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NEVADA VIEWS: Police tensions have long simmered in Las Vegas

We are saddened and frightened by the shootings in Las Vegas during recent protests. A Metro police officer was shot, and, in a separate incident, police killed another person believed to be an armed protester. We hope for the survival of the officer and grieve the loss of the civilian’s life. These shootings are not representative of the community-wide protests and vigils, but they arise in a city that has long been simmering with tension between police and local residents.

Las Vegas has been filled with protesters calling out the name of George Floyd, whose death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers sparked national outrage. We were surprised that comparatively few signs or chants — especially during the Strip protests — included the names of black people killed by police in Las Vegas. Floyd’s death was the most recent breaking point for many people, but this has happened before, and it has happened here.

Last fall, Byron Williams died while being handcuffed and restrained by Metro officers. Mr. Williams was stopped because he was riding a bicycle at night without the required safety lights. He was chased and restrained for allegedly resisting arrest. He told officers he could not breathe. His pleas were ignored by the officers, and he died. The coroner ruled Mr. Williams’ death a homicide, but his report cited intoxicants and underlying health conditions as possible contributing factors.

In 2017, Tashii Farmer Brown, who was likely experiencing a mental health crisis, approached Metro officers claiming that he was being followed and then ran away. Former officer Kenneth Lopera tased Brown and continued to tase him after he had fallen to the ground. Despite Mr. Brown attempting to communicate compliance by saying “I will,” “OK, sir,” and “please” between being tased a total of seven times, officer Lopera punched him in the head repeatedly before placing him in a chokehold. He continued the hold well after Mr. Brown went limp and another officer told him to let go. The coroner found that Mr. Brown died of asphyxia from the chokehold, but the report also cited intoxicants and underlying health conditions as contributing factors.

These Las Vegas cases share painful similarities with George Floyd’s case. The police started encounters for relatively minor reasons. Neither of the victims was violent toward the officers, the police quickly escalated violence after the victims did not defer to the badge as quickly and willingly as officers may have wanted. Both men promised to comply and pleaded for help, but police officers ignored their words and continued to restrain the men until they lost consciousness.

Despite the obvious role of police violence, each of their deaths was blamed in part on underlying health conditions common among African Americans. The irony is that these conditions are traceable in part to the experience of living under constant racism. They are the same conditions that make black people more vulnerable to our broken health care system and coronavirus and which are now being used to blame black victims of the police.

Nor are these the only cases. There are countless other names of black and brown people killed by police here, including Keith Childress, Trevon Cole, Stanley Gibson, Rafael Olivas, Sharmel Edwards and Rex Wilson. In 2011, the Review-Journal tracked police use of force. The investigation revealed that shootings were common but often unnecessary and that race played a role in many incidents. At that time, Metro was third in the nation in officer-involved shootings. One-third of the victims were black, though only about 10 percent of Las Vegas’s population is black.

It is important to acknowledge that Metro has made valuable changes since then, partnering with the Department of Justice in 2012 and revising its use of force policies in 2012 and 2017. But the death of Byron Williams shows there is still work to be done.

It is striking that while officers in other cities knelt with protesters, here in Las Vegas lines of police in riot gear faced off against them. Meanwhile, our district attorney has filed charges in only one police-related death, but had a rare failure to get an indictment. Activists have long complained that our Citizen Review Board is ineffective and in need of reform. And our last Legislature passed a law (promoted by police unions but opposed by Metro) that over-protects officers accused of misconduct and makes internal investigations harder.

We hope acknowledging that police violence is also a local problem will help create positive change. These protests should lead to demands for specific, doable reforms that will transform policing. Public officials must act to prevent more loss of life by making the real changes that are required for real peace.

Addie C. Rolnick, Stewart Chang and Frank Rudy Cooper are professors at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law and are co-facilitators of its program on race, gender and policing.

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