A police officer kills an unarmed black man, and, in Las Vegas, there are no protests
It appeared to have all the ingredients for protests, hashtags and calls for justice on 24-hour cable news channels.
An unarmed black man lying on the ground was repeatedly tasered by a police officer. Then he turned over and was put in what looked like a chokehold. He lost consciousness. After being rushed to the hospital, he was pronounced dead.
There was video. There were witnesses. There has been plenty of local media coverage.
But unlike other cases, the death of Tashii Brown on the Las Vegas Strip early Sunday morning at the hands of Officer Kenneth Lopera has barely made a blip nationally — or on the local streets.
Tod Story, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Nevada, said he believed the calm could be directly linked to reforms adopted by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police starting five years ago.
The city was the first in the country to voluntary undergo “collaborative reform” in 2012 under the Department of Justice’s community policing office. Federal officials have since pointed to it as proof that tools and practices like body cameras, deescalation tactics and training on subconscious racial bias are key to solving some of the problems that have pitted law officers and communities against one another across the country.
Story praised Undersheriff Kevin McMahill for quickly releasing body camera footage, meeting with community leaders shortly after the incident and taking on difficult questions this week.
Still, civil rights groups are awaiting a full investigation into the death of 40-year-old Brown — who police said committed no crime that night but had a history of DUI convictions.
“We are on alert,” Story said. “The situation is awful and tragic and we believe never should’ve happened, and we will see how the process plays out.”
Just before 1 a.m., Brown approached Lopera and another officer at a coffee shop in the Venetian hotel casino. According to police, he appeared to be agitated and acting erratically. He told Lopera that people were chasing him.
Then Brown — also referred to as Tashii Farmer in police accounts — took off into an employees-only area of the hotel, and Lopera chased him. Once outside, Brown attempted to open a tailgate on an occupied truck before moving to the driver’s side. Lopera shot him with a taser seven times.
On the video, Lopera yells for Brown to listen to his commands. Brown can be heard saying, “I will, I will,” while on the ground. Lopera, aided by hotel security staff, continues to try to subdue Brown.
McMahill said Lopera struck Brown in the head with his fist several times before applying a “rear naked choke” — a banned technique in the police force — for about a minute.
He was pronounced dead at 1:39 a.m.
Tynisa Braun, a cousin of Brown who lives in Hawaii, said the family was distraught over his death.
Having a 21-year-old son, she said, she is on heightened alert with police.
“When you look at the news, there it is — an African-American getting shot,” she said. “I’m always going to be afraid of what the police could do because of the color of our skin.”
She said she wasn’t sure why there hadn’t been widespread protests over her cousin’s death. She couldn’t bring herself to watch the body camera video but blamed the death on a police officer who didn’t appear to be trained in how to deal with someone who was mentally ill.
The ACLU and the Las Vegas Chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People have been pushing for years for the Police Department to eliminate an approved technique called the lateral vascular neck restraint, and were also troubled by the admission that Lopera used an incorrect version of it.
An investigator said the number of times Brown was tasered is also at issue.
“You heard on the body camera he’s saying, ‘Yes I’ll comply,’ and when he does try to roll over, he gets tasered,” Sgt. Jerry MacDonald said. “Not a good choice by the officer, and I’ve got no problem saying that.”
Roxann McCoy, president of the Las Vegas NAACP, said that kind of frankness was unheard of before the 2012 reforms.
“It was the wild, wild West here,” she said. “It was open season on minorities.”
Things came to a head for the department after two high-profile shootings and an investigation by the Las Vegas Review-Journal that highlighted the incidents.
The key event happened on June 11, 2010, when Officer Bryan Yant shot and killed 21-year-old Trevon Cole during a drug raid.
The attorney who represented Cole’s family, Andre Lagomarsino, now represents the Brown family.
He said he was reluctant to call the Brown case a test of the 2012 reforms and was waiting to see whether charges are filed against the officer.
But William Sousa, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said the reforms had created growing community trust in the force.
“The department did a lot since the DOJ reviewed them,” he said. “They now have an ongoing review of use-of-force policy.… Police have become much more transparent; there’s more emphasis on accountability to the community.”
Except in rare cases, Las Vegas publicly releases police footage of controversial or deadly altercations involving officers, distinguishing the city from others that cite ongoing investigations or family privacy as reasons to keep videos shielded.
There have been other protests in Las Vegas over deaths of black men at the hands of police in high-profile incidents in Baton Rouge, La., and the St. Paul, Minn., area. But in interviews, locals who took part in those demonstrations said they had not yet planned any over Brown’s death.
“Police definitely mishandled this,” said Samantha Robinson, a 25-year-old travel coordinator who moved to the city in 2015 and organized a rally of 50 demonstrators on the Strip last year in response to police shootings in other states. “Now they better show us they will do us right.”
Montero reported from Las Vegas and Kaleem reported from Los Angeles.
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