Police shootings open rift in Vegas
The police came upon Lawrence Gordon Jr. one night in November while he was arguing with his girlfriend in the parking lot of a recreation center here.
The girlfriend left the car to talk with the officer while Gordon, a 23-year-old pizza deliveryman, stayed in the passenger seat. Suddenly, Officer Jacquar Roston turned on him.
“Why you moving?” Gordon recalls the cop saying. Roston then fired his service revolver, striking the unarmed Gordon in the right leg. “He didn’t say anything else -- just, ‘Why you moving?’ ” Gordon said. “Then he shot me.”
The bullet missed his femoral artery, but shattered his thigh bone; doctors had to insert a metal rod and eight bolts in Gordon’s leg. Roston later told superiors he mistook the shine from the label on Gordon’s Angels baseball cap for a weapon.
A review board recommended that Roston be fired. But Sheriff Doug Gillespie, who presides over the joint city-county police force, rejected the panel’s unanimous decision, reasoning that Roston showed contrition and should be suspended but not lose his job.
That decision in late July has reverberated across this desert resort mecca, a city with one of the highest rates of police shootings in the nation. For tens of millions of tourists who flock to Las Vegas each year, the police appear as a benign force that maintains order on the Strip. But residents outside the bubble of the casinos see a much different side.
“It seems like this city has an officer-involved shooting once a week,” said attorney Paola Armeni, who in 2011 helped win a $1.6-million judgment in an excessive force case in which police tackled the brother of a fugitive at his home. “I get updates on my cellphone and often I say to myself, ‘There’s another one.’ ”
In 2010, police were involved in four times the number of shootings per capita in Las Vegas as in New York, and twice as many as in Los Angeles -- cities with far larger populations -- according to a series by the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper, which compiled statistics obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests.
A federal inquiry
The alarming number of shootings prompted a review by the U.S. Justice Department, which found that Las Vegas police committed numerous tactical errors due to a lack of training and suggested a series of reforms, including a more transparent review process of officer-involved shootings.
But the federal review has done little to change what many here see as a cowboy culture in which, critics say, police officers shoot first and ask questions later, knowing the department will bail them out of any trouble.
Members of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s Use of Force Review Board, which had recommended Roston’s firing, were outraged when the sheriff reinstated the officer. The panel that sought Roston’s job was made up of four civilians and three police officers.
“Tell me this isn’t true,” Robert Martinez, a former journalist on the review board, recalls saying to Assistant Sheriff Ted Moody, co-chairman of the group. “Yeah, unfortunately, it is true,” Moody responded.
Martinez was stunned: “I didn’t know what to say. I just felt betrayed.”
Martinez and five other civilian board members resigned in protest and Moody abruptly retired from the department, saying Gillespie’s decision had undermined the integrity of the review process.
The controversy comes as Gillespie has pushed to increase the Clark County sales tax rate, in part to hire more police officers. That has angered some residents.
In late August, four people were arrested for scribbling graffiti critical of the department on the sidewalk outside Las Vegas police headquarters. One of the messages read: “Not one single cop in Metro’s entire history has been charged after shooting someone. Even if that person was unarmed and/or innocent.”
In 2010, police in Las Vegas shot 25 people, killing eight, according to a comprehensive review of 20 years of police shootings compiled the Review-Journal. By contrast, New York saw 34 police shootings and Los Angeles had 32.
And the Las Vegas police shootings continue: On Aug. 11, an off-duty detective shot and wounded a man in the wrist outside the Excalibur hotel-casino. The officer said he could not see the man’s hands, but thought he was reaching for a weapon inside his car.
In its report, the Justice Department made numerous recommendations, including that Las Vegas police provide more training on the legal parameters of vehicle stops, which officials say are more likely to lead to police-involved shootings than other incidents.
Many say the Roston case has shaken hopes for reform in a department critics fear is slipping out of control.
“In terms of excessive force among police nationwide, Las Vegas is clearly an outlier,” said Staci Pratt, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada. “It’s like an outlaw community wearing a badge. I hate to say that, but that’s the perception within the community. It’s seen as a culture of deniability, a culture of ‘We’re not even accountable.’ ”
Vegas police blame the high shooting rate on the city’s round-the-clock environment. Statistics don’t take into account the 39 million tourists who pour into town every year, said Chris Collins, executive director of the Police Protective Assn., a police union. “This is a 24-hour town,” he said. “We get as much activity on the graveyard shift as we do in the daytime. This isn’t a city where at 9 p.m. everyone is home in bed.”
Cause for concern
In its 2012 report, the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, reviewed several shootings it said served “as an example of the concerns of the broader Las Vegas community.”
Incidents included the killing of Trevon Cole, a marijuana dealer with no record of violence, who was unarmed and kneeling in a bathroom when Det. Bryan Yant shot him during a botched 2010 drug raid. The run-in was Yant’s third shooting and second fatal encounter.
Although a panel from the Use of Force Review Board unanimously ruled the shooting was justified, the department later agreed to pay $1.7 million to Cole’s family. Yant was later transferred to a desk job.
Joshua Ederheimer, acting head of COPS, who led the group’s study on Las Vegas police, said he was aware of Moody’s retirement and of the six civilian resignations, but added that the department was becoming more transparent in its dealings with the public. “That it’s being debated publicly is a very good sign,” he said.
Critics say the federal involvement does not go far enough. In a letter to the U.S. attorney general’s office this year, the ACLU said the Justice Department should conduct a full criminal investigation into possible Las Vegas police misconduct.
Pratt said she was not surprised by the civilian walkouts: “For average people in Las Vegas, the whole police review system is a realm of toothless tigers.”
Collins, of the police union, says the review process works properly and that the sheriff was correct in not firing Roston.
“This thing is working the way it should,” he said. “It’s one of the most open processes in the country. I don’t know why these people are so upset. The policy clearly states the sheriff has final discretion in these cases. It’s not like he did anything outside the rules.”
An eye-opening case
Martinez figured he had a good understanding of police procedure when he volunteered to take part in the civilian overview process in 2012. As a veteran television newsman, he said, he had visited numerous police shooting scenes. “I figured I had a critical, yet educated, eye to these things,” he said.
The review of the shooting by Roston was an eye-opener for Martinez. Roston told the panel that he saw Gordon reach under his seat during a stop, and as a result of the shine on the cap Gordon was holding, perceived that he had a weapon.
“He was unapologetic. He insisted he would do everything the same way the next time,” Martinez said. “Then to have the sheriff turn around and say, ‘Hey, he said he was sorry.’ That was like a slap in the face.”
The day after Gillespie’s reversal, Moody apologized to civilian members of the Use of Force Review Board and said he was leaving the department. “He told us, ‘I can no longer go along to get along,’ ” Martinez recalled.
In an interview, Gordon said he was still in pain from the shooting and saw the walkouts on the police review board as a bad omen. “We need those people overseeing the police,” he said. “Because a lot of cops here think, ‘I’m wearing a badge. I can do whatever I want.’ ”