Forum on police use of force makes case for accountability, change

By: - August 20, 2019 6:06 am

At a Las Vegas forum August 18 Cephus Johnson speaks about his nephew, Oscar Grant, who was fatally shot by San Francisco police in 2009. (Photo: Micheal Lyle)

Jacqueline Lawrence was watching the news when she found out her 23-year-old son, Keith Childress Jr., was killed after police mistook his cellphone for a gun.

“Could you imagine being at work and this is what you see?” Lawrence asked.

At a panel on police use of force Sunday, Lawrence took periodic pauses to try to avoid crying while talking about her son. It wasn’t just his death that hurt her and her family, but also the aftermath. “The media ran the story they were given by (Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department),” she said. “They aired that Keith had a gun, and was wanted for murder. All false.”

A fact-finding review not only confirmed it was a cellphone in Childress’ hand but also revealed that the police didn’t try to use non-lethal force before they opened fire on him. No charges were sought against the officers. Lawrence said she filed a civil rights lawsuit against the department.

Lawrence doesn’t just want justice for her son, but also wants to advocate for systemic changes to law enforcement and to better hold police accountable for their actions. “It takes the whole community to make change,” she said.

She wasn’t alone in sharing her story about police use of force and calling for justice. Families United 4 Justice, the Forced Trajectory Project and other local organizations hosted the forum Sunday to give people a chance to speak out about encounters with law enforcement violence.

Activists argue that Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department hasn’t done enough to address concerns about police use of force and racial profiling.

In 2012, The U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services conducted an eight-month review of the Metro’s use of force policies and practices, which resulted in 75 findings and recommendations regarding officer-involved shootings and use of force issues.

But activists still see a need for further accountability. In a statement prior to the event, the Forced Trajectory Project noted there hasn’t been an on-duty officer “held criminally liable for taking a civilian’s life in the state of Nevada for the last 30 years.”

Nissa Tzun, cofounder of the Forced Trajectory Project, said the problem is deeper than just officer-involved shootings. “This issue is wide-ranging,” she said. “It’s not just one incident, one police homicide. We’re talking about rape, racial profiling, murder and intimidation. We’re talking about a systemic issue.”

Sunday’s event was just one attempt to gather some of those experiences. The Force Trajectory Project, a multimedia project that started in New York in 2009, recently began filming Las Vegas residents to develop a docuseries on police force in Southern Nevada.

Leslie Turner, the lead organizer with the Progressive Leadership Alliance’s mass liberation project, said issues of police use of force isn’t a new phenomenon. 

“We have been seeing these things our entire lives,” she said. “I saw my dad beat up by the police in our front yard as a child. I remember being questioned by the police as a child.”

While activists, people of color in particular, have long spoken out against police brutality, misconduct by law enforcement agencies and use of force policies, further efforts to reign in law enforcement practices have intensified over the last few years with increased viral videos taken from incidents, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

It’s also the names of those who have died at the hands of police officers that has propelled action. 

Michael Brown. Sandra Bland. Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. Philando Castile. Walter Scott. Alton Sterling. To name a few.

Cephus Johnson, the uncle of Oscar Grant who was handcuffed at the time he was fatally shot in the back by a police officer in San Francisco in 2009, told the audience the country is at a flashpoint moment when it comes to responding to police brutality.

“Common sense legislation can help us when we’re talking about building a bridge between the community and the police department,” he said. “We can fix this. It can be fixed right here in Las Vegas.”

“While we’re out here marching for Trayvon Martin, there is our own Trayvon Martin and our own Eric Garner, and our own Tamir Rice in our backyard,” said Minister Vance “Stretch” Sanders, a local activist. “We have to start saying the names of those who have lost their lives in Las Vegas.” 

They didn’t just talk about those who were killed by the police such as Childress or Tashii Brown — who was killed in 2017 after an officer stunned him seven times with a Taser and placed him in a chokehold. People described interactions with law enforcement that led to unnecessary force exerted while they were jaywalking or performing on the Strip, as well as police upending people’s lives with false arrests.

One speaker, Jesus Carvajal, described how he woke up to a blinding light and his dog’s persistent barking. When he went to investigate, he found SWAT at his front door ready to arrest him for an alleged sexual assault and for impersonating an officer. 

Media outlets, he added, ran his mugshot along with the reason Metro arrested him.

In October, a private investigator told Nevada Current law enforcement had assembled evidence too quickly, and as a result apprehended the wrong guy. All charges were dropped, but the damage, and trauma from the arrest, were already inflicted. 

Some stories also focused on how police have cracked down on street performers, water vendors and those experiencing homelessness spawned from changes in city and county laws to restrict performances. “Because of it, I found myself entangled in the criminal justice system,” said Brandon Summers, who street performs and has been ticketed or arrested six times as a result.

Last year while playing his violin, he was stopped by an officer. “He went on to harass an alleged water vendor,” Summers said. 

Summers was arrested — he said it was in retaliation for filming the officer — and his violin and cellphone were taken. He added that he struggled to find accountability after his interaction with officers. “It took me eight months to get body camera footage,” he said. 

In July, a video from 2013 resurfaced of Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department arresting a man for selling water on the Strip. During the arrest, he was placed in a chokehold and the man can be heard crying “I can’t breathe” reminiscent of the final words of Eric Garner, who died in 2014 after being placed in a chokehold by a New York Police Department officer. The New York officer was fired Monday. 

Many of the speakers throughout the event urged people to take video of potential interactions with law enforcement.

However, what people really want is systemic change, police accountability and action taken by politicians at the state and local level.

Since Grant’s death, Johnson said activists have pushed for several pieces of legislation in California to better curtail use of force policies and track the racial breakdown on traffic stops, as well as a bill that expedites the release of video and other information following officer involved shootings. 

“Many families suffer for years because they can’t see the video, or the community is denied the ability to see the video, so we’re always left with this unknown and remain in pain,” Johnson said. “Part of the healing process is being able to see.”

But laws and policies aren’t going to change unless the community most impacted has input. “The ones in pain need to be at the table,” Johnson said. 

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues.