Header photo: the Police De-Escalation, Reducing Force and Building Community Trust panel with Dr. Melissa Piasecki, professor of psychiatry at University of Nevada-Reno, Korey Tillman of Mass Liberation Project and Ph.D. candidate of Sociology at UNLV, moderator Addie Rolnick, professor of law at UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law, Nichole Splinter, Captain of the Internal Oversight and Constitutional Policing, and Nissa Tzun, Forced Trajectory Project's co-founder and editor-in-chief. November 12, 2019, Las Vegas, NV. Photo by Oja Vincent
Photos: Eduardo Rossal-Cabrera and Oja Vincent
Reporting: Brandon Summers
Las Vegas, NV - On Tuesday, November 12, the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law program on Race, Gender and Policing in partnership with Mob Museum, hosted a panel titled, “Police De-escalation: Reducing Force and Building Community Trust.” This conversation came at an opportune time: on November 6 the Las Vegas City Council passed a city ordinance that criminalizes homelessness, making it a misdemeanor crime to camp or sleep by businesses in downtown Las Vegas (in fact, the Downtown Vegas Alliance of which the Mob Museum is a part supported the ordinance). The ordinance has the community thinking about how police will enforce it, and how it may further compound the problems of mental health, homelessness, and the perpetual cycle of people who are struggling economically with mental health issues in and out of the criminal justice system.
Jonathan Ullman, the President and CEO of the Mob Museum welcomes the audience to the panel. November 12, 2019, Las Vegas, NV. Photo by Oja Vincent
The intent of the panel discussion (which can be viewed in full here), held at Mob Museum’s historic courtroom, was to engage in dialogue about the circumstances warranting police use-of-force against civilians. Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) hosted a use-of-force discussion last year, but the majority of its panelists had ties to law enforcement and the Q & A portion was heavily controlled. Tuesday’s panel, in contrast to LVMPD’s event last year, was made up of one law enforcement representative and three individuals from the community and the world of academia.
The panel featured Nichole Splinter, LVMPD captain of the Internal Oversight and Constitutional Policing Bureau, Melissa Piasecki, professor of psychiatry at University of Nevada - Reno, Nissa Tzun, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Forced Trajectory Project, and Korey Tillman of Mass Liberation Project, a Sociology doctoral candidate studying the institution of policing. The panel was moderated by Addie C. Rolnick, a professor of law at the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law.
Roughly 60 attendees listened to the 100 minute panel inside the Mob Museum’s Historic Courtroom. Among the guests were family members of police homicide victims and survivors of police brutality. The impacted group had a front pew reserved for them by the program. Alma Chavez is the mother of Rafael Olivas, 23, who was shot and killed by LVMPD in 2011 after Chavez called the crisis intervention team for help with Olivas who was suffering a mental breakdown. Terry Rogaczewski was under the influence of his prescribed sleeping medication Ambien, which is known to cause active sleep walking and odd behavior, when he was shot three times by two LVMPD officers in 2012. Petra Wilson is the widow of Rex Wilson, a US veteran and member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe, who was homeless (due to a long battle with addiction and mental health issues) at the time he was killed by LVMPD in 2016. Kimberly Neske is the mother of James Neske who recently died in Clark County Detention Center.
Addie Rolnick, professor of law at UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law moderated the panel. November 12, 2019, Las Vegas, NV. Photo by Eduardo Rossal-Cabrera
Rolnick opened the conversation with introducing the purpose of the panel. "Our goal is really to try to serve as a bridge here, to do events like this. We hope that this is one of many, between the many different stakeholders in these questions about policing." In her introduction she mentioned the police killings of Charleena Lyles of Seattle, who was pregnant at the time she was killed, and local cases including Tashii Brown, who was killed on Mother's Day in 2017, while suffering a mental health crisis, and Byron Williams who was recently killed by LVMPD after being pulled over for allegedly riding a bicycle without a safety light.
Dr. Melissa Piasecki, professor of psychiatry at the University of Nevada - Reno, speaks on the panel. November 12, 2019, Las Vegas, NV. Photo by Eduardo Rossal-Cabrera
Dr. Melissa Piasecki gave a stark snapshot of mental health in the criminal justice system. She stated that Los Angeles County Jail is the number one provider of mental health services with Chicago’s Cook County Jails closely following. These figures were followed with an anecdote of seeing the “sickest people in jail and prison.” Piasecki believes that society is failing individuals with mental illness by defaulting to the criminal justice system. In her opinion, the criminal justice system is “not prepared and is not equipped.”
Korey Tillman of Mass Liberation Project and a doctoral candidate of Sociology at UNLV, gave historical, sociological and political context to the role of policing. November 12, 2019, Las Vegas, NV. Photo by Eduardo Rossal-Cabrera
Korey Tillman provided the historical and sociopolitical context of policing, challenging the audience to think more broadly of the concept of policing. Citing Black feminist criminologists, Michelle Alexander and Simone Brown, Tillman stated that "they situate the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade as like the centerpiece to understanding how the advent of policing comes about. And when you do so, right, that gives a critical and radical reinterpretation of policing, and allows us to understand the anti-Blackness that is inherent in policing and also how policing can be used as a mechanism to create a racial caste system in our society."
