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Alma Chavez and the power of public testimony:

a recap of the event Police Use of Force: the Nevada Community Speaks

· WSTOF Exhibit,News,FU4JNV

Reporting by Jordan O'Brien

Photos and Video by Nissa Tzun and Joseph Lankowski

Art by Erik Beehn and Rafael Olivas

Archival Images courtesy of the Rafael Olivas family archive

A video collage to commemorate Rafael Olivas' life. The song was written by Olivas and a friend. The song is rapped by Olivas. Video and photos from the Rafael Olivas family. Music used with permission by the Rafael Olivas family. Video by Nissa Tzun

Las Vegas, NV - Alma Chavez turned from the eyes watching her at the podium to look at the video playing against the projector screen. She had told this story before, but never to a crowd of this size. Though the room had emptied since the testimonies began several hours ago, around 50 people had stayed to listen to what she, and others, had to say.

She stood silently as a melodic rap about growing up poor and fatherless in Las Vegas filled the church speakers. Ralfy composed it before he died, never expecting his mother to be the first to play it before a live audience. Photos from his creative life appeared on the screen, showing the breadth of his artistry during his formative years. In one shot, he thumbs the chord of an acoustic guitar with the concentrated look of a virtuoso on his face. In another, he watches the LCD screen of a large video-camera in his hands, a boyish smirk spread ear-to-ear.

Alma watched the procession of images solemnly. She had not yet begun to cry.

A picture taken over twenty years ago appeared just as the video concluded. In it, Alma smiles affectionally at the toddler on her knee, her hair darker and fuller than it is today. The child shares a big, toothless laugh with the camera, his attention fixed to whoever is calling his name on the other side of the lens.

Two police officers would shoot him to death in a little more than two decades, summoned by Alma in a desperate attempt to protect her son from himself.

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Rafael Olivas.

The audience of activists, volunteers and concerned citizens had grown used to the sight of a grieving mother reopening her wounds. They had come to listen to Alma and other survivors of police violence tell their stories at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Las Vegas on August 18. Over 111 people crowded the nave of the small church as the testimonies began. They were joined by a handful of elected officials, public defenders, defense attorneys and campaign staffers for 2020 presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

The event, “Police Use of Force: The Nevada Community Speaks” was created to illuminate cases of corruption and abuse by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. It arrived 13 months after the department’s own event, “Police Use of Force: How Las Vegas Became a Model of National Reform.” At the time, the forum was criticized for its misleading assertions by local activist groups. Hosted by panelists Christine Cole, from the Crime and Justice Institute, retired LVMPD officer Greg McCurdy and LVMPD Captain Kelly McMahill at the Mob Museum in downtown Las Vegas, the event emphasized Metro’s work with the Department of Justice to reform its use of force policies. When a 2011 investigation by the Las Vegas Review Journal highlighted the prevalence of deadly police shootings in Las Vegas comparative to other cities, the department and the DOJ implemented 75 recommendations aimed to eliminate the problem. As a group of activists protesting outside the building professed, these policies have not been successful. According to Metro’s own use of force report, there were an average of 17.2 officer involved shootings per year between 2014 and 2018, the period after these recommendations were implemented. Between 2000 and 2011, the shooting average per year was also 17, according to the Review Journal .

Shootings varied year to year. In 2016, there were only 10. But Metro officers fired their guns at civilians 22 times in both 2017 and 2018. Of the 86 shootings between 2014 and 2018, 51 percent were fatal.

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Over 100 people from the Las Vegas community attended the event to hear public testimonies about Nevada police abuses. August 18, 2019, Las Vegas, NV. Photo by Joey Lankowski

In 2011, Metro used deadly force 25 times. Alma Chavez, seated before the panelists that night, held up a sign with her son’s face to remind them that these statistics have consequences. Ralfy was shot to death that same year.

Rafael “Ralfy” Olivas died a 23-year-old. An artist and a songwriter who wrote music “with positive messages for the new generation,” he wanted to shake up the world out of high school, his mother says. Though unsure about where his life would take him after graduating high school in Las Vegas, he talked about studying graphic design.

Rafael Olivas was a prolific young artist and found deep connection and mentorship from Dr. John Hazen. He was a father figure for Olivas. Dr. Hazen taught at UNLV’s medical school in Obstetrics and Gynecology and had a book that illustrated the miracle of pregnancy and child birth. Dr. Hazen asked Olivas to draw this artwork for him, the image of a baby being birthed. Dr. Hazen willed this artwork back to Alma Chavez, Olivas’ mother so that it may live on in her possession upon his death.

