July 12, 2006 – A man is gunned down after a confrontation over a loud car stereo. A teenager is shot in the back as he tears down a street to escape his pursuers, hands bound.
In a rough city like Las Vegas, these incidents would ordinarily be the stuff of local crime blotters: except in all the incidents, the bullets came from police officersâ€™ guns.
In recent months, a rash of shootings involving the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department has sent chills through local communities. Yesterday, a coalition of civil-liberties and community-advocacy groups, including state and local branches of the NAACP, ACORN, the Mexican American Political Association and the American Civil Liberties Union, launched a campaign calling for an overhaul of what they view as a law-enforcement system rife with impunity.
This year, the Metro police have registered nineteen officer-involved shootings, six of which took place in the past month. The shootings resulted in ten deaths, and another death resulted from the use of a Taser electroshock weapon. The number of shootings has already exceeded the total for all of 2005, according to police statistics.
Activists have been especially incensed over the shooting death of 17-year-old murder suspect Swuave Lopez as he fled the police in handcuffs. The case was recently sealed by a special investigatory hearing that deemed the killing "justifiable" according to the stateâ€™s legal standards.
Activists say that some of the recent shootings seem more a product of poor judgment by police than imminent danger.
Dean Ishman, president of the Las Vegas NAACP and a retired police officer, told The NewStandard that while his organization understands that police may face difficult choices in extreme situations, some of the recent shootings seem more a product of poor judgment by police than imminent danger.
Ishman pointed to a July 4 shooting as a sign that police might be allowing minor disputes to escalate into tragedies. According to publicized police accounts, when an officer approached 31-year-old Tarance Deshon Hall to order him to turn down his blaring sound system and reached into his car, Hall pulled away, leaving the officer clinging to the side of the vehicle. A crash and a fatal shot from another officer followed.
"All of our young people drive around with their windows down and loud music," remarked Ishman. "Driving down Las Vegas Boulevard with a loud radioâ€¦ should not result in anyoneâ€™s death."
Gary Peck, executive director of the Nevada ACLU, said the spike in police shootings "should raise serious questions about the culture of the department, about the training, andâ€¦ whether or not they are unnecessarily putting themselves in positions where using deadly force necessarily becomes an option."
But JosÃ© Montoya, an officer and spokesperson for the Metro police, said that the decision to use lethal force is more complex than the public might assume. "Itâ€™s pretty easy to play Monday Morning Quarterback, and itâ€™s difficult for us to predict what the criminal is going to do with their behavior," he told The NewStandard. "Weâ€™re in a situation where we have to react to that behavior."
Some argue that police-involved violence stems from bias and weak relations with the community: When there is little mutual trust or communication, police might be less hesitant to use force.
Montoya noted that the department continually reviews its practices and may internally discipline officers for misconduct. But, he said, these actions are "internal affairs" and as a policy are not publicly disclosed.
Others view police behavior from a different angle. "From our perspectiveâ€¦ this is really just an issue about being scared of the police," said Will Ward, Nevada head organizer with the low-income grassroots advocacy group ACORN.
Ward argued that police-involved violence stems in part from bias and weak relations with the community. When there is little mutual trust or communication, he said, police might be less hesitant to use force in a confrontation, "rather than trying to calm someone down and take control of the situation, based on a greater understanding of this individual and the community that they come from."
For many cops patrolling local streets, Ward said, "because they donâ€™t have that relationship, itâ€™s less an individual â€“ a real person â€“ that theyâ€™re dealing with, and more just a suspect that they can shoot in the back, if they need to."
Ward said the local chapter of ACORN, with a membership he estimates at about 60 percent Latino and 30 percent black, had recently facilitated meetings between police and community members to encourage cooperation in addressing neighborhood crime. But with the surge in officer-involved shootings, he commented, despite police outreach efforts, "at the end of the day, what theyâ€™re doing is killing a lot of low-, moderate-income, and minority peopleâ€¦ which doesnâ€™t go very far in trying to build good relationships."
Processes like the coronerâ€™s inquest may be unlikely to spur major reform, because laws on the use of deadly force tend to give police broad discretion.
