Las Vegas Sun

October 13, 2015

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Officers refuse to answer questions in death of man shot with Taser

Chris Collins

Chris Collins

Sheriff Doug Gillespie

Sheriff Doug Gillespie

Steve Sisolak

Steve Sisolak

In the first test of the county’s new rules for reviewing police-involved deaths, officers connected with the Dec. 11 death of a suspect who was shot with a Taser are refusing to cooperate with investigators.

Their refusal to make voluntary statements to Metro’s Force Investigation Team is on the advice of the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, said Chris Collins, president of the officers union. From Collins’ standpoint, not only is the officers’ refusal to cooperate the right thing to do, it marks the beginning of the end of the coroner’s inquest system.

The system, in use for 40 years, has come under fire in the wake of controversial shootings involving Metro officers, prompting Clark County commissioners to undertake a revision of the ordinance that lays the ground rules for the courtlike hearings.

“We believe the process to examine (the inquest system) and change the ordinance was the first nail in the coffin,” Collins said. “And I’m going to finish nailing it shut.”

Sheriff Doug Gillespie called Collins’ statements premature.

Although the officers involved in the incident that ended in the death of 44-year-old Anthony Jones refused to talk to Metro’s investigators, Gillespie said they did cooperate in other ways: They gave statements to their supervisors, which can be used in an inquest; they also go through an administrative examination of the incident, which cannot be used in the inquest.

County commissioners are expected to consider and possibly finalize additional changes to the inquest process at their meeting Monday. The key change being considered is the process of selecting the ombudsman, who acts as the representative at the inquest for victim’s family.

“That’s going to be critical, ultimately, to the success of the inquest process changes,” Gillespie said.

He noted that the police union’s objections to the inquest process aren’t new. It has long had concerns about officers giving voluntary statements to homicide investigators, similar to those raised by Collins and the officers involved in the Dec. 11 incident.

“In other cities, too, sometimes they don’t get voluntary statements, but they get the administrative and they are able to determine what happens. And the criminal investigation goes its path and the administrative goes its path.”

Complaints about the inquest system came to a head after two controversial shootings this year involving Erik Scott, a West Point graduate, at Costco in Summerlin, and Trevon Cole, who was unarmed when police shot and killed him at his home.

After those shootings, Commissioner Steve Sisolak pushed for creation of a committee to look at changes in the way the shootings are reviewed. Before the commission voted to accept many of the reforms this month, Collins warned commissioners that he would advise union members not to participate in the criminal investigations.

Officers’ refusal to participate was “my concern that I expressed over and over again,” Sisolak said. “They’re just following through with what they said they would do.”

On Monday, commissioners will consider requiring payment of the attorney/ombudsman and that the attorney not be involved in police use-of-force lawsuits five years before or after the inquest.

Other reforms agreed to by commissioners include:

• Allowing police officers to have a union attorney at inquests.

• Replacing juries with “inquest panels” and not giving them the option of reaching verdicts of justified, excusable or criminal.

• Letting attorneys for families and officers meet twice with a judge and prosecutor before an inquest.

Collins said he wants officers to avoid being questioned four times about the same incident — during the criminal investigation, at the inquest, and then, if there is a civil suit, a deposition, and at a trial.

To paint a picture of the problems that might arise, Collins gave a fictional example: After shooting a suspect, an officer tells homicide investigators he was 6 feet away when he shot; during the inquest, the ombudsman grills him and gets him to say it was “6 or 7 feet”; then a civil suit is filed and the officer has to go into a deposition and answer again; then he answers one more time during the civil trial.

Even though by the time the inquest is held, the district attorney has typically decided not to charge the officer, Collins said going through the questions four times is onerous.

“Now we’re saying ‘screw it’ — you only have to answer twice instead of four times: Answer in the deposition and the federal case and skip the homicide investigation and skip the inquest,” Collins said.

By skipping the inquest, officers will avoid the potentially embarrassing and uncomfortable situation of sitting in the witness chair and pleading the Fifth Amendment to every question, Collins said. He thinks officers will merely have to inform officials beforehand that they won’t answer questions, negating the need to show up to the inquest.

But that’s not how attorney Allen Lichtenstein, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, sees it. An officer who is subpoenaed “has to show up,” he said.

Lichtenstein added that even though officers involved in deaths may plead the Fifth, officers who are bystanders don’t have that right. And in agreement with the sheriff, he doesn’t see how the inquest reforms should change whether officers feel compelled to cooperate. For one, he said, few police-involved deaths result in civil suits. Even those that do can be quashed before they get to court.

“So there’s nothing really new, coroner’s inquests have always taken time and officers have always testified,” he said. “The only difference is that instead of being limited to questions by a friendly district attorney, they will now face someone who will ask questions that are tougher ... The union is just saying, ‘we don’t want to be asked tough questions.’ ”

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