Sunday, June 6, 1999 | 9:48 a.m.
When it comes to confrontations with Metro Police, some say this neon-studded town is still the wild, wild West.
"There is a general perception that excessive use of force is a growing problem in our community," Gary Peck, executive director of Nevada's American Civil Liberties Union chapter, said.
It certainly has been up for discussion this year.
Metro Police have fatally shot three people since January, which is the same number of people Metro officers fatally wounded in all of 1998.
Every shooting brings critics who say the police are out of control and abusing their authority -- a belief that is growing in many metropolitan areas across the country. Even the Internet has 33 websites devoted to complaints about police using excessive physical force.
But despite the public uneasiness, Las Vegas officers are not quick on the draw, Elgin Simpson of the state Supreme Court Racial and Economic Bias Task Force said.
"People have perceptions that police officers are just pulling guns and shooting people. I don't think that's true," Simpson said. "Most people believe that police officers don't care. But the reality is a totally different issue."
Still, it's those times when people aren't shot that the line between reality and public perception becomes really fuzzy. Every year, dozens of people claim officers are rough, insulting or otherwise disrespectful during arrests or in questioning people.
Every year, the FBI receives about 50 complaints about alleged misconduct by Metro Police, Kevin Caudle, Las Vegas FBI spokesman, said.
"We investigate about half of them, and out of those about three to five are pursued," Caudle said. "It's actually a pretty small number. The Detroits and Chicagos -- they get hundreds a year. The percentage of complaints (here) is probably lower than normal."
From January through March this year, the Metro Police Internal Affairs Bureau received 137 complaints against officers. The department received 555 complaints from the public last year, Lt. Larry Spinosa, head of the bureau, said.
It's impossible to calculate how many of those are valid, since the investigations typically take several weeks. For instance, the probe into a 1998 complaint may not be finished until this year, Spinosa said. But generally speaking, about 20 percent of the public's complaints are valid.
"It happens," said Officer Steve Meriwether, Metro Police spokesman. "When you have any contact with the public, there are going to be complaints."
The average person's idea of how police officers should do their jobs often is subliminally influenced by television or the movies, Clark County Coroner Ron Flud said. People don't understand how officers do their jobs.
Flud's office conducts an inquest for every shooting by a law enforcement officer in Clark County. Juries are composed of residents, who determine whether an officer was criminally negligent in the shooting.
Flud recalled one juror who asked why the officer involved couldn't have subdued his suspect with the same disabling grip the television character Mr. Spock used on the "Star Trek" series.
"She actually thought officers were taught the Vulcan death grip," Flud said.
Metro Police officers are taught how to handle situations using something other than brawn or firearms, Meriwether said.
"We have sensitivity training, diversity training. Everything we can do," he said. "The last thing we want to do is get into a physical confrontation. Our most powerful weapon is our mind and our mouth."
But not their exclusive one.
In February, a federal jury determined that a Metro Police officer violated Brenda Nadell's civil rights when he hit the pregnant, intoxicated woman between the legs during a 1994 arrest. They also held the department accountable for not disciplining the officer.
Also in February, two officers accidentally broke a 12-year-old boy's arm as they arrested and handcuffed him at a school bus stop. His parents reportedly hired an attorney, but they have not filed a complaint with internal affairs, Meriwether said.
In March, officers were criticized for manhandling 68-year-old singing legend Phyllis McGuire after they stopped her Cadillac near her home to speak with her driver. The officers struggled with McGuire after she refused to answer their questions or get out of her car.
Neither she nor her driver were being charged in connection with the officers' original, undercover investigation. They wanted to talk to the driver because he had driven the car into the investigation's crime scene in a shopping center near the singer's home and spoken to someone in another car there.
Maybe the situations could have been handled differently and avoided an escalation of conflict. Maybe not. People become aggravated with police officers for all kinds of reasons, Meriwether said.
"There's heat. There's drinking. God only knows what causes a situation to become agitated," he said. "We don't go somewhere because people are happy."
Records show Metro Police officers committed 65 of the 85 shootings the coroner's office investigated in the past 23 years.
All were cleared of any wrongdoing except for those involved in one 1976 shooting. Although jurors in that case did not clear the officers, their conclusion was rejected by a Clark County grand jury, which did not issue a criminal indictment.
Two of this year's shootings have been deemed justified. The third, which happened May 13, remains under investigation.
"I think that shows our training is good because they were all justified," Meriwether said.
But Peck said it shows a system of checks and balances that doesn't work.
"The public is not stupid," he said. "Either the police are unlike anyone else -- perfect -- or there is something wrong with the way these cases are handled. We need a genuinely independent, adequately funded, citizens review board."
Las Vegas city and Clark County officials are honing details for a 25-member citizens review board, which would independently probe shootings by police and public claims of police misconduct.
Franny Forsman, a federal public defender, has been leading the march to create a new system for handling complaints against police since the aftermath of the 1992 Rodney King beating in Los Angeles.
She said the relationship between Metro Police and the public needs repair.
"I know from my experience as a public defender, my clients act badly when they're treated badly," Forsman said. "I think it's an issue of respect for others and an issue of disrespect by some officers."
She said the department has made some major strides recently in trying to bolster its relationship with the public, she said.
But it's going to take a lot of work to gain residents' trust. Officials from the state court system and district attorney's office must be willing to step forward and reprimand officers who step out of line, too, Forsman said.
