Las Vegas Sun

August 23, 2019

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Sergeant who patrolled Bunkerville says experience changed how officers work

Metro Police Sgt. Tom Jenkins

Jessie Reisdorf

Metro Police Sgt. Tom Jenkins was one of a number of Metro Police officials who responded last year to a face-off with armed militia supporters on rancher Cliven Bundy’s land.

More than a year has passed since Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy’s pack of militia supporters faced off against authorities in the Nevada desert, but police continue to glean lessons from the confrontation.

The April 12, 2014, standoff, sparked by the Bureau of Land Management’s attempt to round up Bundy’s illegally grazing cattle, pitted hundreds of heavily-armed Bundy backers against a group of federal agents trying to gather the animals. Meanwhile, about two dozen Metro Police officials who showed up to help got caught in the middle.

“We left that day with a different attitude and a different thought process,” said Metro Sgt. Tom Jenkins, who is credited by the police department for helping ease tensions between the groups. “We’d never been faced with a situation where so many people were pointing guns at us.”

Jenkins shared with The Sunday the lessons he learned that day.

Know with whom you're dealing

A 22-year veteran of the department, Jenkins thought he knew Clark County’s communities well. Jenkins, who is black, was familiar with the sovereign citizen movement of anti-government extremists, but he had a stereotyped idea of who he’d encounter that day.

“In my mind, I’m thinking of white supremacists, skinheads who hate government,” Jenkins said. “Then I see one guy who’s as dark as I am. And there are women and children. When people tell you you’re dealing with sovereign citizens, you can’t assume anything.”

Jenkins said he also was surprised to see so many anti-government extremists in Las Vegas’ backyard. He realized then the group’s influence had been largely underestimated.

“I never even knew we had that type of element that close to Vegas,” Jenkins said. “We deal with rhetoric from sovereigns on the Strip, one or two of them. But at no point had we ever seen them en masse.”

Back down when necessary

Jenkins and others at Metro say the showdown was a hair trigger away from a gunfight, and officials were heavily outnumbered. To avoid tragedy, officials decided to back down and leave.

“We were dealing with people who could have been set off by anything,” Jenkins said. “Nobody was going to die over cows that day.”

Jenkins had never been engaged with such a large group of people pointing weapons at him and other officers. There were several factions within the group, Jenkins said, and some of them seemed eager to shoot.

“We had dealt with sovereigns before, militia and constitutionalists and so forth, but not on that scale,” Jenkins said. “When they get together, the mob mentality kicks in. All it was going to take was a backfire and we would have had a slaughter in Mesquite.”

Consider how to equip yourself

Metro officials opted against wearing helmets and other protective gear because they didn’t want to provoke the group. The standoff ended peacefully, but Jenkins still isn’t sure whether going in without tactical gear was the right call.

“As I was standing there, I wish I had that gear, that security,” he said. “Even today, I’m not sure which was better.”

He said police may never know.

“Good or bad, it worked out,” Jenkins said. “We have to ask them why they didn’t (open fire). That’ll be a question that they have to answer. We don’t know.”

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