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March 5, 2015

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j. patrick coolican:

Stats on Metro Police shootings show need for reforms

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J. Patrick Coolican

We have long suspected that Metro Police officers shoot their guns more often than police in other cities, and that our process for investigating those shootings is faulty.

Now, thanks to an investigation by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, we are closer to knowing whether that’s true.

At the risk of improperly summarizing the project, here are what I believe are the most important findings:

• Among 16 big-city police departments that provided statistics to the paper for the decade 2001 to 2010, Metro ranked third in officer-involved shootings per capita and third in shootings per violent crime. Over time, per capita officer-involved shootings in Las Vegas have increased.

• Blacks make up less than 10 percent of the population, but were targets in 30 percent of the shootings.

• From the paper’s investigation: “At least 33 times since 1990 Las Vegas police have shot at an unarmed person. Seven, including one fatality, occurred in one recent 16-month period, September 2009 to January 2011.” About half of the unarmed were black.

• After looking at each shooting since 1990, the paper concludes that police “repeatedly place themselves in harm’s way, forcing confrontations where they have no choice but to shoot. Those shootings were legally justified, but just because a shooting is legal doesn’t mean it had to happen.”

Specifically, officers engaged in risky foot chases, and, in about one in five shootings, they fired into cars. Police experts say both types of incidents are often preventable.

• Police work is dangerous: Las Vegas officers have been wounded by gunfire at least 22 times since 1990, and in at least 88 of the 310 incidents, officers said they were shot at before firing back.

(And let’s add: Aside from the sheer danger, policing is difficult, thankless work and not lucrative.)

But can we reduce the number of officer involved shootings?

The experience of other cities suggests we can.

Eugene O’Donnell is a former New York City police officer, training officer and prosecutor and now an expert in policing at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He told me the R-J series “raises significant questions, and it puts that department in a time lag. A lot of departments have already had that conversation” and made adjustments to reduce shootings.

As New York magazine pointed out this year, in the early 1970s New York City was a veritable war zone, with frequent gun battles leading to the deaths of a dozen officers in one year.

But according to a recently released firearms discharge report, last year, “the New York City Police Department experienced the fewest firearms discharges, and shot and killed the fewest number of people since formal recording of such data began 40 years ago in 1971.”

As the Review-Journal notes, in 2010 “Las Vegas police shot at people 25 times, killing eight. The New York City Police Department, with 13 times more officers covering a population six times larger, shot at people 34 times, killing eight.”

In recent years, Denver cut its police shootings by one-quarter, and Portland reduced its by half.

Sheriff Doug Gillespie, through a spokesman, declined to comment, and Metro declined to make anyone available to talk about the series.

Bill Sousa, a UNLV criminologist who has worked as an unpaid consultant to Metro, praised the agency’s stated willingness to change its policies if need be.

For instance, as the Review-Journal noted, Gillespie “created two new teams to investigate shootings and recently said he is reaching out to community groups for ideas on how to fix the inquest system and repair his department’s internal review procedures. He’s asked a team of researchers from California to study racial sensitivity issues, an effort now midway through a two-year process.”

Sousa also said comparing officer-involved shootings in Las Vegas with those in other cities is problematic because of factors that can’t be easily quantified: We have 40 million tourists here every year, as well as a culture of risk-taking, transience and a love of guns that could make officers feel less secure on the street.

(As for our system for investigating officer-involved shootings, I’ll be writing a future column about that issue, but suffice to say, it’s deeply flawed.)

Why does this issue matter? After all, aren’t most of the targets hardened criminals?

Aside from the potential for deadly mistakes, these shootings tend to fray the relationship between police and the public, especially in certain neighborhoods where the shootings are most concentrated.

And, frayed relationships with the law-abiding public, especially in tough neighborhoods, make solving and preventing crime that much harder. One would hope this would concern Metro.

A scarier scenario is that the shootings are just a symptom of a larger disease — a lawless cowboy policing culture, like the Los Angeles Police Department of decades past. Let’s hope that’s not the case.

