The title for my column last week seemed to have gone missing. It was supposed to be Sound Bites of a Metro Career. The column started with advice I was given by a college professor at the beginning of my career and it ended with some praise from another college professor that I had never met.
An important incident that I forgot to mention was that I had given testimony in a deposition in the Romero vs. LVMPD case. It ultimately was ‘resolved’ and cost the taxpayers $83,000.
I was a patrol sergeant on the Strip the night of that incident. A fight call had come out at Harrah’s Carnival Court, an extremely crowded and often disorderly area on the Strip on weekends. As we were arriving we could not locate any fight but we sensed that the ‘problem’ had continued southbound toward Flamingo Road. The next
radio broadcast was that there was a possible fight near Margaritaville. It turned out that a red-headed Marine in his ‘dress blues’ was highly intoxicated and some fellas were mocking him and basically challenging him to fight. A man named Romero was in the crowd with his girlfriend. He had been a corrections officer in Arizona and probably felt he could settle things down. He apparently tried to intervene to get the parties to disperse and move along. His behavior was totally law abiding…but officers rushed up to the scene. They pushed their way through to the incident. One of them grabbed Romero from behind and they said that Romero ‘stiffened up’ in
resistance — a normal reaction in a tense situation. The officer attempted to pull him back and they both fell to the ground. Romero suffered a horrible fracture to his leg. As it ended up, there was no fight at all.
Due to the ‘injury’ occurring during police activity, I was called to do a Use of Force investigation. We first got Romero medical attention. I instructed the two officers to do the required reports after they told me what happened. I went to the hospital with Romero because we had to get him away from the crowd and get medical attention immediately. I advised him how to contact our Risk Management folks and told him he was NOT going to be arrested for anything! In the ‘old days’ there was a way of thinking that you have to follow through with an arrest after you ‘lay hands’ on people and that Romero should have been arrested. I decided — Hell No! I did not see evidence of any crime and certainly was not going to ‘trump up’ an obstructing or resisting arrest charge to COVER the conduct of the
The analysis of this incident concluded that Romero was trying to be a Good Samaritan and he did not know that police officers were pulling him back and taking him to the ground. It is a common fact of life that police do not always adequately identify themselves. (Just look at the New Year’s Eve video from a couple of years ago that involved Sgt. T. J. Jenkins. It made the news because a lawsuit was filed and because the plaintiff’s attorneys said the story told in the police reports did not match what was on the video.)
The Romero matter that I described above was handled professionally and it turned out (after the settlement) that Romero probably only got enough money to pay his medical bills. It was easy to tell the truth about what happened and the outcome we would like to have but things don’t turn out the way we want all of the time. You do your best and you admit it when you make mistakes — even if it costs your department money and you irritate your bosses because you didn’t stand behind your department.
I’m sure that Metro’s civil defense attorneys (i.e., “Tricky Nicky”) told the administration that I didn’t recite the answers that Metro was hoping for during that deposition. I won’t hold my breath that corrective action will be taken to prevent incidents like this in the future if attorneys don’t walk in to the sheriff’s office and say that this was avoidable. You know, something like mandating that police loudly and repeatedly identify themselves in crowd situations and do everything possible to de-escalate and deflect potential violent incidents. I don’t doubt that some felt that I had ‘betrayed’ the LVMPD but I’ll do what is right and face the consequences. No Metro attorney is going to tell me what to say to ‘protect’ the department.
There have been several more of these incidents that should cause concern. One occurred downtown recently as officers were clearing out a bar and a patron wasn’t moving fast enough — video hardly showed any threat or danger to multiple officers escorting him out of the bar. It ended up in a dogpile with one officer wildly swinging his baton at
Those are also the kinds of incidents that deteriorate into a choke hold (like the one involving the NYPD) or a ‘sudden death’ after a struggle. A police trainer recently used the term ‘monkey-pile’ in describing what happens with uncoordinated scrambling to restrain a person. It is almost certain that after these incidents we don’t hear
about whether officers were disciplined. In fact, most of the recent scrutiny reveals that Metro Internal Affairs does not even find any violations of policy.
