Las Vegas Sun

September 24, 2017

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Columnist E.M. Gunderson: Stop police misconduct

THE FOLLOWING is written by E.M. "Al" Gunderson, who served 18 years on the Nevada Supreme Court, six as its chief justice. He is an adjunct professor at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles and is counsel to Greenspun Inc.

JUST a few weeks ago, Andre Rowe, a law-abiding North Carolina corrections officer, retrieved his father's mutilated corpse from our city.

The elder Rowe's casket was closed during the interment services back home in rural Georgia. His remains were gruesome. The killer had slashed all of the major veins and arteries in Henry Rowe's neck. Then, a "coup de grace" had been determined by shattering the aging black man's skull with a high-velocity round from an automatic pistol held close to his head.

In this fashion, George Pease, a husky 32-year-old Las Vegas police officer, had ended Rowe's troubled existence. Once a respected casino floorman, Rowe had been reduced in recent years to living as a street person, but was described by all who knew him as kindly, friendly and nonviolent.

His killer, however, had a rather different history. In fact, as Sheriff Jerry Keller and his administration knew, Officer Pease had gunned down two other unarmed citizens in the past -- under strikingly similar circumstances. They also knew Pease had been recently accused of extorting sex from a prostitute while on patrol in Laughlin, shortly after he had been assigned there to "lie low" following one of his questionable earlier homicides.

In the Laughlin sexual assault incident, although the woman had offered to take a lie detector test, she was ignored. No polygraph had been administered, either to her or to Pease. Who, after all, could possibly believe any female who sells her body against the word of a hero-cop, with two notches already on his gun?

So, Pease "skated" in Laughlin. He returned to duty here in Las Vegas. And here, one dark night, in highly curious circumstances, he mutilated and killed Andre Rowe's father.

Last Sunday at 9:30 a.m., a law-abiding Las Vegas resident named Alex Waje dialed 911, requesting police assistance in getting his agitated brother Gerry to the hospital. Alex now deeply regrets that decision. After three officers responded, they decided department policy empowered them to gun down Gerry. And so, they promptly fired one high-velocity round into Gerry's torso and -- for good measure -- another into his lower abdomen.

A Filipino man slightly more than 5 feet in stature -- who tipped the scales at around 120 pounds -- Gerry Waje fell dying. But not at the officers' feet. Their target had been fully 15 feet away from the policemen whom Alex Waje had called in, to help "serve and protect" his sibling.

Of those who witnessed this homicide, only the policemen who snuffed out Gerry Waje's life could see any justification for doing so. As the dead man's neighbors saw matters, Gerry had been no threat to the officers -- with or without two steak knives he was holding when they opened fire.

Lt. Larry Spinosa -- the same spokesman Sheriff Keller had assigned to justify Henry Rowe's killing -- stepped forward to explain the necessity for Waje's death also.

First of all, Spinosa said, although the officers all carried mace -- an incapacitating chemical spray -- they would have risked their very lives by using it. To do so, they would have had to get within 7 feet of the little Filipino. Why goodness, he might have killed them all, with those frightful household steak knives he was holding!

And, according to Spinosa, if the officers had tried to disarm Waje with their nightsticks, they might have missed. Then, Waje "could have been on them in a second."

In short, the lawmen's duty was clear. Shoot the hysterical little man. Take no chances. Aim to kill -- at his torso. That's department policy, Spinosa said. The torso is the largest target. It's just too bad that's where our vital organs are.

As for neighbors' complaints that the officers proceeded to beat the dying man with their batons, Spinosa explained how incorrect this was. No such thing. "The police used their P-24 batons to keep Waje from flailing on the ground and to knock the knives from his hands after the shooting," Spinosa enlightened news reporters.

Also, Spinosa explained away the neighbors' complaints about the officers' rudeness to them -- as well as their manhandling of the dying man's mother and brother, who had run to help their loved one.

"There is so much stress going on in a situation like that," Spinosa said. "The officers were focused on the subject, not on whether they were being polite. They were trying to control the situation."

At present, however -- despite all of Spinosa's expert explanations -- I confess that I remain skeptical.

I do not pretend to be as well trained in martial arts as I assume an officer must be to work for Sheriff Keller. Still, as a one-time amateur wrestler, I understand a little about self-defense. I do not know as much about small arms as I assume Sheriff Keller insists that his officers must. But, in my youth, I became moderately proficient with every portable weapon entrusted to parachute riflemen in the 11th Airborne Division.

And so, somehow, I keep wondering why a husky, 32-year-old, presumably skilled professional like Officer Pease must repeatedly kill unarmed street people like elderly, pacific Henry Rowe? Why were three other officers, with similar skills and physical endowments, only able to slay Gerry Waje, a distraught young man whose family summoned them for help?

Thus far, I am skeptical of the justifications offered such deaths by the sheriff's spokesman, Spinosa. As I understand our law, deadly force is not a proper response to every somewhat dangerous situation. First of all, I know judges and juries in federal civil-rights damage actions don't agree with Keller and Spinosa's ideas that any and all forces is warranted to keep our police officers totally risk free. A badge is not a permit to kill. Deadly force may be used only when demonstrably reasonable.

Just so long as young officers fail to show restraint and proper respect for human life, Nevada taxpayers will be paying jury verdicts that result from police abuse and lack of good judgment. Look at the Rodney King fiasco. As in Los Angeles, our problem here in Las Vegas, at its core, appears to be lack of proper leadership from the highest level.

Personally, I believe Nevada law ought to provide that any officer, of any rank, whose misconduct results in a civil judgment against the taxpayers, should suffer serious consequences. First, the misbehaving cop should be summarily discharged; the civil trial should serve in lieu of any termination hearing. Second, the offending officer should be held to reimburse the taxpayers for all loss resulting from the damage verdict.

I say this, even though I have long respected and supported our police. As a former counsel for the Clark County Sheriff's Protection Association, I began donating time to help law enforcement before many now on the force were born. I've represented several in their personal affairs, and never charged a fee. As a pro bono service, I've also composed training bulletins and lectured in training sessions on felony crimes. I can truly say some of my best and oldest, more loyal, and highly valued friends have been cops.

Nevertheless, institutions that we respect we must protect. We have an obligation to protest, when we see their integrity threatened. And what is happening to our Metro Police should, I think, be disturbing to everyone. Reckless, costly police misconduct like that now being seen must be brought to a halt.