I was troubled by an R-J story last year about police training, in which the training officer told the reporter, “I believe every single recruit here, when they put that badge on, they are warriors. We’re fighting a war.”

I get that there are bad people out there who wish harm on all of us, including police officers. But if law abiding citizens — Metro’s best intelligence resource — feel besieged by a militarized police force, how willing will they be to help police prevent and solve crime?

As O’Donnell told me: “Some of that is clearly not the right rhetoric when you’re talking about civilian democratic policing.”

He said there’s a proper balance, that officers must be able to go from zero to 60 when a threat arises, but also understand that policing and war-fighting are two very different skills.

“When policing becomes an ‘us v. them’ thing, the ‘otherness’ thing, that’s the invitation to abuse. When everybody is an attacker, an assailant, a lethal threat — that’s not the right mind-set,” he said.

Sousa said that kind of language doesn’t match his experience with Metro, which he said has been progressive in its willingness to work with researchers and community groups. He said he’s worked with a lot of officers he called “community-oriented, problem-solving officers.”

For instance, the Safe Village Initiative in West Las Vegas combined police resources with intense community outreach to churches, schools, UNLV and health care providers. The effort reduced violent crime by 40 percent.

Given that kind of success, we have every reason to believe similar efforts in police-community relations — including on use of force issues — can be just as successful.

Police in our society are granted a legalized monopoly on violence and kidnapping. As such, there is no greater civic obligation than keeping a watchful eye on the officers of the law who are granted that enormous responsibility.

I commend the R-J — including for shelling out the $10,000 to Metro to get the records.

And now the hard work of reform begins.

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  1. There definitely is a problem. But despite the RJ's investigation, the biggest question that no one has asked is where that problem specifically lies: With Metro or with the Community's Standards? As the RJ pointed out, the inquest panels are nothing more than "rubber-stamp" procedures that just validate Metro's actions. Is that because of some sort of complex conspiracy initiated by Metro, Police Unions, and others? Or is it because the community as a whole doesn't have a problem with the deaths? Aside from typical banter and trolling, examining the comments on both the RJ as well as the Sun's website here reveals that most citizens are in fact fine with the job that Metro is doing.

    Take Trevon Cole for example. It is quite obvious that his death could easily have been prevented, sure. But if you examine the community's standards as seen here on the boards, to be blunt, people feel that no "innocent" lives were lost and the only person who died was a worthless drug dealer. Same thing with Erik Scott where the only loss of life perceived was that of a looser addicted to pain meds, and like almost ALL of the others was defiant of law enforcement. Now neither examples necessarily represent my own opinions, but simply what I have observed as the overwhelming opinions of people who have posted online here and on the RJ's website.

    The real question that needs to be asked isn't "Will the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department reform it's policies?". No, the question that should really be presented is, "Do the Citizens of Las Vegas actually want Metro to reform themselves, or are they happy with current policies that enable them to clean up the streets with extreme prejudice, in order to dispense the true form of justice they want, yet the courts are not able to deliver?"

    Without asking this second question, the RJ's investigation, while valuable in it's own right, is incomplete to the point of being almost worthless in pointing out the real issue behind all of this.

  2. "I commend the R-J -- including for shelling out the $10,000 to Metro to get the records."

    Coolican -- excellent article, particularly for us meateaters tired of the usual shallow fluff pieces. This bit proves how out of reach accountability is to ordinary citizens.

    I've posted here many times on the threshold point for every encounter with Metro's badged bullies -- their oaths to support, defend and protect the Constitutions. Since Nevada's Constitution is uniquely linked with its federal counterpart, let's start with the promise of the 14th Amendment -- "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall ... deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law..." Since Metro is the state's instrument to "enforce any law" in this area, and each officer's oath is essentially his promise to each of us he will respect the boundaries of the Bill of Rights between each of us and his enforcement, that's where this should begin.

