Reporting: Nissa Tzun
Photos: Eduardo Rossal-Cabrera
Las Vegas, NV - SB 242, a bill proposed by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, was heard on Wednesday, March 20, at the Nevada State Legislature, a piece of legislation that if passed would strengthen Nevada's Peace Officer's Bill of Rights. Peace Officer's Bill of Rights is a form of legislation that surfaced in the 1970's and was adopted by 14 states. While the original intent of the legislation was to protect officers under investigation from possible retaliation from upper management, the result of it is a complete lack of transparency and accountability when a police officer is under investigation for allegedly committing a crime. Nationwide, less than .5% of all police homicides result in a conviction.
SB 242 specifically offers special protections to Nevada officers under investigation in the form of immunity to prosecution, protection of identity through redactions of video footage, officer statements, and the withholding of statements and video footage in civil cases.
According to Mapping Police Violence, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department ranked 6th in the nation in police homicides in 2017, standing amongst the more infamous and larger departments like LAPD, NYPD, Chicago and Detroit police departments. Of the approximate 200 police homicides in the last thirty years only one officer has been held accountable for taking the life of a civilian in the Las Vegas Valley.
Considering the majority of police homicide cases are not criminally prosecuted, fighting civilly, if the case is not thrown out completely, is often the only avenue for some kind of justice and reparations for an impacted family. SB 242 would make that even harder.
The opposition to SB 242 overwhelmed the small room where the hearing was held at the Grant Sawyer Building. In Orwellian fashion, the Nevada State Legislature in Carson City appeared on a small flat screen on the wall and was connected to the Las Vegas community through video conferencing. A group of impacted families and police brutality victims, some as members of Families United 4 Justice - Southwest, a regional chapter of the national network, Families United 4 Justice, a coalition of families impacted by police homicide, arrived at 1PM to testify. Amongst them were Alma Chavez, mother of police homicide victim, Rafael Olivas, Petra Wilson, widow of Rex Wilson, Mario Wilson, son of Rex Wilson, police brutality victim Cristina Paulos, and police brutality victim Terry Rogaczewski. Also in the room were representatives from ACLU, Americans for Prosperity, and Nevada Cop Block, all in opposition to SB 242. Only one person in Las Vegas testified in support of the bill, LVMPD Sgt. Francisco Lopez.
"Unfortunately I lost my son, at the hands of a couple of police officers. I do not support this legislation because it is giving them [the police] more rights to lie, to prepare for their cases, to be untouchable," stated Alma Chavez, the mother of police homicide victim, Rafael Olivas, killed by LVMPD on July 14, 2011. "[There were] so many violations in my son’s case. I was present at the moment of his murder. I saw how they twisted the truth. I saw how they violated his rights and my rights. I didn’t get justice."
Chavez' experience parallels many if not most police homicide cases, where the police mishandle evidence and mistreat and intimidate witnesses, all the more reason why this legislation should not be passed.
"Unfortunately they didn’t have cameras on their bodies. I had a video from one of the neighbors. Unfortunately the police went around checking to see who had videos of it and they got the original [footage]. I have a copy that I couldn’t enlarge but I have enough evidence to prove that my son didn’t put them in danger," said Chavez.
Chavez ended her testimony with a plea to the legislators not to support the bill, but instead write bills that will improve police transparency and accountability. "If they do not provide the evidence..the truth is never going to come out. We need to see what is really happening in this department and if they are guilty of any crime they need to pay for what they do they are not different from anyone. I was not prepared to lose my son that day. I was not prepared with the expenses of his funeral. I was not prepared to be unable to go to work. And I’m still not prepared to live without my son [to this] today. For that reason I’m speaking in the name of hundreds and hundreds of victims like me, who are seeking for justice...I would like to have those cases reopened one day, and I have a hope that one day my case is going to be reopened and they’re going to see how much lies were in the case."
Alma Chavez, mother of police homicide victim, Rafael Olivas, killed by LVMPD on July 14, 2011, fights back tears as she testifies in opposition to SB 242. Olivas was killed during a Crisis Intervention call Chavez made when Olivas suffered a mental health breakdown. Olivas was shot and killed in front of his mother, a trauma Chavez relives everyday. Las Vegas, NV, 2019. Photo by Eduardo Rossal-Cabrera
Petra Wilson, widow of police homicide victim, Rex Wilson, killed by LVMPD on October 13, 2016, testifies in opposition to SB 242. The officers were not indicted and currently Wilson has filed a civil suit against LVMPD. If passed, SB 242 could directly impact the outcome of her civil case. The couple share 9 children and Rex Wilson was the main breadwinner for the family.
Petra Wilson was the final impacted family member to testify. Her husband, Rex Wilson, was killed during a car chase in Henderson, NV, on October 13, 2016, by LVMPD. In her testimony she applauded the testimony from LVMPD's upper management who spoke in opposition to the bill and also informed the committee the reality of her situation, that families impacted by police homicide are even less fortunate than civilian homicide survivors because officers are almost always immune to prosecution in these cases, whereas civilians who commit murder would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
"This bill would infringe upon my family's rights. As my family would be unable to view an officer who to chose to kill my husband. I would not be see the footage that I did see. I would not have an understanding of activity. I would not be able to have any type of sight, and that's bothersome...If an officer was to able to determine what his rights are what's the point of the law? What's the point of equality in America? My experience, since my husband has died is that officers are often given special privilege. My family has had to suffer through much, my children had to suffer through much. They're continuing to suffer, this is never going to end for them. They don't have rights the same as these officers. These officers have been given much more than my family. And I don't have rights and I don't have help, because my husband's death was a "justified homicide." So I don't have the same rights as if someone murdered my husband off the street simply because they've already got special privileges as officers."
Terry Rogaczewski sits quietly while his attorney, Lisa Rasmussen, shares her opposition to SB 242. In November of 2012, Rogaczewski suffered a severe adverse reaction from the prescription drug, Ambien, blacked out for three days and woke up in a hospital. He had been shot by LVMPD officers who claimed he was acting erratically, pointing his firearm at people, and had discharged his weapon. The officers stated that Rogaczewski fired his weapon at them and they shot back, hitting him 3 times. He was charged with a felony for discharging a firearm out of a structure or vehicle. At his preliminary hearing, Rogaczewski found out that the officers who had shot him lied about what occurred that night and is currently seeking exoneration.
On March 28, impacted families and victims are planning on testifying again, this time in support for the criminal justice reform bill, AB267 which if approved will reward exonerees compensation along with the expungement of their records.
Alma Chavez, mother of police homicide victim, Rafael Olivas, and police brutality victim Cristina Paulos embrace at the end of the hearing for SB 242. Las Vegas, NV, March 20, 2019. Photo by Eduardo Rossal-Cabrera