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Federal review of Las Vegas police sheds light on Baltimore probe

A Las Vegas police officer points his training gun at a carjacker who refused to exit a vehicle. As a squad of officers worked to arrest the suspect, a team of training officers stood to the side to see how well the commanded and controlled the incident.
A Las Vegas police officer points his training gun at a carjacker who refused to exit a vehicle. As a squad of officers worked to arrest the suspect, a team of training officers stood to the side to see how well the commanded and controlled the incident.(Mark Puente, Baltimore Sun)

In the darkness of a December night, Stanley Gibson pulled his 1991 Cadillac Brougham into an apartment complex far from the Strip's glitzy casinos and phoned his wife. The Gulf War veteran, who was battling a worsening mental condition, said he was lost. Rondha Gibson couldn't figure out where he was so she called the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department for help.

A few blocks away, officers looking for a burglar came upon a Cadillac that had been circling a parking lot of the Alondra apartments and used two cruisers to block it. When the driver ignored orders to come out, police devised a plan: Officers would shoot a beanbag through a window and then blast pepper spray inside.

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But that plan soon went tragically wrong. An officer mistook the beanbag blast as gunfire from the car, and fired his AR-15 rifle seven times at it. Gibson died — another shooting victim of Las Vegas police and a symbol of the community outrage that triggered a U.S. Department of Justice probe.

"I never realized how bad the police shootings were until it happens to you," Rondha Gibson said recently, as she recalled seeing the Cadillac on the television news that day in 2011. "It blew me away."

The Gibson shooting illustrated a broader problem in the predominantly Latino and African-American neighborhoods that lie a few miles from the Strip, where tourists spend billions of dollars each year. More than 140 people were killed by Las Vegas police in shootings since 1990, and the Justice Department intervened in January 2012 to address the issue — just as it is doing in Baltimore over allegations of police brutality.

A recent Baltimore Sun investigation showed that residents have suffered broken bones and battered faces during arrests, and the city has paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 civil suits alleging police brutality and other misconduct since 2011. Nearly all of the victims in incidents that sparked those lawsuits were cleared of criminal charges.

The Sun also found that some Baltimore officers were involved in multiple lawsuits, and there were significant gaps in the system used to monitor misconduct in the Police Department. As a result, city and police officials acknowledge, many residents have come to distrust police and crime-fighting efforts have been hampered. In the wake of The Sun investigation, police Commissioner Anthony Batts announced that he requested federal help to reform the department.

The Justice Department's work in Las Vegas, which began in January 2012 and culminated in a final report in May of this year, offers a preview of the probe in Baltimore, which is in its early stages. Las Vegas became a testing ground for federal efforts to help local police departments curb excessive-force abuses and develop strategies to rebuild relationships with residents; there are now five cities, including Baltimore, participating in the voluntary program called a collaborative review.

Community leaders say the biggest changes in Las Vegas include improved training to de-escalate situations and to eliminate biases that officers may carry against minorities. The Police Department has also improved communications with the public, providing details within 72 hours of all police shootings so rumors are tamped down.

"It's a beginning," said attorney Cal J. Potter III, who represented Rondha Gibson in a civil lawsuit against police. "Has it done enough? I don't know. But it made them accountable to somebody."

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Dr. Tiffany Tyler, a member of a citizen advisory board that meets monthly with Las Vegas' top police official, agreed.

Asked what Baltimore residents should expect, she said, "It's going to feel uncomfortable at first. It's relationship- and rapport-building. We have a seat at the table now."

'Shoot first'

Community anger in Las Vegas grew over police shootings, which resulted in a record 25 shootings in 2010. Since the beginning of 2011, there have been 26 fatalities in 55 shootings. By comparison, Baltimore, whose police force is similar in size, has had 22 fatalities in 52 police shootings over that period.

Many Las Vegas residents criticized the zero-tolerance policy that led officers to stop African-Americans and Latinos for minor violations, including jaywalking and trespassing. The stops, which didn't occur in white neighborhoods, frequently escalated to fatal shootings of unarmed men.

Some also believed police had a philosophy of "shoot first and sort it out later." And they questioned the department's oversight. Weeks before police killed Stanley Gibson, the Las Vegas Review-Journal published a five-day series on the shootings and found that that all were ruled to be justified.