    Three Metro bike cops gave me a lesson last July they not only had no respect for their oaths or the limits on the authority We the people entrusted them with, they feared no consequences of ignoring those limits.

    This is going to be such a lively Discussion. Thanx for providing it.

    "Indifference to personal liberty is but the precursor of the State's hostility to it." -- United States v. Penn, 647 F.2d 876 (9th Circuit, 1980), Judge Kennedy dissenting

  3. "The real question that needs to be asked isn't "Will the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department reform it's policies?"

    DMCVegas -- I disagree with your reasoning about the "community standards" being Metro's primary policy concern. Since your post wasn't up when I started mine, have a look at my post about their oaths, which trump every other policy consideration every time. Their first duties are to the Rule of Law, which includes the Bill of Rights. This means it's not up to Metro at all, it goes along with the badges and guns we let them wear. Any other consideration is at best secondary. Otherwise we're back to the days when the KKK ruled by popular consensus.

    To put in its proper context -- when Metro's Schreiber was at my car window last July, after the usual request for license, etc., he bluntly asked "do you have anything illegal in your vehicle?" When I reminded him that was a Fifth Amendment question that's when the REAL Metro showed its face -- backed up with three of their cars worth of them blocking off both me and the street.

    Both the state and federal Constitutions expressly forbid forcing anyone to incriminate themselves. There's also their promise each of us are to be free from all unreasonable searches and seizures, something these Metro bullies blew through like mere paper barriers.

    It boils down to government exists to secure our freedoms, not take them. It must clear the way for Metro to be more accountable, not put so many barriers in the way someone like me seeking redress is forced into a highly technical and byzantine shell game.

    "If the exercise of constitutional rights will thwart the effectiveness of a system of law enforcement, then there is something very wrong with that system." -- Escobedo v. State of Illinois, 378 U.S. 478, 490 (1964)

  4. The first thing to do. Do as you are told. Then everyone goes home. Make a choice, Fight, Flight, or STAY, then do as you are told. The first two, can and sometimes get you shot. Pretty simple. If an Officer is, putting their life on the line WHY can't he/she protect themselves. Police are protecting the public, they should have all the lead way needed, to go home at the end of shift. You are saying, they have to think to shoot or not to shoot, in 1/64 thousands of a sec. Pray tell me, how many thousands of a second, dose a Loser Take? Give me a break. Better yet..if an Officer give you a command. "DO IT"

  5. "The first thing to do. Do as you are told."

    Aaronboy -- right. I stopped doing what mommy and daddy told me to do long ago. You seem to have a constant problem with those of us who question authority, and that's the antithesis of what it means to be a fully functioning citizen in this republic.


    "The Fuhrer is always right." -- Joachim von Ribbentrop, the 1939 Konigsberg address

  6. I particularly enjoy the "faces of the dead" portion of this piece. The mugshots from prior incidents really add a nice touch to this thing. Funny, I don't recall seeing a piece with as much effort and detail being written about parents and the community as a whole doing a better job to raise our children and set a good example so that we can avoid these types of things. Odd.

  7. @KillerB:

    I'm not disagreeing with you at all. I too have had many run-ins with Metro over the years. Sometimes they were justified such as when I was speeding, but many others they were not. The worst of which was getting pulled over because an officer claimed that he thought I was wanting to run a stop sign. No crime was committed, and he admitted that. He said that I looked like I was going to run a stop sign, but then saw him (I didn't) and changed my mind. According to him, that was suspicion enough to pull me over. I got the same line of questions asking me if I had anything illegal in the car, and then asked if I was actually the owner of said car. He even went so far as to ask if I was sure I wasn't out joy riding in my father's car at night without him knowing it. I told him my father was deceased, the car was mine, and I was driving to the Albertson's to get some groceries since I didn't get off work until 9pm. He kept shining a flashlight through the louvers on the back of my car, and then through the rear glass on the sides trying to look around. He asked me what was back there, and I told him the engine of the car. Clearly aggravated he took my license, proof of insurance, and then shined his flashlight through the windshield onto my dash to write down the VIN, and proceeded to go to my rear license plate where he even wrote down the serial # off my registration sticker. He then detained me for another 20 minutes while he ran all of this. I know that because he told me such, as well as let me know that I was "lucky" that everything came up clean. He then warned me to watch myself because he'd be keeping an eye out for me. After that I stayed within North Las Vegas to do all of my shopping and never had a problem with NLVPD.

