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August 2, 2014

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News helicopter no-fly zone in shooting arouses suspicion

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Leila Navidi

A shot pulled from KLAS Channel 8 helicopter video shows where a Henderson Police officer fatally shot a 42-year-old woman who had arrived in an ice cream truck Feb. 12. Police prevented news helicopters from flying over the area immediately after the incident, prompting KLAS to have lawyers prepare a formal complaint.

A fatal police shooting that seemed strange to some of the witnesses on the ground was also, it turns out, unusual from the air above.

When word of the Henderson Police shooting hit the KLAS Channel 8 news desk on the afternoon of Feb. 12, assignment editors at the station immediately tried to send their helicopter to the scene, only to learn that the sky above it was closed to air traffic.

Seemingly no one in local law enforcement, nor local news media, can recall a time when news helicopters were barred from flying over an officer-involved shooting. The decision to do so was made in the aftermath of a shooting that has since been highly scrutinized in the media, largely because several witnesses have come forward to contradict the police version of what happened.

That Henderson Police sought to prevent news helicopters from filming the shooting scene immediately after one of the department’s officers fatally shot a 42-year-old ice cream lady has fueled suspicion about the incident. Police insist Deshira Selimaj had a knife and was shot when she tried to attack an officer, but several witnesses say they never saw a knife and the woman did not appear to be a threat to officers.

On Thursday, during the news conference called by Henderson Police Chief Richard Perkins to defend the officer who shot Selimaj in the abdomen, 23-year-old Luke Morrison, Perkins also said the responding police captain’s decision to call for a flyover ban “had no bearing on the case.”

But Perkins appears to have acknowledged that the captain made a mistake.

The chief has reminded his officers that they need to have a legitimate investigative reason to make such a call, department spokesman Todd Rasmussen said Friday.

It’s common for Henderson Police to stop air traffic during major events, particularly those involving SWAT officers, and the officers responding to the shooting made the decision out of habit, even though the circumstances didn’t necessarily call for it, Rasmussen said. SWAT was not involved in this case, which started with Selimaj’s husband refusing to sign a traffic ticket.

The Federal Aviation Administration confirms it received a call from Henderson Police to halt air traffic, but spokesman Ian Gregor also noted that private aircraft were being kept out of the air space during that time regardless of the police request, to make room for airplanes flying into McCarran International Airport and out of the Henderson airport.

When Bob Stoldal, Channel 8’s vice president of news, got word that his helicopter could not fly over the scene, he called the Police Department to ask why. By the time his concerns were heard and the choppers were cleared, the incident was long since over. Selimaj’s body had been taken to Sunrise Hospital, where she died.

The aerial shots Channel 8 featured on its evening newscasts were filmed at least 90 minutes after the shooting, Stoldal said.

Perkins later called Stoldal to explain that the call for the flyover ban was made by a police captain acting “a little bit overzealous,” Stoldal said.

Stoldal has the TV station’s lawyers preparing a formal complaint.

“A helicopter a mile up?” he said. “How are we interfering?”

Police often ask helicopters to stay away from areas in which SWAT officers are at work below, for fear that a person barricaded in his home, watching a live news feed, might figure out the SWAT tactics and jeopardize the operation, Metro spokesman Bill Cassell said.

Anytime the presence of aircraft hinders an ongoing police operation, particularly if the safety of officers or citizens is in jeopardy, Metro will typically call news stations and ask them to hold back. More formal requests must be filed directly with the FAA, and Metro usually makes that call only for high-profile events such as a presidential visit, Cassell said.

Police do not often have to call off the news helicopters, Cassell said, because they know most do not run live feeds. When Metro Police do ask pilots to back off, he said, they invite them back as soon as possible.

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