Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012 | 5:35 p.m.
Metro Police Sheriff Doug Gillespie says he wants civilian participation in investigations of officer-involved shootings — a change he hopes boosts transparency and credibility.
The proposal comes amid uncertainty whether approved changes to the coroner’s inquest, which determines whether officer-involved shootings were justified, will come about. A lawsuit filed by the Police Protective Association questioning the constitutionality of some changes indefinitely delayed the process. The last inquest was more than a year ago, creating a backlog of cases.
During a wide-ranging meeting Thursday with the Las Vegas Sun’s editorial board, Gillespie defended the department’s investigations of officer-involved shootings while acknowledging the need to do more, such as adding the civilian presence. He also discussed the intersection of the valley’s social problems with crime-fighting efforts and said there would be dashboard cameras or video of some kind recording police work in the near future.
Despite calls for a civilian component to use-of-force investigations, Gillespie reiterated his support for the inquest process and changes to it, historically the final step in the investigative process.
“I’ve said all along I would have liked for the process to be given a chance — allow a few of these inquests eight, 10 months ago to proceed, but they haven’t,” Gillespie said.
The civilian presence would be in addition to representatives from the District Attorney’s Office, with both groups ultimately participating in an internal review, Gillespie said.
“You have to get the right folks,” he said. “You have to get people who will come out at 2 in the morning when it’s their turn.”
Equally important, he said, is finding people who command a high level of respect in the community.
That way, “when they stand up, they’re not looked upon as Doug Gillespie’s friend,” he said.
Gillespie said the department was creating the plan but had not determined when it would start.
This month, Metro announced it voluntarily reached out to the Justice Department program, which will examine 20 years of use-of-force incidents by the department and ultimately recommend best practices.
“The number of shootings has always concerned me,” Gillespie said. “How we investigate, how we evaluate, how we critique, how we analyze, what we do with these situations has been a concern of mine.”
Still, Gillespie defended the department’s reaction to officer-involved shootings, noting changes after Metro visited other jurisdictions to observe different methods.
“We brought back best practices,” he said. “We evaluated them and started implementing these things.”
Last year, Metro was involved in fewer officer-involved shootings than in 2010, but more of the shootings were fatal, Gillespie said.
“I would think that for the most part, the public doesn’t realize that,” he said.
Las Vegas’ distinction as a 24-hour city — with varying work shifts and longer business hours — makes it difficult to compare the number of officer-involved shootings to other jurisdictions, Gillespie said.
“We have a very, very transient population here, and it isn’t just the tourist population,” he said.
But, Gillespie said, the bottom line is this: “One officer-involved shooting is one too many. We need to look at each one of those. If we can identify circumstances that we could have done better to prevent that from occurring … that’s exactly what we want to do.”
Gillespie also touched on whether the community and government were providing enough services for mentally ill residents in Las Vegas, or the nation for that matter.
“I think there could be a compelling case made that we’re not,” he said, calling mental illness an issue that’s often pushed aside.
By default, Gillespie said law enforcement agencies picked up the slack, with jails becoming the largest mental health institutions. About 25 to 30 percent of Clark County inmates receive psychiatric care and medication, Gillespie said.
“The problem is, what happens when they leave?” he said. “We’ve tried some informal aspects of providing medication and a number of other things, but it hasn’t accomplished what needs to be done.”
The situation doesn’t have an easy solution, nor will it ever be eliminated, Gillespie said.
“But it’s not just a police, isolated problem,” he said.