Amid national and Nevada protests by people demanding justice for George Floyd and the end of police brutality, the Clark County Commission and the City of Las Vegas turned their attention Wednesday to backpacks and strollers at demonstrations.
Officials said the aim of the proposed ordinances was to restrict protesters from carrying items such as rocks, frozen water bottles or other projectiles that Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department says protesters have hurled at them.
“I appreciate the intent, but the effect will be to deter First Amendment speech rights,” said Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones.
Clark County delayed voting on the proposal until June 16 while the City of Las Vegas, citing emergency action, rushed a vote Wednesday. The city council unanimously approved prohibiting large purses, coolers, briefcases, backpacks, fanny packs, computer bags, camera bags and strollers at demonstrations, rallies and protests.
Tod Story, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada, said the City of Las Vegas could be in violation of Nevada’s open meeting law.
“We take issue that the public was not notified properly by the City of Las Vegas,” he said. “They claimed it was an emergency, but we’re trying to figure out what the emergency is. They haven’t indicated what the emergency was or why it was necessary.
For several nights, Southern Nevadans have joined in nationwide protests after the killing of George Floyd, a Minnesota man who was handcuffed, begged for his life and said “I can’t breathe” while an officer held a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Between mourning Floyd’s death, recently ruled a homicide, and referencing local cases of people killed by Metro, people have taken to the streets demanding systematic changes to policing.
Each night’s protest has been peaceful for hours until the protests begin to disperse when, according to Metro, items have been thrown at officers. Chuck Callaway, Metro police director and lobbyist, told the Commission he believed 99 percent of protesters have been law abiding, but thought action was needed to prevent some from harming officers and others there peacefully.
The emergency meeting also comes days after Metro Officer Shay Mikalonis was shot and critically wounded Monday night. Metro says the officer was shot by a man from a parking lot 50 yards away. In a separate incident Monday, a man, who Metro said had previously attended a protest, was shot by officers.
“I’m a little concerned today we’re talking about restricting purses and strollers and not having a discussion about firearms because it was a firearm that was discharged and injured the officer. Downtown it was a man who had several firearms who was shot by an officer in order to protect himself,” Jones said.
He added legislation in the 2019 Legislative session was introduced that looked at restoring local government control over restricting firearms in certain circumstances. “You, Mr. Callaway, voiced concern that this body would push an extreme agenda,” Jones added. “We can have a discussion about strollers and purses. But we ought to also be having a discussion about Metro being a partner at the Legislature in ensuring we can protect your officers from gun violence.”
Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick said the proposed ordinance was an idea being discussed in February but got overlooked because of COVID-19.
“It’s on me, not the sheriff,” she said. “I actually brought it up on Saturday that we should revisit this.”
The ordinance would be similar to regulations that exist for New Years Eve. The ACLU of Nevada and Culinary Union were consulted for those regulations, but Story said the ACLU hasn’t been contacted about the current proposal.
“I have concerns with the premise that the same provision in place for New Years Eve applies equally to peaceful protests,” Jones said. “There is a First Amendment right to assembly and freedom of speech. There is no First Amendment right to drunken revelry on the Strip. I don’t think we can simply adopt one type of event that happens one time of year under very closed circumstances versus all events across all the valley at all times.”
The ACLU of Nevada, Nevada System of Higher Education and people who have participated in the protests opposed the proposed ordinance, warning it would be used to stifle free speech and prevent more people from getting involved.
Callaway said verbal warnings would be issued before an arrest, but some were also concerned the ordinance would disproportionately be enforced against Black and brown people.
Story said the ordinance already shows how Black people protesting are treated differently.
“We had protesters showing up because they didn’t like the restriction associated with COVID and nobody rushed to pass any ordinance or violate the rights of those protesters,” he said. “Now suddenly you have groups standing up and saying Black Lives Matter and challenging the deaths of Black people at the hands of the police officers and suddenly we need an emergency ordinance.”
While elected officials look at restricting items protesters carry, people also urged them to take action on aggressive encounters with officers. Some speakers told commissioners of incidents of peaceful protesters being subjected to tear gas or arrested even as they were dispersing.
Jones, who attended a protest, said he left without incident. However, he said he has been told stories of people of color who had left the event and were still grabbed by officers and handcuffed while waiting for an Uber. He pressed Metro on how it was investigating incidents where police were the aggressors.
“What is the criteria that Metro is employing for its review?” Jones asked. “Is it only looking at acts that were only perpetrated against officers or is it also looking at acts perpetrated by officers?”
Callaway said they were “looking at all acts of violence.”
“If we believe that an officer has acted inappropriately, we will review that body camera footage and take action,” he added. “We definitely want to hold everyone accountable to be doing the right thing.”
On Monday, Nevada Current submitted a records request for body-worn camera footage from the protests but was denied.
“Research shows an active criminal or internal affairs investigation pending for the requested event number,” Metro wrote in an email Tuesday. “As a result, the camera video recording is considered evidence according to the Nevada Public Records Act.”