Crime and Justice Institute's Christine Cole, retired metro officer Greg McCurdy, and LVMPD Captain Kelly McMahill sit on the Use of Force panel hosted by the Mob Museum. July 25, 2018, Las Vegas, NV. Photo by Shannon Miller
Reporting: Shannon Miller
Photos: Shannon Miller, Nissa Tzun, Meredith Hall, Eduardo Rossal
Transparency doesn’t mean much unless you have an accountability piece to go along with it. —Capt. Kelly McMahill, July 25, 2018.
Las Vegas, NV - With all due respect, Capt. McMahill should have taken her own advice Wednesday at Mob Museum’s event, “Police Use of Force: How Las Vegas Became a National Model of Reform.” Underneath the museum’s “courtroom” spotlights, McMahill extolled the Metro Police Department’s reform and barely addressed any concerns from the audience or general public. Transparency without accountability indeed.
Along with McMahill (head of Internal Oversight and Constitutional Policing), the panel-style event featured retired metro officer of 30-plus years Greg McCurdy, Christine Cole from the Crime and Justice Institute in Boston and, standing in for the absent Sheriff Lombardo, Jose Solorio from the sheriff’s Multicultural Advisory Council. No reason was given for Lombardo’s absence. Geoff Schumacher, the museum’s senior director of content, moderated the panel. He read 1–2 audience questions written on notecards which were otherwise just shuffled around and frowned at. Although the event was advertised as a “candid conversation,” no open Q&A session transpired.
Local headlines show that the concern about injustice is real. Recent reports of violently excessive use of force, civil rights lawsuits and botched indictments are commonplace nowadays for Metro. The most recent bombshell—about former police officer Kenneth Lopera’s manslaughter and oppression charges being dropped after his trial was delayed for months—came the day after the museum event. In national news about police shootings, protests over body cam footage of Chicago Police Department fatally shooting Harith Augustus made headlines last week.
Instead of having a community conversation focused on facts and statistics, Metro and its friends spent the hour praising the department’s ongoing compliance with the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) recommendations handed down in 2012. Panelists Cole and McCurdy also shamelessly plugged the museum’s exhibit. Meanwhile, families in the room, who held signs of loved ones killed by Metro police, were addressed only hypothetically.
If anybody in this room has had somebody that they love, die or be seriously injured in the hands of a police officer, I'm sorry. I'm not saying that we were wrong because I don't know the situation, but ... I can raise up the new generation of police officers who are not afraid to hold a mother's hand, to sit and pray with them — which, by the way, I've done before, after we had to use force on her son. —Capt. McMahill, July 25, 2018.
She also assured the audience that a common practice for Metro is to invite family members of individuals involved in shootings to visit the station, watch body cam footage and ask questions. But families of people killed by police have a very different experience.
Petra Gonzalez-Wilson, widow of police homicide victim Rex Wilson (killed on October 12, 2016), Mario Wilson, son of Rex Wilson, and Alma Chavez, mother of police homicide victim Rafael Olivas (killed on July 14, 2011), sit in the Mob Museum's "courtroom," for Wednesday evening's Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Use of Force panel. Both victims are from demographics most vulnerable to police homicide. Rex Wilson was a Native American man, and Rafael Olivas was a Latino man. Native Americans are killed at an equal or even higher rate than African Americans. Since 1990, LVMPD has killed at least 165 people, according to media and citizen databases. Since their reform, at least 46 people have been killed, nearly 30% of the overall killings since 1990, in a little over a 5th (21%) of the overall time period of 28 years. Despite the increase of frequencies in OIS's (officer-involved shootings), the department claims to lead the nation in police reform. The event was also attended by Jacqueline Lawrence, the mother of police homicide victim Keith Childress, Jr. (killed on December 31, 2015), and Amber Bustillos, the fiancee of police homicide victim, Junior Lopez (killed on April 6, 2018). July 25, 2018, Las Vegas, NV. Photo by Nissa Tzun
Junior David Lopez was fatally shot by Metro police on April 6. Lopez’ girlfriend, Amber Bustillos, and her friend witnessed the shooting. Police handcuffed her friend and interviewed Bustillos only very briefly for her witness report. Lopez’ family confirmed they were able to view the body cam footage. Bustillos describes her experience in subsequent dealings with the department: “I wasn’t able to see [Junior] until the day of the funeral. They didn’t answer any questions I had. They just beat around the bush and didn’t give any information at all”. After the incident, there was no Metro officer nor liaison provided for the family—just a case number, Bustillos said in a phone interview on Friday.
