Sunday, July 17, 2016 | 2 a.m.
The recent police shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota, and then the attacks against the police in Dallas, have thrown the issue of police use of force center stage.
The shooting of a suspect by a police officer is a horrible occurrence, but at times it is unavoidable. Police are endowed with a public trust that requires them to be held to a much higher standard of accountability. In recent years, that accountability has come in to question.
In the wake of so many deaths due to police officer shootings, many believe that police departments are running wild. But today, at least in the city of Las Vegas, nothing could be further from the truth.
Every Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department use of force incident is reviewed by a group known as the LVMPD Use of Force Board, which provides independent oversight into police shootings. The board comprises civilians as well as sworn officers.
Three years ago, five civilian members of the Use of Force Board resigned in protest over then-Sheriff Doug Gillespie’s decision to retain Jacquar Roston, a police officer who had shot and injured an unarmed man. The board unanimously recommended termination of Roston, but Gillespie felt the officer could be rehabilitated through training and thus elected to override the board’s decision.
To set the record straight, I am not an apologist for law enforcement. Quite the contrary. That is why I joined the Las Vegas Use of Force Board a year ago as one of its civilian members. I wasn’t on the Use of Force Board for the Roston incident, but I am here now.
Today, under Sheriff Joe Lombardo, things are very different from what my predecessors indicated was happening those years ago.
Former Assistant Sheriff Kirk Primas provided my board orientation. He emphasized several times that Metro did not want a “rubber stamp," and that I should speak up if something bothered me. He said I should repeatedly ask any question not answered to my satisfaction until satisfied. He wanted me to be critical of both the process and of the police. Anything else, he said, would impeach the credibility of the board’s independent review.
The Use of Force Board critically evaluates every officer involved shooting in our community.
Las Vegas is one of only nine cities in the United States to have a civilian majority on its seven member board — four civilians to only three sworn officers. Most police departments don’t have any civilian involvement whatsoever, much less a civilian majority, when reviewing and voting on the appropriateness of incidents of officer-involved shootings.
Metro provides the Use of Force Board, including the civilians, full transparency for every event. Members have the opportunity to visit scenes at the time of each incident (while the police tape is still up), review all evidence and witness statements, view video footage, speak with the investigating detectives, and ask anything of the officers at a formal hearing where we as a civilian-controlled board render findings on police use of force incidents.
There is no "Blue Wall of Silence" — or a brown one, in Metro's case — meaning no cops are covering for cops in Las Vegas. Everything is disclosed, and everything is fair game. Every question is asked and answered.
The process here in Las Vegas is set up with this civilian participation and full access precisely so that officer-involved shooting investigations remain beyond reproach.
My experience has been that the top brass sincerely wants and values our thoughts and observations as civilians. Moreover, Metro learns from its mistakes.
When the Use of Force Board makes findings, we have four choices as to what to do:
• We can determine that an incident is “administratively approved” which means everything was done by the book and there was simply no other option for the officer. In that moment, death or serious injury was imminent for either the suspect, officers and/or civilian bystanders. By using deadly force, the officer hopefully saves the life of the innocent. This is the finding for which we hope in every use of force investigation.
• Alternatively, we can determine that an incident was approved, but there was a “tactical or decision-making” issue. This means the officer had no choice but to use deadly force at that critical moment, but his or her decisions leading up to that point of no return could have been better. Could the officer have done things differently to have avoided the deadly encounter in the first place?
• We can find that there was a policy or training failure, meaning that the officer did everything according to policy or training, but the policy or training has shortcomings and needs to be reviewed and/or modified.
• The last option is administrative disapproval, meaning the use of force was not within policy nor compliant with the training Metro provides its officers. Depending on the severity, it can result in additional training, suspension, termination or even criminal prosecution for the officer.
Whatever the outcome, if it’s not a finding of administrative approval, the incident will be scrutinized in excruciating detail. A better approach will be identified and incorporated into both ongoing training and modification of Metro’s policy for all officers so that mistakes are not repeated.
Our Use of Force Board is the ultimate Monday morning quarterback. We have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight and months of investigation in second guessing an officer’s decision made under duress and in seconds.
Today, as a critical citizen, I am pleased to say that there is, without a doubt, an LVMPD emphasis on transparency and accountability to our community. Metro even posts on its website district attorney decisions, Force Investigation Team Reports and Office of Internal Oversight Review findings for every instance of officer-involved shootings going back to January 2011. The reports and findings are available for anyone to review.
If more cities followed LVMPD’s model of civilian involvement and oversight, there is no doubt that we would see far fewer questionable officer-involved shootings outside of our community in the news.
Jay Bloom is a local businessman and real estate investor who serves on both the Metro Police Use of Force Board and Civilian Review Board, as well as the Nevada State Bar Southern Disciplinary Committee and Fee Dispute Board.