The US Supreme Court has ruled that police can legally use deadly force against an individual as a "reasonable" means of preventing what the police consider serious potential harm. Nevada revised its criminal code in 1993 to allow deadly force against an escaped suspected felon if he or she "poses a threat of serious bodily harm to the officer or to others."
But activists maintain that current state law enables police to exercise deadly force in situations that do not justify it. They also say lawmakers should look toward the Metro policeâ€™s own code of conduct. The departmentâ€™s policy allows the use of deadly force only "to prevent the escape of a fleeing felon who [the officer] has probable cause to believe will pose a significant threat to human life if escape should occur."
In Ishmanâ€™s view, this rule is actually more protective of potential victims than the state statute. "Unfortunately," he said, "our state laws donâ€™t agree with the police policies, which would tend to uphold what weâ€™re saying: that you donâ€™t shoot someone in handcuffs who is running away. He is not an immediate threat to anyoneâ€™s life, and therefore he should not be shot. But our state law doesnâ€™t say that."
The ACLU has also decried the public process for probing officer-involved homicides, known as a coronerâ€™s inquest. Designed as a "fact-finding" hearing as opposed to a trial, the district attorneyâ€™s office orchestrates the process before a jury and questions witnesses without cross-examination. Representation of the deceased is limited to written questions submitted by family members and other advocates, which are filtered through a "hearing master" â€“ a legal professional designated by the Clark County Commission.
Though the juryâ€™s verdict is not binding on any government entity, the district attorney and the police departmentâ€™s internal "use of force board" may act on the finding in deciding whether to prosecute or discipline an officer. However, of about 150 inquests over the past 30 years, only one was deemed criminally negligent, in 1976; the rest were "excusable," "justified" or otherwise not liable.
According to the Coronerâ€™s office, blacks and Hispanics constitute more than half of the cases vetted through the inquest system since 2004, whereas they make up approximately 10 and 24 percent of the Las Vegas population.
The ACLU contends that the Lopez shooting inquest ignored troubling holes in the witness accounts.
The officer who fired the fatal shot, Shane Womack, testified that he was about 25 to 30 feet away from Lopez when he shot him. But another testifying officer recalled that Womack was just six to eight feet away.
The ACLU argues the discrepancy might have implications for judging whether officers acted appropriately. But the seven-member jury nevertheless ruled that the killing was "justified" following testimony by officers and other witnesses who spoke about Lopezâ€™s alleged criminal involvement.
From a legal standpoint, said ACLU attorney Allen Lichtenstein, widely differing eyewitness accounts should have raised "some real questions about the necessity of shooting him." However, he said, "that wasnâ€™t addressed at the coronerâ€™s inquest. The coronerâ€™s inquest was mainly about what a bad guy he was."
Oren Root, deputy director of the national law-enforcement policy think tank Police Assessment Resource Center, said that processes like the coronerâ€™s inquest are unlikely to spur major reform, because laws on the use of deadly force tend to give police broad discretion.
"Lots of people who are upset at shootings put energies and hopes into seeing indictments of officers," Root said. "But the problem with that is that rarely is there enough evidence to charge officers with violating the law, based on what the law is.â€¦ The law gives officers a wide scope for using deadly force."
But Root noted that state legislatures have the authority to amend existing laws on deadly force to go beyond the minimum standard set by the Supreme Court. Individual jurisdictions, as well as police agencies, he said, could establish heavier restrictions on the circumstances in which officers may legally use lethal tactics.
The civil-liberties coalition formed in Las Vegas is pressing lawmakers to strengthen the use-of-force statutes, as well as mechanisms for investigating deaths that police officers cause.
The organizations say they want to see the Nevada criminal code tightened to make it harder to "justify" police killings. They are also calling for an overhaul of the coronerâ€™s inquest process, to provide for fuller legal representation of the deceased and for an independent body to handle the proceedings, rather than the district attorney, who normally works closely with law enforcement.
Lichtenstein said that even if the inquest system serves simply to shed some light on deaths at the hands of police, the process could still be strengthened to empower communities. "Internal police investigations are generally not disclosed to the public, and itâ€™s the police investigating themselves," he said. "These are situations with police who are supposed to be accountable to the public, and the coronerâ€™s inquest is the only public inquiry. And it should be a real one, and a fair one, and a credible one. And it is not."