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November 1, 2014

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Metro implements reforms after federal review of shootings

Updated Wednesday, May 21, 2014 | 5:49 p.m.

Metro Police are close to fully implementing dozens of recommendations issued by the Justice Department more than 18 months ago, after questions were raised about the number of officer-involved shootings.

The Justice Department's Community Oriented Policing Services Office today released its final report on the "collaborative reform process" with Metro.

The COPS Office determined Metro has implemented 90 percent of its recommendations, which ranged from revamping policies and procedures to updating training. Another 6 percent are in progress and 3 percent have not been completed. One recommendation could not be assessed.

Metro volunteered to undergo the review by the COPS Office in 2011. In November 2012, the COPS Office issued a 154-page report listing 35 findings and 40 subsequent recommendations.

The report found Metro failed to regularly analyze use-of-force incidents, which contributed to training deficiencies and a lack of accountability.

At a news conference today, Sheriff Doug Gillespie and COPS Office leaders vowed to continue working together, despite the completion of the one-year review.

"No one should take lightly the accomplishments that have been made thus far, and no one should minimize the challenges that remain ahead," said Ronald Davis, director of the COPS Office.

The two recommendations Metro has not completed both fall under use-of-force investigation and documentation.

Metro leaders haven't been able to get officers to go along with a recommendation that officers cooperate with criminal investigations into police shootings. Those efforts have been opposed by the police unions.

The other incomplete recommendation called for homicide investigators to video-record all interviews related to officer-involved shootings. Metro has declined to adopt that recommendation, arguing that most police departments do not video record interviews for a variety of reasons, including fear of public release. Metro does, however, audio record the interviews.

The COPS Office also identified the shooting of unarmed suspects as an ongoing area of concern. Three out of four unarmed suspects shot in 2012-2013 were black.

Gillespie said the department is moving forward with plans to develop training on fair and impartial policing, which he expects to begin this summer. All current officers already have completed separate training on de-escalating situations, he said.

"We have made great strides, but we still have work ahead of us," Gillespie said. He later called the completion of the review process a "huge accomplishment" and one of Metro's proudest moments.

The number of officer-involved shootings by Las Vegas police has dropped since a peak of 25 in 2010. There were 17 officer-involved shootings in 2011, 11 in 2012 and 13 last year.

In 2013, the rate of officer-involved shootings in Las Vegas per 100,000 residents was 0.88.

This year, Metro officers have been involved in seven shootings, three of which were fatal. Six of the suspects had firearms, and one suspect possessed a knife, Metro Sgt. John Sheahan said.

Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the ACLU of Nevada, said he has been pleased with Metro's willingness to make policy and training improvements. But he doesn't believe the COPS Office report is a reliable measure of progress.

The collaborative reform process lacked advanced research techniques to evaluate the mindsets of lower-ranking officers, he said. If patrol officers don't embrace the culture change, the implemented recommendations will never be entirely effective.

"There's been no evaluation of whether it's filtering down to the officers in the streets," Lichtenstein said, referring to department culture. "We don't really know whether it's having any effects whatsoever."

Despite what Lichtenstein sees as many improvements made by Metro in recent years, he still believes the community has mixed feelings about the department. He thinks Metro needs to do more to avoid alienating select population groups.

"Unfortunately, it's usually people in the minority communities who voice the most displeasure," he said. "And they're the most vulnerable people."

Davis, who joined the COPS Office mid-way through the Las Vegas review, said Metro should be lauded for its willingness to open itself up for inspection. Metro was the first department to participate in the COPS Office initiative.

Since then, police departments in Philadelphia, San Diego and Spokane, Wash., have partnered with the COPS Office for help addressing officer-involved shootings, officer misconduct and situations with mentally ill suspects, Davis said.

"It is not easy to subject yourself or your agency to an outside, independent assessment," Davis said. "Quite often, the truth hurts."

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