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September 2, 2014

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Chief defends cleared officer

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Steve Marcus

Henderson Police Chief Richard Perkins says his department is reexamining several policies and procedures after the shooting of ice cream truck driver Deshira Selimaj.

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  • Henderson Police Chief Richard Perkins on what changes will be made resulting from the shooting of Deshira Selimaj.
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  • Perkins on why Zyber Selimaj was jailed after his wife's shooting.
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  • Perkins talks about Deshira Selimaj's history of mental illness.
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  • Perkins on the current mood in the department.
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  • Perkins discusses handling the situation.
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Against his attorney’s advice, Henderson Police Chief Richard Perkins is visiting newspapers to talk about the shooting of the ice cream truck driver that has turned his department into a piñata for the past two months.

Luke Morrison, the 23-year-old police officer who killed Deshira Selimaj, is back in his cop car patrolling the streets.

Zyber Selimaj, Deshira’s husband, now a single father of three boys, is also back on the job. For the first time since the shooting he has made the rounds in his own ice cream truck, which now has a “For Sale” sign in the window.

People who bought frozen confections from him on Sunday say Selimaj was weeping.

So, the coroner’s inquest that found Morrison justified in shooting ends with a whimper.

Perkins, who stopped by the Sun office Thursday afternoon, was all hard handshakes and harder talk: The Selimaj shooting was a tragedy, no officer wants to pull the trigger, and in the wake of these things, of course the public gets skeptical of police. And yes, of course that bothers him. And no, he’s not celebrating the fact that a coroner’s inquest found Officer Morrison’s actions were justified.

“Nobody won here,” he said.

Now the department will turn inward and reevaluate its use-of-force policies, Perkins said. Specifically, Perkins is reconsidering the rules for what happens after a shooting. For one, closing off the airspace above the scene after Selimaj was shot probably shouldn’t have happened. But the captain who made that call on the afternoon of Feb. 12 was just following a checklist, Perkins said. A checklist that may need to be revised.

The officers who were there will have to evaluate how they worked together on the day in question, while department officials evaluate their own response: Like whether they were too hasty in getting information about the shooting out to the media (errors were initially presented as facts) and whether there’s a better way to gather officers after a shooting for immediate questioning.

The police union wants to get more involved in things too, Perkins said, so the department will have to work things out with the labor group as well.

But no matter what, Perkins said, Morrison is a hero for saving another officer’s life. Perkins said he doesn’t know every one of his officers personally, but he has gotten to know Morrison. The 5-foot-6 Iraq war veteran is not aggressive in dealing with the public, Perkins said.

If Perkins had been in Morrison’s shoes that day, he would have pulled the trigger too, he said.

As it turns out, Deshira Selimaj had a history of depression, Perkins said. There are indications that she spent some time hospitalized, he said. The details, however, are being hidden behind a wall of patient privacy rights.

Of course, the police chief also has to be careful what he says, because the Selimaj family has filed a lawsuit against the department. It will surely delve into an allegation that Morrison sent hundreds of text messages to two women after he shot Selimaj. Representatives for the Albanian family attempted to ask Morrison about that during the inquest, but Henderson Justice of the Peace Rodney Burr said the questions were not relevant.

Burr read them into the record of the proceeding, and Perkins said that was one of the aims of asking the questions, so the matter can be revisited as part of the lawsuit. Perkins called the questions an ambush, akin to asking, “When did you stop beating your wife?” The department looked through Morrison’s computer communications after the shooting. Nothing was found, Perkins said. Officers still haven’t searched through his personal cell phone, but they’re planning on it — in preparation for the lawsuit.

“It is such a shame that the Taser didn’t work,” the chief said, suggesting without saying outright that none of this would have happened if the device had just deployed correctly. Instead, the Taser prongs splayed out and didn’t successfully connect with and jolt the 42-year-old woman. Immediately after that Morrison fired his weapon because, he and the other officers said, she tried to stab an officer.

Some have suggested that beanbag shotguns might have saved the day, but only one of every four or five department vehicles is equipped with the nonlethal devices. Buying one for every car just isn’t cost-effective when they’re seldom used, Perkins said.

Others have asked why the department didn’t call officers trained in crisis intervention when Selimaj reportedly made suicidal statements. Henderson Police do have a “crisis negotiation team” but its members are usually called to deal with hostage situations, not despondent people threatening to take their own lives, Perkins said. Besides, it would have taken an hour to get the team together, and the scene just wasn’t stable enough for that kind of response.

But if it was so unstable, why did a senior officer ask a trainee to take command of the scene? Well, Perkins said, how do you expect a rookie to learn if his superiors don’t give him the opportunity? And the trainee was being closely supervised, Perkins added.

As for the inquest, the police chief said it’s not perfect and he figures “every process can be improved upon,” but he doesn’t have any specific recommendations. If it is made more adversarial, officers “will lawyer up” and could invoke their Fifth Amendment rights. At least the inquest is conducted in an open courtroom as opposed to a grand jury proceeding, Perkins said.

He is willing to admit he understands why the public might think the relationship between prosecutors and officers is too close for a fair process. But, he reports, Deputy District Attorney Chris Lalli wouldn’t return his calls during the inquest because he wanted to distance himself from the police department. Moreover, Perkins notes, Henderson Police fight with the D.A.’s office all the time — about whom to prosecute, what charges to press, etc.

For now, the mood in the police department is still somber, Perkins said. The officers involved in the shooting were cleared, by a psychiatrist among others, to go back to work, so it’s back to business. Morrison has been behind the wheel since Tuesday, and it may be only a matter of time before he sees Selimaj selling frozen treats around town.

Unless, that is, someone’s in the market for an ice cream truck or two.

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