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The shootings also had a financial impact on taxpayers, triggering some hefty legal judgments, like similar lawsuits in Baltimore. As a result of what Las Vegas police leaders call a "mistake of fact shooting," Rondha Gibson received $1.5 million and Stanley Gibson's mother accepted $500,000 to settle lawsuits — the highest payout for a police shooting in city history.

Las Vegas and Baltimore share another similarity when it comes to excessive force: Both departments include officers who have been involved in multiple lawsuits.

Baltimore Detective Michael McSpadden, for example, has been sued at least five times, and taxpayers have paid more than $624,0000 to settle those lawsuits. He was suspended last month, after The Sun uncovered a video contradicting his description of an arrest that led to a $62,000 settlement.

In Las Vegas, attention has focused on Detective Bryan Yant, who was involved in three high-profile shootings in 10 years, killing two men.

Yant was a member of a narcotics team that raided Trevon Cole's apartment in 2010. Police leaders later learned that Yant confused Cole with someone who had the same name and a long criminal record. Cole did not match the other person's age or physical description, according to published reports.

Yant used the erroneous information to get a search warrant and, after police burst into the apartment, fatally shot Cole as he flushed marijuana down a toilet. Yant said Cole lunged at him. Prosecutors said they didn't believe the officer's account, but did not charge him.

Taxpayers paid a $1.7 million settlement to end a lawsuit in 2012.

Amid the ensuing outcry, Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie, who oversees the Las Vegas police, gave Yant a 40-hour suspension and vowed to restrict him to desk duty. The police union then hired Yant to counsel other officers involved in shootings.

Gillespie doesn't have an easy answer for why officers shot so many people. Spikes in shootings came after officers were killed by gunfire, he said, noting that might have put other officers on edge and made them more likely to shoot suspects.

In a wide-ranging, 60-minute interview, he accepted blame for not doing enough to head off that reaction. "We should have paid more attention to that than we did."

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Identifying shortcomings

In its review of the Las Vegas police, the Justice Department's outside consultants focused on the use of deadly force, including an analysis of policies, training, tactics and documentation. Investigators interviewed residents, officers, prosecutors and police union officials.

Among 75 findings in the final report, the federal government listed more than a dozen shortcomings in use-of-force procedures. The report recommended that the agency create a team of specially trained officers to probe incidents involving the use of force. Baltimore copied the model this year.

The reforms were designed to improve the process for reviewing police shootings in Las Vegas, while keeping the public informed. The report also called for more wide-ranging training.

De-escalation techniques have been known to reduce the need for use of force, the Justice Department report said. The training had not been a part of the Las Vegas culture in the past, the report added.

While classroom training is still used, all officers and sergeants are now required to spend hours role-playing to defuse situations before they escalate. A recent training class pitted six officers against a carjacker.

As officers pointed fake guns at the car, a patrolman screamed orders. Minutes later, the carjacker was handcuffed. Trainers stood to the side to grade each officer.

Training Sgt. Jeff Coday said the exercises show that officers don't need to rush a car or suspect — possibly triggering a shooting. "It slows the momentum down. We don't want to force the issue."

Police officials noted that shootings did not jump in June, after a man and woman ambushed and killed two officers. To prevent such a spike, Gillespie said, police leaders calmed officers' fears by "aggressively telling them not to assume everybody has a gun, and not to default to deadly force."

The police also eliminated its zero-tolerance policy, and community leaders said that changed the department's image on the streets. Moving forward, Gillespie said, one of the biggest challenges involves continuing the "fair and impartial" training to eliminate biases.

Gillespie said the federal review backed departmental reforms that had already occurred and "gave us a road map for things to work on in the future. It told us we were on the right track. It also helped with the community."

Federal officials have said police leaders need to be transparent, open, engaging and accountable to transform a department.

Asked to define transparency for his department, Gillespie said: "Transparency isn't just giving stuff out as public records requests. [The public] needs to know what you're doing, and it just isn't the newspaper and TV."

Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak, a frequent critic of the police force, applauded the increased flow of information from police leaders to the community, which helps to restore trust.

"The community is taking a lot of satisfaction in this," Sisolak said. "The best thing to come out of this is the transparency and the disclosures to the public."