"You're talking about decades of conduct, and some real mistrust in the community. The systems that are in place are completely mistrusted," she said.
In Los Angeles County the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has recommended that a special prosecutor investigate abuse complaints involving police officers and sheriff's deputies.
After a six-year review, the civil rights panel concluded that using the Los Angeles County district attorney for such probes created a public perception of a conflict of interest.
Law enforcement officers and the district attorney's office work so closely on prosecution of regular cases that it's hard for people to trust the outcomes of excessive force issues in which officers' actions are almost always exonerated, the civil rights panel concluded.
The call for independent investigations here gained momentum in May when coroner's inquest jurors decided Metro Police Officer Bruce Gentner was justified in fatally shooting 32-year-old John Perrin on April 12.
Perrin, who was not armed, was carrying a basketball and running across the street when Gentner stopped him. He shot at Perrin 14 times -- hitting him six times -- as Perrin attempted to pull something from his waistband.
Attorney Brent Bryson, who is pursuing a $25 million lawsuit against Metro Police on behalf of Perrin's family, said it's not the first time he has dealt with such complaints against the department.
"I am not anti-police. We need a police force," the attorney said. "But we need a police force that is going to adhere to the rules. You can't just go around shooting unarmed people."
Such shootings certainly don't help the agency's image, but Bryson said he doesn't know why the tension between police and the public has escalated.
"I don't know if we are just becoming more aware of it as a society and that it's always been there. But it's happening all across the country," the attorney said.
Choose a major or growing city, and there likely is a police department that receives dozens of complaints each year from residents who say officers treated them roughly.
Citizens review boards
To deal with these complaints many cities are creating or overhauling existing citizens review boards.
Pittsburgh's new seven-member citizens' board opened its doors in July 1998 to examine only those cases that did not involve criminal charges, said John Burkoff, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who sits as the board's chairman.
He and his peers listen to allegations of racism, bullying, disrespect and general rudeness people say officers have inflicted upon them.
In some ways, it's worse than hearing about shootings. The lesser indignities happen far more often.
"It's a depressing set of allegations and cases to deal with," Burkoff said. "Some percentage, of course, are frivolous. But it's just unfortunate that a significant percentage are true."
Metropolitan areas across the country are facing a difficult situation in that minority groups and police officers are far more aware of the peevish relationship they often share, Burkoff said. It has made the public and police far more sensitive to each other's actions and aggressions.
"They're inclined to see disrespect at a hair-trigger's notice," he said. "It's very, very difficult for both sides to back down and be cool. We're seeing some situations escalating now that wouldn't have escalated a few years ago."
It doesn't help that fast-growing cities are stretching their police staffs to the limit, with many facing officer-to-population ratios way below the national average.
The national average is 2.5 officers per 1,000 residents. Metro Police, for example, have about 1.9 officers for every 1,000 residents, Meriwether said.
The Phoenix Police Department is the same size as Metro, with 1.9 officers for every 1,000 residents. And it's a fast-growing city, like Las Vegas.
Last year 56 people filed complaints about Phoenix officers' conduct, which is pretty typical of recent trends, said Phoenix Lt. Ken Johnson, who investigates the allegations.
Excessive force is among the top five.
To help keep abreast of potential problems, Phoenix officers must log every injury they inflict when dealing with people, no matter how minor.
"If we take them down and they skin their knees, we enter that," Johnson said. "There are probably hundreds year-in and year-out, if we count every time we skin someone's knuckles."
Los Angeles Police, which has an officer ratio of about 1.6, also started reporting every bump last year, agency spokesman Eddy Zelaya said. They ended up logging 481 officer-inflicted injuries, which is about twice the number reported in previous years.
If a Metro Police officer does something minor, such as accidentally scratching someone when putting on handcuffs, it likely would be mentioned in the officer's arrest report but go no further, Meriwether said.
Under department policy, officers file separate use-of-force reports with their supervisors and the internal affairs office whenever the physical force they exert results in a death, an injury or a complaint of injury.
And officers are more than happy to do so, because most of the time they have done nothing wrong, Meriwether said.
"In my opinion, if you haven't done anything wrong, you want to tell everyone you didn't do something wrong," he said.
Every case is "so particular and so unique," it's impossible to say why seemingly simple situations escalate into something worse, said Johnson of Phoenix.
Even in departments where everything is logged, it's hard to find numbers or reports that show whether dealings with the public are truly more violent more often, he said.
But 24 years behind the badge tells Johnson something is different.
Something is more tense.
"I feel like society as a whole is getting more violent," he said.
Residents feel it, too, and sometimes they are too quick to lay blame at the feet of those who are paid to carry a gun, Simpson said.
"The people I talk to think police are running amok," he said. "I know that's not true."
But it doesn't look good when one shooting happens on the heels of an inquest that justifies another.
And both events happened within a week of state lawmakers deciding residents can be prosecuted for a crime if misconduct complaints filed against officers turn out to be untrue, Simpson said.
"That didn't help. It looks like they (police) are trying to intimidate people," he said. "It's bad legislation. I don't know why anybody would support it. It's just going to make it worse."
Still, people need to consider each case individually, Simpson added. It's easy to criticize law enforcement officers as a whole because people only hear about the questionable decisions.
"When they do stuff that's inappropriate, all the attention is going to be focused there," Simpson said. "All the good things they do, nobody talks about."