Tillman went on to give context to the mass incarceration problem in the US. The rate of incarceration had a 500% increase since 1975 and according to The Sentencing Project at any given time 2.2 million people are behind bars. Tillman argues that policing has become the blanket solution for every social problem which is why policing is so pervasive now in our society, found in schools policing the youth and responding to mental health episodes that sometimes end up in fatal and tragic interactions.
Captain Nichole Splinter, who oversees use-of-force investigations, was involved in the fatal officer-involved-shooting of Joseph Justin in August of 2007. November 12, 2019, Las Vegas, NV. Photo by Eduardo Rossal-Cabrera
Captain Nichole Splinter of LVMPD told the audience she was “painfully aware” of Las Vegas’s history of officer-involved-shootings. Splinter has worked for the department for 19 years and is currently captain of the Internal Oversight and Constitutional Policing Bureau. According to LVMPD’s website, the bureau’s goal is to “significantly reduce deadly force incidents” as well as “ensure LVMPD employees are held accountable to both internal and external standards.” She gave a brief overview of what happens after an officer involved shooting (OIS) and the function of the Force Investigation Team (FIT) and Critical Incident Review Team (CIRT). However, during the panel Splinter also revealed that she was involved in a fatal officer-involved-shooting in August of 2007. The Las Vegas Review Journal reported that she shot the suspect, Joseph M. Justin, in the leg, and her partner at the time Timothy Nicothodes delivered the fatal round. The shooting was ruled as justified despite contrasting narratives between the police and the community. Nicothodes would go on to become a detective at LVMPD before being convicted of a DUI in Montana in 2010, and then later was charged with domestic violence in Colorado in 2015. Earlier on the panel, Splinter candidly shared that substance abuse was common in her line of work.
Nissa Tzun stated that “no other country has comparable police homicides” to the United States. She went on to make it plain that Nevada has a police violence problem. Tzun is not wrong. LVMPD has been involved in very high-profile officer-involved shootings and homicides over the years— some garnering national attention. In 2010, US Army veteran and West Point graduate Erik Scott was killed by metro police officers outside of a suburban Costco. The police responded to an urgent 911 call regarding a man carrying a gun into the store. Though Scott had a holstered sidearm, he never pointed it at officers before being shot seven times-- five of those shots in the back. The shooting was ruled as justified by the coroner’s inquest jury. The same year, LVMPD officer Bryan Yant shot and killed an unarmed Trevon Cole during a botched drug raid. Cole was mistaken for a weed dealer with the same name. Cameras were rolling for a future episode of “COPS” when the raid resulted in 21-year-old Cole being shot at point-blank range. The subsequent civil lawsuit cost tax-payers a record-breaking $1.7M dollars in a settlement to Cole’s family. The shooting was also ruled justified. Tzun reminded the audience that the system very rarely holds police accountable for taking civilian life. On average per year, 99.5% of police homicides are considered justified by the state.
Nissa Tzun, the editor-in-chief of Forced Trajectory Project received applause multiple times throughout the panel for expressing the community's intolerance for the continued human and civil rights violations committed by the police. November 12, 2019, Las Vegas, NV. Photo by Oja Vincent
In 2017, a confused and intoxicated Tashii Brown was pursued by Officer Kenneth Lopera after Brown made contact with Lopera and his partner. Brown was asking the officers for help inside of the Venetian Hotel & Casino, but ran away— likely due to his impairment. Minutes later, Brown was dead. He had been tased, punched, and placed in a chokehold by Lopera. Lopera was initially charged with manslaughter but were eventually dropped after a grand jury ruled not to indict.
During Q & A, the audience asked Captain Splinter some challenging questions. After telling the story of what happened to her son, Alma Chavez asked Splinter “what has changed with Metro [LVMPD] since 2011?” Splinter’s response included an apology "from mom to mom," and explained that now all LVMPD officers are mandated to take a 40-hour crisis intervention team (CIT) training as well as watch training videos for de-escalation.
“If you have an officer who breaks policies and procedures and gets fired for breaking those policies and procedures, what is your stance on that officer being rehired especially when the [Las Vegas Police Protective Agency] protects them so much and they're on the force? How do you set yourself up to be the national standard of transparency and trust when you have a problem officer on the job?” asked police shooting survivor Terry Rogaczewski.
Sitting next to Alma Chavez, the mother of police homicide victim Rafael Olivas, police shooting survivor Terry Rogaczewski asks LVMPD Captain Splinter a question during the Q & A session. November 12, 2019, Las Vegas, NV. Photo by Oja Vincent
Petra Wilson wanted to know what action LVMPD takes in regards to officers who have been involved in multiple shootings. Petra’s husband, Rex Wilson, was killed in an officer-involved shooting in 2016 during a high-speed chase and the officers that shot him were previously involved in an officer-involved-shooting. Splinter confessed that officers involved in misconduct and use-of-force incidents tend to get their jobs back - a reality that even she wished wasn’t so. “I’ve sat on a lot of termination boards…it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating because the department does its due diligence to hold the officers accountable... And when we get a notice that so and so got their job back, it does become disheartening.”
Tillman closed with the following:
“The reason I talk about that [implicit bias] is we hear there’s a good person in the system. But in my study of sociology and understanding is that the system and its structure is more powerful than one individual. So when we think about the roles and bias in the system we have to remember that the foundation of policing as an institution is white supremacy at its finest. In order to talk about a solution, the solution has to come from directly impacted people.”
The audience at the Mob Museum that night concurred.