Las Vegas Sun

April 24, 2014

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Fewer citizen complaints put cops on beats

In less than a month, half of Metro's Internal Affairs department will be jettisoned for new assignments and will not be replaced.

The reason is clear: For the fifth year in a row, the number of citizen complaints against officers has fallen, leaving a smaller caseload.

But the cause of the more than 50 percent drop in complaints, despite a population increase of more than 25 percent during that time, is anyone's guess.

Deputy Chief Mike Ault, who heads Metro's Professional Standards Division, runs Internal Affairs. He's far from sure about what factors are behind the decline. All the same, he knocked on his wooden desk Monday afternoon in the hopes that complaints continue to dwindle.

"I can just tell you that they're down," Ault said. "And I can postulate that could be for a number of reasons."

There are plenty of theories, depending on whom you ask.

Ask Ault and he'll tell you that Metro's performance is improving. He'll also tell you that citizen complaints filed against police departments nationwide have fallen.

And at Metro, while citizen complaints declined, Ault points out that complaints filed from within the department have increased steadily.

"When you have declining external complaints and increasing internally generated complaints, that tells me there is a pretty good cadre of enlightened supervisors that are taking care of business," he says.

Training Metro supervisors to recognize and correct low-level policy violations may have encouraged better behavior all around, Ault says. With early, corrective counsel from supervisors, rookie mistakes are less likely to develop into full-blown Internal Affairs issues, he says: "If you can counsel somebody as correction, that's a good plan. The reality is, we don't get that many repeat customers."

Ask Sam Walker, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska who studies citizen complaints, and he'll tell you there are basically two feasible - and very different - reasons for a decline in citizen complaints: Either police performance is improving, or citizens have lost faith in the system and aren't bothering to file formal grievances.

Knowing conclusively which of those two scenarios applies at Metro is impossible, Walker says, without extensive and expensive public attitude surveys to determine how citizens perceive the complaint process.

"It probably means something. I don't know exactly what that is," he says. "People want simple answers, and the numbers don't necessarily explain what is going on. It's very complicated."

Civil rights attorneys might have the best insight why complaints are falling, Walker says. If those lawyers are advising clients that filing complaints is a worthless endeavor, he says, one might conclude that public faith in the Internal Affairs system is eroding.

Pose the question then to Gary Peck, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, and he'll confirm that the organization advises citizens to avoid filing complaints directly with Internal Affairs. Moreover, Peck advises anyone filing a complaint with allegations of criminal misconduct to first get a lawyer, as making false complaints against the police department is grounds for prosecution in Nevada.

Peck, too, has ideas but no certainties about the large drop in citizen complaints.

"We can't conclude much of anything based on that raw data," he says. "There could be a lot of reasons why the number of complaints has gone down, including, I might add, a lack of public confidence in the ability or willingness of Internal Affairs to do anything about their complaints."

Not surprisingly, Ault disagrees with Peck's assessment.

There is yet another theory, however - one cited in the Internal Affairs study Ault distributed to Metro brass: lawsuits.

While the total number of lawsuits levied against Metro has fallen in the past five years, the ratio of those filed per 1,000 complaints has gone up, according to the study. That's fewer people filing more lawsuits, or, as the report reads, more citizens moving "directly to litigation as a solution."

Whatever the reasons for the decrease in citizen complaints - down from 1,576 in 2001 to 759 in 2005 - the bottom line is that workload is down at Internal Affairs, and eight of the 16-member investigation team will be reassigned . Additionally, one of IA's two managing lieutenants will be reassigned to an administrative position.

Andrea Beckman, executive director of the Citizens Review Board, an independent panel that screens complaints before they come to Metro's attention, learned of plans to downsize the police division on Monday and expressed concerns about whether the smaller staff would be able to manage the workload.

There were only seven Internal Affairs investigators when the board was formed in 2000, and the relationship between the independent panel and Metro was initially adversarial, Beckman says. Those strains lessened as the division's staff expanded, she says, and whether quality investigations are possible with a shrunken staff remains to be seen.

"I just hope that they can accommodate their cases with the same type of investigator skills that we have grown accustomed to," she says. "I guess it's a wait-and-see."

If citizen complaints rise again, the IA staff will be readjusted accordingly, Ault assures.

"The numbers are what the numbers are," he says. "I'm pretty busy administering the office day-to-day to answer the question why isn't the phone ringing, or why isn't the phone ringing at the rate it was five years ago."

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