It’s been eight years and Alma Chavez still doesn’t understand why her 23-year-old son Rafael Olivas was fatally shot by police.
At a panel on “Police De-escalation” Tuesday night, Chavez recounted his death, which started with her calling 911 in order to get mental health services for her son because she was afraid he was going to take his life.
“There were no warnings, and they didn’t try to de-escalate the situation,” she said. “I called for help and he was killed. What’s the difference between 2011 and now?”
Chavez’s question was part of a larger, overarching theme that many were hoping to address at the forum: Why do certain encounters with the police end with a person dead and how does law enforcement work to de-escalate situations?
The panelists were Nissa Tzun, the co-founder of the Forced Trajectory Project, Nichole Splinter with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, forensic psychiatrist Melissa Piasecki, Korey Tillman, a doctoral candidate in Sociology who is studying policing at UNLV, and Addie Rolnick, who co-facilitates UNLV’s Program on Race, Gender and Policing.
While each touched on issues of policing and use of force policies, many responses were directed at Splinter.
“LVMPD has taken numerous steps throughout the years to change not only the culture of policing but to grow the trust of the community,” Splinter said. “I know it doesn’t always seem to look that way, especially to the families who have lost loved ones do to the actions of officers. We’ve made a strong effort to learn from our mistakes.”
Splinter pointed to Metro’s website, which she said lists five years of reports on officer accountability, and also referenced the department’s mandatory crisis intervention training, which teaches officers about dealing with mental health encounters and how to de-escalate situations.
“Is it a perfect process? Absolutely not,” Splinter said. “We are continuously learning.”
Tzun, who has chronicled stories of local police brutality victims, countered there are still too many recent stories of harassment, racial profiling and people who end up dead after police interactions.
“For the past 30 years no on-duty officer has been held accountable for taking a civilian’s life” in Southern Nevada, she said. “The policing issue is bad everywhere, but it’s particularly bad here because there is no accountability. Not only is there no accountability, there is no discussion around that or space for the community to discuss (accountability).”
The event was just the latest in a long line of attempts to have conversations around police use of force, de-escalation practices and accountability.
With each new forum, activists point to new incidents of people killed by police.
Cases like that of Atatiana Jefferson, a black woman who was shot and killed in her Fort Worth, Texas home by a white officer, have drawn national outrage. A neighbor called a non-emergency police number after she noticed the doors at Jefferson’s home were open, and the officer who responded shot Jefferson through the window.
“Just this year Byron Williams died in police custody,” Rolnick said, referencing the Las Vegas man who died Sept. 5. “He was pulled over after riding a bicycle. Something happened during that encounter. He also ended up dead.”
The Clark County Coroner recently ruled Williams’ death a homicide. The family, which has demanded Metro releases the full, unedited body camera footage, is suing the department.
“We’re going to have more deaths,” Tzun said. “There is going to be someone in the next couple of months that is suffering from untreated mental health issues who is going to get killed by the police because de-escalation is not being used.”
Panelist also wrestled with the notion of what brings law enforcement into a situation in the first place. However, as some of the speakers pointed out, the structures are designed to work this way.
“Maybe police aren’t the answer for every 911 call,” Tzun said.
Because of lack of investment in mental health services, Piasecki noted that law enforcement and jails remain the top mental health providers. “The number one mental health provider is LA County Jail,” she said. “Cook County is No. 2.”
Tillman also asked why police are in schools or coordinating efforts with homeless outreach workers in the first place.
With the City of Las Vegas passing an ordinance that makes it a misdemeanor for people experiencing homelessness to sleep or camp in certain areas downtown, Tillman worried it gives another opportunity for an unnecessary encounter between law enforcement and the homeless.
Audience members, who directed their questions mostly to Splinter, asked about mental health assessments for officers, vetting racist cops, rehiring officers involved in repeat shootings, and the drug and alcohol testing for uniformed officers after shootings.
Gary Peck, a longtime civil rights activist and former director of the ACLU of Nevada, pressed Metro about data collection and not having good statistics on the role race plays in interactions.
“Are you folks at Metro prepared to go to the Legislature and fight for data collection so that we have the information needed to know how race, gender and other social demographics play into vehicle and pedestrian stops?” Peck asked.
Splinter didn’t have an answer, but said it was something she would bring up to Metro’s office of government affairs.
While some panelists disagreed with each other, they agreed more people, including lawmakers, need to be at the table when it comes to finding solutions.
“Those experiencing the most harm need to be heard first,” Tzun said. “Those who are directly impacted experience things differently.”