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Rafael Olivas

The Miracle of Life, 2002

Drawing on paper

19.5 x 25.75 inches

Photo by Nissa Tzun

But he began to struggle with his health. At 20, doctors diagnosed him with ulcerative colitis, a debilitating bowel disease that produces chronic, inflammatory ulcers on the large intestine. The disease cannot be cured, resulting in life-long, recurring symptoms of fatigue, fever and irritability.

“You don’t have a normal life,” Alma said. “It’s as if you are 90 years old.”

After the diagnosis, Ralfy struggled with controlling his anger. Fearing that her son’s medical condition was worsening, Alma spoke with one of her co-workers for advice on what to do when his anger grew out of hand. She advised her to call the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), a group of uniformed patrol officers trained to deescalate police interactions with mentally unstable individuals. A crisis would force Ralfy to see a psychiatric doctor for treatment. Though initially skeptical of the idea of calling police officers to her home in the event of such an emergency, she thought it would help him receive the mental health resources he needed.

“I was very concerned about my son,” Alma said. “I thought my job as a mother was to seek for help.”

The crisis Alma wanted to avoid became a reality on Monday, July 14, 2011.

To and From is compiled of images provided by Alma Chavez, the mother of Rafael “Ralfy” Olivas, who was killed by Las Vegas Metropolitan Police on July 14, 2011. Included in this blackened image are photographs of Ralfy, Ralfy and Alma, Mother’s Day cards Ralfy made, childhood memories, and family vacations. The images were layered through multiple runs through an inkjet printer onto paper until they became so layered that the surface turns black, the images becoming indiscernable. The remaining black layer is then worked into with solvents to reveal the color that is layered underneath. The erased subject matter is based on a drawing Ralfy created for one of Alma’s Mother’s Day cards depicting a beach scene, which was his favorite place to be. Ralfy was fascinated with the ocean and aspired to live in Hawaii one day. Erik Beehn recounts a conversation with Ralfy’s mother, “Alma had spoken to me about how this loss has drained her of what was once a colorful life. This work is a direct response to that statement.”

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Erik Beehn

To and From, 2021

Archival inkjet pigment and solvents on paper 21 x 27 inches

A fight between Ralfy and his girlfriend at home triggered a severe nervous breakdown. Irate and inconsolable, he had spiraled out of control again, forcing Alma to step in. But her efforts to deescalate the situation failed. He refused to listen to her and showed no signs of calming down.

“I got desperate,” Alma said. “I didn’t know what else to do, and that’s when I called 911.”

When Ralfy found out that his mother had called the police, he grew even angrier, venting his frustrations through screams and expletives.

“You are the woman that I would give my life for and you are calling the cops for them to come and kill me,” Alma quoted Ralfy as saying at the time.

He grabbed a knife from the kitchen and exited the house.

Alma now feared for her son’s life. She had been on the phone with the police dispatcher and told her multiple times that she was afraid he would hurt himself. She also said that he was armed with a knife.

“My son is a good boy,” Alma said to her. “He’s not going to do anything to anyone. Please help him. Don’t hurt him.”

She followed her son outside and found him pacing back and forth in front of a neighbor's house. The image reminded Alma of Ralfy’s behavior in the past. He always walked outside to calm himself down, Alma said. The only difference now was that he had a knife in his hand and the police were on their way.

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Alma Chavez captures the audience with her 45 minute testimony about witnessing her son's police murder. August 18, 2019, Las Vegas, NV. Photo by Nissa Tzun

Officer Joshua Houchen—a Crisis Intervention Team Officer—and officers Christopher Grivas and David Hager converged on the scene as Ralfy walked up Firestone Drive. According to court documents, Houchen fired four non-lethal beanbag rounds at Ralfy and ordered him to drop the knife. But Alma disputes that the officers told Ralfy to drop the weapon. According to Alma's memory, no officer uttered any commands to Ralfy.

She said she remembers the moment clearly, saying the beanbag shots reminded her of “fireworks.”

Because she had called 911 for crisis intervention, she was stunned when they opened fire. She had called the police thinking they would deescalate the situation. As she watched the first shots ring out, she said Ralfy had his arms at his sides, and that he did not appear to threaten the officers. He was only walking.

“I thought what the heck?” Alma said, her voice breaking. “What’s going on? This is not what I called for! I thought they were trying to scare him. I really didn’t know what to make of it.”

She begged the police dispatcher to tell the other officers not to hurt her son.