Kimberly Gonzalez interviews with Fox 5 News, the only mainstream media outlet to seek out and interview the witnesses of the police homicide of Junior Lopez, sharing her experience of being treated like a criminal by the LMVPD after she watched Lopez get shot during a traffic stop. Gonzalez was handcuffed and placed in the back of a police cruiser and held for 4 hours and never interviewed. Amber Bustillos, left of Gonzalez, who also witnessed the shooting was separated from Gonzalez in the hours after the shooting. April 9, 2018, East Las Vegas, NV. Photo by Nissa Tzun
Petra Gonzales-Wilson attended the event at the Mob Museum. She stated that no one from the department ever offered to help her family heal or to answer any questions when her husband Rex Wilson was killed in an officer-involved shooting on October 12, 2016.
After the panel concluded, McMahill went straight for the exit, not to be intercepted by anyone in the audience nor the media. The other panelists shortly followed after. It was an hour of mainly feel-good fluff about Metro’s positive perception of itself rather than the community’s perception of Metro.
Approximately 20 community activists came to the Mob Museum to protest the Use of Force event outside. Holding signs such as the one above were held out to engage passersby. Activists also carried a fact sheet flyer if people wanted more information. Other signs read, "LVMPD: Leading the nation in police corruption and violence," and "Police everywhere, justice nowhere." Activists came armed with t-shirts reading, "Welcome to Las Vegas where calling 911 is a gamble with our lives. And the house always wins." Las Vegas, NV. Photo by Meredith Hall
Activists are enthused when multiple cars that drove by honked their horns in support of their protest. Despite the heavy rain shower that happened during the panel, several activists remained, determined to display their visual protest and pass out information. Las Vegas, NV, July 25, 2018. Photo by Meredith Hall
Community activists held white crosses with police homicide victims' names written on them. The list was compiled by Forced Trajectory Project and Families United 4 Justice-Southwest, who are working alongside the Stolen Lives Project to generate a list of victims in the Las Vegas Valley. July 25, 2018, Las Vegas, NV. Photo by Eduardo Rossal
Black Lives Matter - UNLV organizer Micajah Daniels attends the protest outside the Mob Museum. She helped print flyers and created white crosses for the visual part of the protest. When asked about why she came to support the protest she replied, "As I was standing in the rain I thought about the numerous times in which the LVMPD has violated the rights of our community and criminalized poverty. The stories of those who were victimized and brutalized by the police came to mind and the constant theme of the stories people shared with me. They need legal help and a way to tell their story of police brutality. I felt the weight of their desire to get justice for their mutiliated bodies, their distraught minds, and their lost loved ones. Showing up to this panel is my way of being present for those who are scared, not informed, and those working towards having the resources for justice even though we can't even afford to get in. If I could get in, I would ask how the LVMPD is leading the nation when they have an unnecessary amount of military hardware created for war zones in places like Iraq and Afghanistan? Do they support the "Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act," that would put the necessary oversight and restrictions on weapons of war being given to local police departments? How are they leading the nation in the prevention of lethal force when one of their officers choked the life out of an innocent man? And when the community tried to speak up and organize against this injustice, they were criminalized and were attacked. I will continue to organize for peace and justice and that includes demilitarizing the LVMPD." Las Vegas, NV, July 25, 2018. Photo by Eduardo Rossal
Families United 4 Justice-Southwest created this fact sheet to address the LVMPD's claims of leading the nation in Use of Force practices and policy, especially in the areas of transparency, de-escalation and bodycam usage. Flyer provided by Families United 4 Justice-Southwest
This write-up is part one of a three-part investigative series about Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s Use of Force policies and practices. Part two will feature interview with Metro Capt. Kelly McMahill and will address specific reforms in the department.