Imperiled community

Las Vegas' Bolden neighborhood, known for high crime, is nestled alongside Interstate 15 and U.S. 95. To the south rises the 1,149-foot Stratosphere Casino, Hotel & Tower, and other casinos and hotels on the Strip can be seen in the distance.

The area is saturated with public housing complexes, storefront churches and boarded-up buildings. The concrete apartments, with names like Marble Manor and Sherman Gardens, once held segregated Air Force personnel. They now house poor residents and second- and third-generation gang members, police say. Graffiti is everywhere, and addresses are plastered on some roofs so police helicopters can pinpoint the location.

Nearby sits the shuttered Moulin Rouge Hotel & Casino. The first desegregated casino in Las Vegas, it attracted famous African-American musicians including Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. when it opened in 1955. It awaits demolition.

The Bolden area was the location of many police shootings, but community leaders now praise police for helping to rebuild trust with residents. One key strategy: the Safe Village Initiative, a community policing program that the Justice Department credited the Police Department for starting and held out as an example of relationship-building.

A squad of four officers has developed relationships with leaders of churches, schools and businesses, and one of their roles is to address the concerns of residents. On a recent 10-hour shift, Officer Ken LeRud drove around the community, and residents, young and old, often waved to him.

LeRud said pastors typically hold cookouts or rallies in the housing complexes to comfort residents when major crimes occur, and officers attend the gatherings.

That can pay off when police need help, he said. "When the local pastor is at your door, you're a little more apt to come forward. We've built trust so we can get a little bit of information when we need it."

LeRud stopped into the well-kept Seven Seas Seafood Restaurant & Lounge, one of the few remaining bars in the city's "Old West Side." Owner Louis Conner gave him a hug.

A sign by the doors says patrons must be "30 or over to enter," and portrayals of musicians including Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight line the wall. Conner bought the business 43 years ago when he quit his job at the Stardust Casino.

Conner said he has kept the business going by not allowing troublemakers in the bar, and prefers an older clientele because "they spend good money, not bad money." He gave LeRud information about an incident that occurred the night before at the bar.

Police "do a good job," Conner said.

Changing culture

Now that the federal review in Las Vegas has wrapped up, community leaders are waiting to see if the Police Department's culture changes.

One concern for the American Civil Liberties Union involves the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, which represents rank-and-file officers. Officers typically remain silent and often take days to answer questions about shootings, said Executive Director Tod Story.

"They've created this sense of unaccountability," he said. "It's causing the community to not trust them."

The union declined to comment.

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Still, Story said, the federal review has helped the community.

The Las Vegas Police Managers and Supervisors Association welcomed the changes.

"At the end of the day the public had some issues," Lt. John Faulis, the group's chairman. "It never hurts to have a set of outside eyes look at what's going on."

In 2003, the former sheriff created a multicultural advisory board to gather input from residents about crime and ways to improve policies. Gillespie meets monthly with the group.

As a result of the federal review, Tyler, the doctor, said the board now has a bigger voice when suggesting changes.

"There's been a push to increase the involvement of community members into policies and practices," Tyler said. "Before it was strictly on enforcement. You're starting to see a true partnership."

Board member Muhajid Ramadan agreed but said more work is needed. "It's about transforming a community. It's about looking through a different lens. It's not about arresting everybody."

The federal review created a "historical shift" in the department's relationship with residents, Ramadan said. Before the probe, police leaders objected to body cameras. Now cameras are being tested by a small group of officers.

Nearly three years after her husband's death, Rondha Gibson said she devotes many hours to counseling family members of those shot by police. And she still wonders what officers could have done differently on that December morning.

The widow is still upset that the officer who shot her husband wasn't punished for the shooting. He eventually left the force after being convicted of misdemeanor charges in a domestic incident in 2013.

She still cherishes the medals earned by her husband in the Gulf War. She said Stanley Gibson loved to barbecue and give orders to the cooks at family reunions.

"The cops are getting away with this," she said, sobbing last week as long, black hair covered her face. "They never apologized to me."

twitter.com/MarkPuente

About the series

This is one in a series of occasional articles on brutality allegations involving the Baltimore Police Department. Other articles have outlined the scope of the problem and dealt with issues such as officers who are repeatedly named in lawsuits or who seek workers' compensation awards after fatal shootings.

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