“She responded to me, ‘Don’t worry, nobody is going to do anything to your baby,’” Alma said. “And then I heard all the gunshots, fatal gunshots, several gunshots.”

Officers Grivas and Hager fired at least 7 shots at Ralfy. After his body hit the ground, Hager handcuffed him and apparently requested “expedited” medical services. Alma disputes that the officer made this request, alleging that the medical response was “intentionally” delayed “while my son was losing all his blood, struggling for air.” Grivas later testified in court that he did not attempt first aid because he thought Ralfy’s wounds “were too severe.” Alma said that their decision to handcuff him while he laid on his back made it harder from him to breathe and ultimately expedited his death.

After the gunshots rang out, Alma ran towards Ralfy. She says one of the officers raised his gun to shoot her but was ultimately thrown against the wall by one of his colleagues and berated. The episode didn’t stop Alma. She continued to run until Houchen physically stopped her from approaching, according to court documents. But Alma later said she didn’t recall who grabbed her.

“I don’t remember his face, but I will never forget his eyes,” Alma said. “They looked empty.”

She proceeded to question him: “’Why did you kill my son? Why you couldn’t stop him?’”

The officer, she said, answered her coldly: “I am trained to kill, not to stop.”

The audience at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Las Vegas gasped when Alma, tears rolling down her face, retold the story of the shooting. Cristina Paulos, a police brutality survivor who testified before the crowd earlier in the evening, was so overwhelmed with emotion that she had to step outside.

Restrained by the officers, Alma remembers looking at her son laying on the ground, struggling for air and coughing up blood.

“I saw my son trying to move his left leg, trying to move his body a little bit to the side, and I was not able to get to him,” Alma said.

She contemplated trying to reach him again but feared for her life and the safety of her other children.

“I knew if I was shot my other kids are going to come as well, and if Ralfy is still alive he is going to need me,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do and until now I regret not even trying.”

The officers arrested Alma after the shooting and took her to University Medical Center of Southern Nevada to visit her son. They told her that he was alive, which surprised her. She thought she had seen Ralfy take his last breath on Firestone Drive.

According to court documents, Ralfy was admitted to UMC at 7:08 a.m. and pronounced dead at 7:40 a.m. Alma disputes the accuracy of these times.

When Alma arrived at the hospital, medical personnel took her into a “tiny room” and told her there was nothing they could do to save her son’s life.

She asked them if she could see Ralfy’s body but was falsely told that it was at the coroner’s office. She later found out that his body had been in the hospital while she was there. She didn’t see her son again until his body reached the funeral home.

“I saw my baby like if he were a big doll—cold, hard, destroyed by the cops,” Alma said.

Shortly after the shooting, Alma filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and officers Grivas and Hager, but the case was dismissed by the United States District Court for the District of Nevada and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The officers did not violate any ‘clearly established’ right,” according to the appellate court panel on the 9th Circuit.

“Taking the facts in the light most favorable to Chavez, no clearly established case law would have led all reasonable officers to conclude that using deadly force against Olivas after he threatened to kill the police and had approached the officers wielding a knife constituted excessive force.”

But what happens when officials and eyewitnesses dispute the facts? Both have vested interests in making their case, though the balance of power between them is greatly skewed.

Alma says she doesn’t believe the authorities investigated the shooting properly. She was the primary eyewitness in her son's shooting and the investigators never interviewed her or took her statement. In addition, no one from the District Attorney's office contacted her to receive her eyewitness statement.

She says the officers’ testimonies were riddled with lies to justify what they did, especially concerning Ralfy’s actions prior to being shot.

“The cops accused my son of trying to kill them,” Alma said. “They say that my son was wielding the knife. It was a lie. I was there. Nobody can come and tell me what my son didn’t do.”

The discrepancies between official and eyewitness testimonies appears an insoluble conundrum in the police brutality debate. Survivors of excessive use of force almost always tell stories that differ from the police department’s narrative, which is invariably disseminated by the media. But events like the one at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Las Vegas in August—those that encourage survivors to publicly testify about their experiences—illustrate that official narratives cannot always be correct. Alma’s story is one among hundreds that alleges gross misconduct by police officers. When lives and the psychological wellbeing of entire families are on the line, hard questions need to be asked about officers’ right to deadly force and the consequences of ambiguous department policy.

“I just couldn’t believe that in less than three minutes the cops destroyed my life,” Alma said as she concluded her testimony. “The cops are supposed to come and serve and protect all the citizens. But it wasn’t my case.”