    Getting back to the point however, you and I are in total agreement. I don't however know if the community as a whole is. Sure they'll be outcry of some sort, but will it be very loud? Most people seem to be quite happy with the job that Metro has done thus far, arguing that the people who have been shot or killed in some way deserved it for their immediate actions, or past transgressions.

  8. @Aaronboy (Roy Keith)

    Following an officer's instructions are perfectly fine as long as they are within reason. Stand still? Hands up? Sit on the Curb? Empty your pockets? Yes, those are all quite reasonable. Shooting a handcuffed subject in the back of the head without an prompting? Shooting someone flushing drugs down a toilet? Repeatedly killing suspects when there are no other witnesses around? Do those sound like reasonable requests? Do they even sound justified?

    What if a cop told you wife, your child, or even you yourself to bribe them with money, or even say perform a sexual act upon them, or even told you to sit down while they sexually assaulted or straight-out raped your wife in front of you. If you got up to stop it, by your logic it would be perfectly acceptable for them to subdue YOU by way of physical violence. After all you're no longer doing as you're told.

    I agree that when dealing with a police officer during a tense situation, compliance and cooperation are the best, and safest policy for all involved. However there are still certain reasonable requirements and accommodations that said officer(s) need to extend. By the same token while most cops are good, honest people, there are those few corrupt ones that do exist and abuse both their power and the public who entrust them to protect them. In such cases you absolutely should be able to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your property from them.

  9. "Getting back to the point however, you and I are in total agreement."

    DMCVegas -- nice to know.

    For sure Metro won't change itself, for the most part because they don't have to -- with their typical bullies' "make me" attitude, change will have to come from us. I'm looking forward to the citing officer being under oath answering my questions at the trial next month.

    "The foundation of the freedoms we enjoy as Americans is the U.S. Constitution, the longest surviving constitution of any nation in history. To be civically unaware is to diminish our freedom, but knowing our history makes us all better Americans." -- George Nethercutt Jr., former Congressman in his book "In Tune with America"

  10. We need the Feds to come in and thoroughly investigate Metro; put the bad cops in jail for a very long time; recall Gillespie; change the way the sheriff is selected, and bring in a professional from outside Metro to run the department. Also set up an impartial oversight committee to keep a tight rein on the activities of Metro cops, plus disband the police union. All public service sector unions should be made unconstitutional in Nevada.

  11. "A tense situation with guns drawn is NOT the time."

    improveLV -- almost missed you there amongst the untrusted. As one who has had a cop draw on me, it's not what I meant, of course. That's a time for "yessir nosir three bags full, sir!" The common Metro encounter is a traffic stop.

    " disband the police union. All public service sector unions should be made unconstitutional in Nevada.

    ionfield -- why exactly? Just because individual cops violate their oaths doesn't mean as a group they lose their Constitutional rights to peaceful assembly.

    "A citizen has the absolute right to question authority (Cops) but they have to do so in the proper venue."

    alma -- why would there and then not be "the proper venue"? I gave Metro the chance to honor his oath and he declined. Now it's being sorted out elsewhere.

    "blah-blah-blah...reeks of a person who is the first to cry foul when something doesn't fit the narrowly constructed template they exist in.....never had a negative experience with any of the law enforcement..."

    Heretic -- that "narrowly constructed template" we ALL exist in is called this republic of the USA and of Nevada, and they are both "narrowly constructed" with their Constitutions. Continue in ignorance, your choice -- like not recognizing my first two quotes are cites from high court decisions concerning Constitutional rights. "btw" it would be interesting hear what you have to say when you do get that encounter. From what others have posted here my encounter was hardly unusual. Finally, go look at that quote under my post to Aaronboy.

