Many Possible Triggers in Rash of Police Shootings in Las Vegas

Times Staff Writer

When Sgt. Henry Prendes was slain Feb. 1, it dealt a powerful shock to the unusually young Las Vegas police force. After wounding Prendes with an assault-style rifle, the gunman stood over the officer and fired point-blank into his head.

Prendes, 37, who had been responding to a domestic violence call, was the first city police officer killed in the line of duty in 17 years. His assailant died in an ensuing gun battle with other officers.

For most of the department's 2,500 officers -- with average time on the job of four years -- it was the first close-up proof that their jobs could be lethal.

Coincidentally or not, in the wake of the Prendes killing, Las Vegas police have shown a greater inclination to shoot at people.

This year, they have fired at suspects in 19 incidents, killing nine people. If that rate continues, the total police-involved shootings for the year would far surpass those in each of the previous five years, according to police data.

The rash of shootings has triggered an FBI investigation into one case, prompted a local review of the inquest system that has repeatedly cleared officers of wrongdoing, and caused outcry from civil rights organizations.

Sheriff Bill Young has voiced concerns about two of the shootings and said he welcomed the FBI probe.

He also cited the relative inexperience of his force. Faced with explosive population growth and the crime that accompanies it, the department -- which covers most of Clark County -- has doubled in size in 15 years. The average officer is 28, Young said.

"We're hiring from the human race," Young said. "They're young people in their 20s, and they're assigned to the graveyard shift. They're confronting more and more people with guns. So you have to ask the question: Is it the training? Is it their age? Or is it the luck of the draw?"

The killing of Sgt. Prendes hangs over the department, and some in the community are convinced that incident gave the younger officers itchy fingers.

"There had been no fatalities in a long time, and I think it suddenly became a reality," said Dean Ishman, president of the local chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and a retired New York City transit police officer. "Most of the cops on the street hadn't been on the job long enough to know it as a reality."

Police reject that idea.

"There's no question that tragedy affected every employee," Young said. "It's hard to know how that affects people. But to suggest that as a result we've taken the attitude of 'shoot first, ask questions later,' I strongly object to that."

Among those to die at the hands of police was a handcuffed and unarmed murder suspect, Swuave Lopez, 17, who was shot twice in the back when he tried to escape. A coroner's inquest jury ruled the shooting justified.

Police also shot and killed Tarance Hall, 31, whose car was blocking traffic and blaring music at a crowded intersection on the Las Vegas Strip on July 4. The incident was witnessed by dozens of tourists, some of whom said afterward that they thought it was a taping of the TV show "CSI."

The shooting occurred after one officer fell partway through the driver's window and was knocked unconscious when an air bag deployed. The car then backed up, and a second officer shot Hall.

Afterward, police dragged Hall's limp body from the car, threw him to the street and handcuffed him, a scene videotaped by a tourist and broadcast nationally shows. Hall was pronounced dead at a hospital shortly after.

Neither the Hall nor Lopez killings should have happened, Ishman said. "I think some of these [police] have been overzealous in doing their duty and not considering the severity of the original offense," he said.

David Staretz, chief legal counsel and spokesman for the FBI's Las Vegas office, said that contrary to some news reports, the bureau was not investigating the increase in the number of shootings by Las Vegas police.

He said agents were investigating one case to see whether it constituted use of excessive force in violation of the victim's civil rights. He declined to say which case.

"We've done this several times here in the past couple of years," Staretz said. "The Justice Department can decide to look at patterns and practices of a particular agency, but we're not there yet. This could have just been a bad six months."

Or a bad month. The shootings escalated this summer, with six in four weeks. Until then, Young said, the number of police shootings was keeping pace with the year before.

Even if the current pace of shootings continued, Young noted, it would fall short of the department's high-water mark of 41 in 1974, when Las Vegas was a quarter the size it is now.

The latest fatal shooting was Sunday night.

Five police officers fired 29 shots -- including a shotgun blast -- at Shawn Collins, 43, outside a convenience store. Collins' girlfriend had called police for protection and warned them that Collins was armed, police said. She followed him to the store and phoned police, who confronted him. Police said they fired when Collins drew his gun.

A witness told reporters that Collins appeared to be trying to comply with an order to drop his gun when he was shot. But the dead man's mother said she thought her son, ill with cancer and unemployed, wanted police to kill him.

Critics are calling for changes in the coroner's inquest system, which investigates all fatal shootings by police. Every such death to go through an inquest this year has been ruled a justifiable homicide.

A coroner's jury hears evidence and witnesses selected by the district attorney. Representatives of the victims can submit written questions, but the American Civil Liberties Union calls it a deck stacked in favor of the police.

Rory Reid, chairman of the Clark County Commission, ordered his staff Wednesday to examine whether the coroner's inquest process should be changed to give victims a greater voice, an approach advocated by Sheriff Young.

"It's a system that has no integrity," said Gary Peck, executive director of the Nevada chapter of the ACLU.

The killing of Lopez, the 17-year-old, has particularly attracted attention, and Young said he assumed that was the case being investigated by the FBI.

Lopez, who was raised by his grandmother, had a juvenile record and was identified as a suspect in a drug-related killing in early May.

The inquest found that he was arrested, disarmed, handcuffed and placed in a squad car, said Dan M. Winder, attorney for the family.

Moments later, Lopez, still handcuffed, began to flee. Several officers gave chase and two fired, striking him in the back.

Among the disputed issues is whether the police were close enough to catch him rather than shoot him.

"You can't run as fast when you're handcuffed," Winder said. "What's disappointing is the district attorneys [at the inquest] did not pursue this."

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