissed at some level, and they’re not prosecuted." He admitted, "I’ve taken tickets before that have been written, and I have not allowed them to process through the system, they have stopped here. It’s within my authority to do that.

"The bottom line is that this is a relationship issue. … The way that we have always been successful in law enforcement is through our community relationships. … For the good of the community, these are things that are constantly balanced."

And the bigger picture is hoping that the Nation of Islam can help Metro fight crime in West Las Vegas?

"When you create those relationships, you are so much further ahead," Burns said. "Valleywide we solve 85 percent of homicides. Here in Bolden area it’s 20 percent."

PROBLEM WITH PERMITS

Jerbic, the longtime city attorney, tells me, "The Nation has been told that they can ask for contributions only. If there are any strong-arm tactics, we’ve told them, ‘You will be ticketed.’ We’ve told them, ‘If you remain in the intersection when the light turns green, they will be ticketed.’ We process (those tickets) and we’ve taken them to trial. …

"I participated in a meeting with Metro, the Nation of Islam and the ACLU, it could be more than a decade ago," Jerbic recalled. "The state Legislature has created a scheme where an individual can come in and get a permit to solicit from the median for as long as three days at a time. With an organization as large as the Nation of Islam, they could string together the permits, one after another, so they could put someone on a median every day of the year.

"So in the context of First Amendment speech, the conclusion was that people wouldn’t be arrested or cited simply for not having the permit, but rather for the action itself. Are you engaging in coercive soliciting, are you on the median or in traffic? I have seen tickets issued. The Nation is not exempted. They don’t have a ‘pass.’ "

If the politicians want to repeal a whole bunch of permit requirements, that’s fine. But I believe that may be the first time I’ve ever had a city official tell me they’re not going to enforce a statute requiring a permit, because if they did so the darned culprits could ruin everything by just going out and applying for a whole bunch of permits.

Jerbic admits it has been a few years since he saw such a ticket come through. "The question goes back to Metro," he said. "If they’ve got people knocking on windows, that’s not conduct that’s protected. … It’s not skin color, it’s not religion, it’s conduct. If you’re blocking traffic, if you’re commercially selling products from the median, I’ve never sent any memo to Metro that says that’s legal."

Allen Lichtenstein, lead attorney for the local ACLU, remembers that meeting of about a decade ago.

"It was agreed as long as they’re not blocking traffic or interfering or harassing anyone, then they have a First Amendment right. It was agreed by all the parties that the streets as well as the sidewalk are the quintessential public forum …

"My understanding is they’re not selling their papers, if asked they’ll give them away," Lichtenstein said. "If people feel intimidated, that’s a bit of a concern as a basis for issuing tickets, because the fact that they are the Nation of Islam may make people feel intimidated. I’m not aware of anything in the code that makes being a large black man illegal, or that puts restrictions on someone’s activities because someone is a large black man."

BOLD BEHAVIOR

Bisch drove through the same intersection, off duty and out of uniform, the day after she issued her three tickets. The Nation of Islam guys were at it again. They actually knocked on her window.

"Are you kidding me?" she asked. "I just wrote you a citation for this yesterday."

She says the solicitors laughed and shouted to one another, " ‘Hey, it’s Miss Bush.’ They call me Miss Bush. …

"The citation is supposed to put them on notice to end the behavior," Bisch points out. "If an officer issues repeat citations and the behavior doesn’t change, the next step is normally that we take the offender to jail."

"I live in the Rancho and Charleston area," says District Judge Donald Mosley. "They’re out there all the time, and oftentimes they’re blocking traffic, talking to people, blocking traffic and people are waiting for them to get out of the way. It just gets me a little aggravated that we can’t seem to control, as a city, people collecting alms this way. They’re out there all the time. If they’re getting cited, it’s not having any effect.

"I was told some years ago they don’t want to do anything because they don’t want to stop the firemen from doing the boot drive. Well, the answer is a permit system."

Indeed, county firefighters collecting funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association now limit their drives to private parking lots. If city firefighters work the intersections, they get a permit, Officer Bisch explains — a permit which is good for only three days a year.

Does Mosley believe the "special deal" under which the Nation of Islam gets to ignore this particular law has been crafted in hopes of "buying peace" in West Las Vegas?

"That’s what a Taser is for, to buy peace," the judge responded.

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Review-Journal, and author of the novel "The Black Arrow." See www.vinsuprynowicz.com.

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