Back to Romero… I testified that the injury was apparently ‘accidental’ and was caused by everyone crashing to the ground. The police were responsible for the injury but it was not specifically a use of force by the police that was intended to be delivered to Romero himself. I guess this could be called ‘collateral damage’ but it is life-altering damage done and, with proper training and more accountability, it can be minimized.
I gave my professional opinion, did not COVER UP any conduct by the officers, and it was pretty much common sense that you just can’t let people (who are not violating the law) end up with serious injuries and wipe the slate clean. Too often, Metro has been able to wiggle out of these situations. I don’t have a beef against the officers. I went
to the police academy with one of them and received a Medal of Honor after an incident with the other one. We attempted to rescue a victim who had been stabbed by Billy Bonilla at Harrah’s Hotel and get him to safety, but he died. Bonilla was still inside the room armed with a handgun and he fired through the door when SWAT arrived to assist.
BUT, even when we respect and work with general good officers we must hold ourselves to a higher standard and address mistakes and make improvements when necessary.
What is the future of policing in the post-Ferguson era? How much attention is now being paid to policing after high profile incidents like the choke-hold death in New York? How much of an impact will video have on the future of policing? Literally every police officer in the U.S. may soon be wearing a camera, since the days of the ‘police explanation’ contradicting the citizen’s story needs to come to an end. The technology is available now. It is not flawless. There will still be a need to interpret the video and other evidence in the context of situations that occur. Our system of justice is the best in the world — even if a police officer must go through it and true professionalism means that you are willing to subject your operation to scrutiny and fix problems. I won’t even use the word ‘transparency’ because Gillespie’s regime has made a mockery of that term.
The future of policing with cameras and the future of Metro can be better! I don’t have a problem with the facts being on the table and a move toward a more objective and professional review of police use of force and other more routine incidents, but we need to do it and not PRETEND to do it.
What will Post-Gillespie policing be like in Las Vegas? I think they need to revamp Internal Affairs, Employment Diversity, and Labor Relations for starters. A new sheriff might be more limited with what he can do with the police unions. Too many people have sat silently and done ‘wrong’ when they know what is right. The consequences they
would face for demonstrating true integrity were clearly outweighed by the internal threats. I think that by now, everyone in the LVMPD knows what the word ‘targeting’ means.
Post-Gillespie policing in Las Vegas will also be established by the person who wins the election in November. The money going to Lombardo is astounding! I sure hope Larry Burns still has a fighting chance. Mike Zahara’s ‘Watchdog.wag’ publication for this week had some interesting questions for those remaining two candidates for sheriff.
They were not necessarily the ‘traditional’ questions you might expect during a campaign but they focus on some interesting perspectives about leadership in the future of the LVMPD. Here are a couple of his questions. I’d like to hear the answers from the candidates.
1). Tell us about an incident in your career where you failed? (and how the situation was handled and what consequences you may have faced).
2). Will you commit to and use the full powers and authority of the Office of Sheriff to end the ‘War Within’ of character and career assassination which has resulted instead of punishing violations, in devouring our own very expensively trained officers of all ranks which has also contributed to and depleted our serving commissioned staff to
dangerous levels today, in favor of a completely redone internal discipline regime that fully preserves the sheriff’s authority under statute, but gives personnel renewed confidence that processes are fair and equalized.?
It is also worthy of note that Zahara also addressed how Metro has continued to fail to address the recent series of police officer suicide. Last week it was National Suicide Prevention month. It would have been an opportune time to acknowledge the problem and remind everyone in Clark County of what Metro is doing — or NOT doing. Is there any topic more important than the self-destruction of our own police officers due to morale and other problems that have left them feeling hopeless and have caused them to lose their self-esteem?
Policing becomes part of your identity but there is more to life than the LVMPD. Let’s hope that a new sheriff can put things like this into the proper perspective. You (officers) treat the public right and we (administration) will treat you right!
Norm Jahn is a former LVMPD lieutenant, who has also served as a police chief in Shawano, Wisconsin, and has nearly 25 years of police experience. Jahn now contributes his opinions and ideas to help improve policing in general, and in Las Vegas in particular, through his weekly column in the Las Vegas Tribune.