Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011 | 2 a.m.
We have long suspected that Metro Police officers shoot their guns more often than police in other cities, and that our process for investigating those shootings is faulty.
Now, thanks to an investigation by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, we are closer to knowing whether that’s true.
At the risk of improperly summarizing the project, here are what I believe are the most important findings:
• Among 16 big-city police departments that provided statistics to the paper for the decade 2001 to 2010, Metro ranked third in officer-involved shootings per capita and third in shootings per violent crime. Over time, per capita officer-involved shootings in Las Vegas have increased.
• Blacks make up less than 10 percent of the population, but were targets in 30 percent of the shootings.
• From the paper’s investigation: “At least 33 times since 1990 Las Vegas police have shot at an unarmed person. Seven, including one fatality, occurred in one recent 16-month period, September 2009 to January 2011.” About half of the unarmed were black.
• After looking at each shooting since 1990, the paper concludes that police “repeatedly place themselves in harm’s way, forcing confrontations where they have no choice but to shoot. Those shootings were legally justified, but just because a shooting is legal doesn’t mean it had to happen.”
Specifically, officers engaged in risky foot chases, and, in about one in five shootings, they fired into cars. Police experts say both types of incidents are often preventable.
• Police work is dangerous: Las Vegas officers have been wounded by gunfire at least 22 times since 1990, and in at least 88 of the 310 incidents, officers said they were shot at before firing back.
(And let’s add: Aside from the sheer danger, policing is difficult, thankless work and not lucrative.)
But can we reduce the number of officer involved shootings?
The experience of other cities suggests we can.
Eugene O’Donnell is a former New York City police officer, training officer and prosecutor and now an expert in policing at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He told me the R-J series “raises significant questions, and it puts that department in a time lag. A lot of departments have already had that conversation” and made adjustments to reduce shootings.
As New York magazine pointed out this year, in the early 1970s New York City was a veritable war zone, with frequent gun battles leading to the deaths of a dozen officers in one year.
But according to a recently released firearms discharge report, last year, “the New York City Police Department experienced the fewest firearms discharges, and shot and killed the fewest number of people since formal recording of such data began 40 years ago in 1971.”
As the Review-Journal notes, in 2010 “Las Vegas police shot at people 25 times, killing eight. The New York City Police Department, with 13 times more officers covering a population six times larger, shot at people 34 times, killing eight.”
In recent years, Denver cut its police shootings by one-quarter, and Portland reduced its by half.
Sheriff Doug Gillespie, through a spokesman, declined to comment, and Metro declined to make anyone available to talk about the series.
Bill Sousa, a UNLV criminologist who has worked as an unpaid consultant to Metro, praised the agency’s stated willingness to change its policies if need be.
For instance, as the Review-Journal noted, Gillespie “created two new teams to investigate shootings and recently said he is reaching out to community groups for ideas on how to fix the inquest system and repair his department’s internal review procedures. He’s asked a team of researchers from California to study racial sensitivity issues, an effort now midway through a two-year process.”
Sousa also said comparing officer-involved shootings in Las Vegas with those in other cities is problematic because of factors that can’t be easily quantified: We have 40 million tourists here every year, as well as a culture of risk-taking, transience and a love of guns that could make officers feel less secure on the street.
(As for our system for investigating officer-involved shootings, I’ll be writing a future column about that issue, but suffice to say, it’s deeply flawed.)
Why does this issue matter? After all, aren’t most of the targets hardened criminals?
Aside from the potential for deadly mistakes, these shootings tend to fray the relationship between police and the public, especially in certain neighborhoods where the shootings are most concentrated.
And, frayed relationships with the law-abiding public, especially in tough neighborhoods, make solving and preventing crime that much harder. One would hope this would concern Metro.
A scarier scenario is that the shootings are just a symptom of a larger disease — a lawless cowboy policing culture, like the Los Angeles Police Department of decades past. Let’s hope that’s not the case.
I was troubled by an R-J story last year about police training, in which the training officer told the reporter, “I believe every single recruit here, when they put that badge on, they are warriors. We’re fighting a war.”
I get that there are bad people out there who wish harm on all of us, including police officers. But if law abiding citizens — Metro’s best intelligence resource — feel besieged by a militarized police force, how willing will they be to help police prevent and solve crime?
As O’Donnell told me: “Some of that is clearly not the right rhetoric when you’re talking about civilian democratic policing.”
He said there’s a proper balance, that officers must be able to go from zero to 60 when a threat arises, but also understand that policing and war-fighting are two very different skills.
“When policing becomes an ‘us v. them’ thing, the ‘otherness’ thing, that’s the invitation to abuse. When everybody is an attacker, an assailant, a lethal threat — that’s not the right mind-set,” he said.
Sousa said that kind of language doesn’t match his experience with Metro, which he said has been progressive in its willingness to work with researchers and community groups. He said he’s worked with a lot of officers he called “community-oriented, problem-solving officers.”
For instance, the Safe Village Initiative in West Las Vegas combined police resources with intense community outreach to churches, schools, UNLV and health care providers. The effort reduced violent crime by 40 percent.
Given that kind of success, we have every reason to believe similar efforts in police-community relations — including on use of force issues — can be just as successful.
Police in our society are granted a legalized monopoly on violence and kidnapping. As such, there is no greater civic obligation than keeping a watchful eye on the officers of the law who are granted that enormous responsibility.
I commend the R-J — including for shelling out the $10,000 to Metro to get the records.
And now the hard work of reform begins.