Lawmakers take aim at police reforms

State oversight, citizen review boards, excessive force policies on the table

IMAGE/Reno Police Department: The green boxes indicate new policies adopted June 5.

By Frank X. Mullen

As the federal government recoils from investigating systemic bias and racism in the nation’s local police agencies, Nevada officials are considering filling that vacuum in the Silver State.

“When there are allegations that a particular police department has a pattern of discriminatory practices, of engaging with certain communities differently, the Justice Department can do investigations,” said Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford. “They can request records, they can do interviews, they can do things that (state) attorneys general under current federal law are not allowed to do. We’ve asked for the same ability to do that as the Department of Justice.”

Ford is among 18 state attorneys general who have asked for that authority. He said he would “like the ability to be able to jump in when that’s necessary” to investigate and prosecute if warranted or to require changes in policies and practices when discrimination is proven. Ford said he’s working with Nevada’s Congressional delegation to help change federal policy. “But (if the federal government refuses) we can get that done through state law… It’s not just about looking for bad departments. This can also be used as a tool for exoneration…  If it’s found that there’s not a pattern, but it’s just some bad actors, then those individuals have to be dealt with.”

Ford joined several state lawmakers Sunday, June 7, in a panel discussion about the need for greater state involvement in setting standards for law enforcement hiring, training, policies and accountability. The panel comes in the wake of massive national protests over the death of George Floyd, who was killed by police in Minneapolis on May 25, and recent revisions in police use-of-force policies in Reno and Las Vegas. The protests and the national spotlight on police procedures underlines federal officials’ recent abdication of  responsibility for local oversight. During his tenure, former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said federal involvement in local law enforcement policies and procedures is needless “micromanagement.” His successor, Bill Barr, has repeatedly stated that he rejects the idea that there’s any institutionalized bias in law enforcement.

About two hours before Nevada officials’ panel discussion, Barr told CBS’ Face the Nation that though racism exists, he doesn’t think the country’s “law enforcement system is systemically racist,” even though statistics concerning arrests, convictions and imprisonment of African Americans indicate a pattern of unequal justice under law. In that interview, Barr said he thinks “that there are instances of bad cops. And I think we have to be careful about automatically assuming that the actions of an individual necessarily mean that their organization is rotten.” But Nevada lawmakers on Sunday’s panel said that systems as well as individuals need to be investigated when widespread discrimination is alleged.

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, D-Clark, said the problem of excessive use of force often is institutional and must be treated that way through reforms in recruitment, hiring, training and accountability. “It’s not a matter of a few bad apples,” he said. “It is a matter of a few bad actors, but what we’re talking about is a cancer. And when you have a cancer you have to get rid of it, otherwise it affects the whole body. We have to be committed to addressing it.”  He said requiring police officers to intervene when colleagues are harming people – as now required by the Las Vegas and Reno departments — and reporting officers who use excessive force is a good start.

But he said cops who refuse to turn a blind eye to misconduct also must be protected from retaliation if they are expected to pierce the blue wall of silence. “They need to feel comfortable holding their own accountable,” Frierson said. “We need to create an environment where they can feel safe so they can do that.”

Panel members also supported civilian police review boards. Las Vegas Metro Police is the only agency in the state with a civilian board in place. Assemblyman Tom Roberts, R-Clark, who was a Las Vegas Metro police officer for 25 years, said Metro’s internal investigations have increased “tenfold” since the board was created. He suggested that the Attorney General’s Office review cases heard by civilian review boards. “When you have an auditor reviewing the process of looking at those cases of deaths and the excessive use of force, knowing that somebody is going to review those really steps up the game,” he said.

Proposals for a civilian review board have been considered in Reno many times over the last 30 years, usually following incidents of officer-involved shootings or allegations of police brutality, particularly involving members of minority communities. The proposals were opposed by police and some city officials and always failed to gain much traction.

“It might be time to deploy citizen review boards in other communities if we’re seeing a lack of faith and a lack of trust in law enforcement in Northern Nevada,” said Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Washoe, “If the town or city doesn’t want to create one, it’s certainly something that the Legislature can require.” He also noted that any reforms involving accountability and review must be crafted so that they can’t be negated in the collective bargaining process between police unions and local governments.

Other suggestions that came up during the discussion involved police recruitment and training practices and what the state can do to help cash-strapped local departments. Ford said a group in his office has suggested the creation of a state Center for Modern Policing “that would be a resource to provide specific training to law enforcement agencies, sheriffs departments and police departments around the state, who are limited as to what they can do because of a lack of local resources. That’s a practical solution that we will submit to the Legislature.”

Gov. Steve Sisolak is expected to call for a special session of the Legislature to address the expected $741 million to more than $900 million budgetary shortfall caused by the economic shutdown in the wake of the COVID pandemic. Lawmakers said social justice issues also may be a part of that session.

“We all agree police officers provide a critical service for our communities and I echo the (other panelists’) remarks that our thoughts go out to Officer Shay Mikalonis (shot in Las Vegas June 1 ) and to his family and we hope for his speedy recovery. At the same time we have to acknowledge we have a problem and have to take some real tangible actions in ways we can make this a better community for all to live in where we can all feel safe and that isn’t dependent on the color of your skin… I’m happy to see there’s a bipartisan conversation so we can move this forward and find some real answers to a very real problem we need to fix.”

— Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizarro, D-Clark

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