    The offal is going to be hitting the fan soon when misdemeanor cell phone arrests start happening next month.

    "Where rights secured by the Constitution are involved, there can be no rulemaking or legislation which would abrogate them." -- Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 491 (1966)

  12. "Stop, Police" respect the law you have no troubles. The suspects start running, why? If you are stupid and do not comply then you get shot at, I think that is a determent to a few thugs. Still alot of stupid one out there who will challenge it, and get shot. More great role models.

  13. KillerB, primarily because the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, the police union, has too much power and influence in protecting the bad cops. They are a hindrance to true reform within Metro and they, along with Clark County commissioners, have negotiated pay and benefits packages that we can no longer afford.

    Public sector unions in Clark County and the commissioners, who are all too willing to give them whatever they ask for in order to garner their support in elections, have put us into an untenable situation. Public sector employees--police, firefighters, etc.,--have received pay and benefits, in particular their pension plans, that have put county government in dire straits bringing the county to the brink of bankruptcy. We have no way to pay for their overly generous pension plans in the future without drastic increases in taxes or drastic decreases in benefits. That is why. It has nothing to do with their constitutional right to peaceful assembly.

  14. "KillerB, primarily because the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, the police union, has too much power and influence in protecting the bad cops."

    ionfield -- thanx for your answer. I appreciate your concerns, but you should recognize the problem is the same as it is with Metro -- it's not about police departments being inherently evil and should be banned, it's how the organization has strayed so far from the purpose it was formed for it has now become predatory. Banning the union serves no purpose but to provoke another lawsuit against the county and guess who ends up paying for that. The union has no influence if those representing us on the county commission know they're watched and cannot be influenced away from the trust their constituents elected them to.

    If that doesn't make much sense I need a nap.

    "After the coffee things ain't so bad." -- Henry Herbert Knibbs, cowboy poet, d. 1945

  15. dipstick - "the doofus in costco was carrying TWO guns!"

    So what! Law Enforcement along with many other law abiding citizens carry a back up weapon, you would need to be a real dipstick to let someone get your weapon and use it against you and not have a 2nd gun. Based on your comment you know nothing about carry practices or the case involving Mr. Scott.

  16. Why did the RJ get this story out and not the Sun? Shame!!!!

  17. This entire city is managed like a third world country. The individuals in the LVMPD are talented yet mismanaged. Now that the story and data is available to everyone, we can all sit back and do nothing.

  18. I recognize that adequate training is a necessary component of an efficient, community oriented police force. I also realize that in a large force there will be a few bad apples. Given that, it falls on management and city officials to use studies such as the one described above to provide adequate oversight that ensures the safety of the general public.

    Now that I've said all of the politically correct things, let me remind everyone that our police officers are "the tip of the spear" in the ever increasing atmosphere of violence and crime that is spreading throughout the nation. It's a tough and dangerous job.

    Police departments have two choices in my opinion:

    1. Protect law-abiding, tax-paying citizens by dealing with the criminal element in a manner that puts themselves in a superior position.


    2. Do like is often done in California. Focus on peaceful, law-abiding citizens whose "crime" is jaywalking, etc. Having lived in northern California, I've seen countless situations where the police refused to patrol high crime areas on a routine basis...focusing instead on parking violations in the Walmart (et al) parking lots.

    I, for one, recognize that a gun-toting drug-dealing, wanted felon who is looking to hijack a car at the traffic light is a bit more of a threat to society than someone who inadvertently parks too close to a fire hydrant.

    As mentioned above, when the police yell "Stop Police" at a person who is fleeing, the correct move is to stop. Innocent people don't flee when they see a police officer. Innocent people don't carry a concealed, unregistered firearm around. Criminals do.

    I contend that studies that depict possible issues need to be examined and corrections need to be employed. However, to expect our police to avoid confrontations or (worse yet) fail to use deadly force without going through a check-list before acting is downright insane.