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Union mostly satisfied with Justice Department report on Metro’s use-of-force policy

Updated Monday, Nov. 19, 2012 | 12:59 p.m.

The head of the union representing Metro Police officers says he is in near-unanimous agreement with a newly released Justice Department report looking at the use of force within the department.

“The (union) really agrees with probably 90 or 95 percent of what is contained in the report,” said Chris Collins, executive director of the Las Vegas Police Protective Association. “It appears that the issue really in the report is accountability, some policy changes and training for our officers, and we certainly support any training for our officers that will enable them to do their job better and safer.”

Collins, however, rejected the report’s assertion that unions representing officers and supervisors have advised their members to not cooperate with investigations into officer-involved shootings.

That’s simply not true, Collins argued Monday morning in a news conference where he gave the Police Protective Association’s official reaction to the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office report, released last week.

Collins said officers have been advised by union attorneys not to give any voluntary statements to investigators looking into officer-involved shootings. Rather officers have been advised to give statements invoking their “Garrity rights” — meaning what the officer says cannot be used against him or her in the court of law.

A 1967 Supreme Court ruling, Garrity v. New Jersey, held that police officers and other public employees have the right to be free from compulsory self-incrimination.

“We have offered to the sheriff that every officer involved in a deadly-force situation is willing to make a statement with Garrity protection,” Collins said. “It is the sheriff’s decision not to take the statements from the shooting officers.”

In fact, Collins pointed out Sheriff Douglas Gillespie updated department policy about two weeks ago, specifically banning that scenario.

“Members are prohibited from incorporating into any portion of an official department document or report any unauthorized or customized information — including, but not limited to, any form of Garrity or other disclaimer,” according to the policy change.

Collins said the report seems to contradict itself on this issue because authors say the unions are not cooperating but then suggest Metro needs to be more proactive engaging the unions in dialogue.

“We get blamed for protecting officers’ rights, and then their recommendation to the department is that they meet with us to figure out a way to protect officers’ rights,” he said.

That issue aside, Collins said the union completely agreed with the report’s assessment questioning the need for a coroner’s inquest system. The COPS report, in short, said that since Metro and the Clark County District Attorney’s Office both were producing public reports examining officer-involved fatal shootings, a separate coroner’s inquest was unnecessary.

“There is no doubt,” Collins said. “That has been our position the last two years. The coroner’s inquest process is not only ineffective, but it’s adversarial and not fair to the officers.”

After a Nevada Supreme Court ruling in October, the Clark County Commission has been discussing revamping the coroner’s inquest process. The Police Protective Association has said it its members won’t testify in any inquests, a point Collins reiterated Monday.

“I do not believe, sitting here today, that the officers will ever again participate in an inquest system,” Collins said.

Even so, Collins said that doesn’t reflect a desire among the union to not reprimand officers when misconduct occurs. As proof, he pointed to the Police Protective Association’s data concerning pretermination hearings and then terminations and resignations. (The Police Protective Association is the union for only rank-and-file police officers and corrections officers employed by Metro.)

Since 2008 — when the Police Protective Association only conducted four pre-termination hearings, which resulted in three terminations or resignations — those numbers have increased, according to union data.

The LVPPA has conducted 18 pretermination hearings through September of this year, and there have been 14 terminations or resignations in that time span, according to the data. Two decisions are pending.

Collins called that a “record number” of officers let go for a variety of misconduct.

As for daily operations, Collins advocated for the department to create a corporal rank — a step above officer but below sergeant — to satisfy the report’s recommendation that supervisors oversee situations involving multiple officers.

Collins asserts that, currently, Metro does not have enough trained supervisors to handle the recommendation. He said creating the corporal rank would boost Metro’s number of supervisors who would have adequate training to command those situations.

In the past, the department has vetoed that recommendation by the union, citing financial concerns — an obstacle Collins foresees regarding adoption of the report’s many recommendations.

“We have a $46 million shortfall in the coming budget,” he said. “And certainly a lot of those items in (the report) are going to have monetary impact to the department. If the city and county are not willing to fund this agency to the level it needs to be funded to protect the public, I don’t know how (Gillespie) is going to do it.”

In the end, Collins said it would be up to Gillespie to put the recommendations into practice, although the union would be willing to offer its advice if asked. He cautioned that too many changes too quick might result in dissatisfaction among employees.

“If (Gillespie) goes into it gradually and makes the changes he believes are the most important and goes down the line, that will help,” Collins said.

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