Nevada leaders could reform policing & courts, if they wanted to

Police officers hold protesters back as they try to march forward in Las Vegas May 30. (Nevada Current file photo)

Gov. Steve Sisolak this week said Donald Trump “has once again taken the path of inciting combativeness, stoking racial tensions, and creating division when we need unity more than ever.”

Your governor was responding to Trump’s suggestion that he, the president of the United States, might, you know, send the U.S. military into states because states “have failed to take care of their citizens.”

If only the president had demonstrated a similar concern for the well being of citizens when states were trying to find personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing supplies. 

The phrase “failed to take care of their citizens,” taken in and of itself and separated from Trump’s malevolent intent, is not entirely wrong. States and the nation have failed time and again since the country’s founding to construct the “more perfect union,” one that treats everyone fairly, with equal justice before the law. Instead, the U.S. constructed social and economic oppression, racial, mostly, and a police state to protect and serve it.

But that’s not the failure Trump was talking about. Trump was talking about exactly the opposite — threats to end the historic status quo he finds so comforting, a threat posed by, as he puts it, “thugs,” which is what Republicans call Black people. And union people. But mostly Black people.

Whether Trump will follow through on his dictatorial dream and order the invasion and occupation of Las Vegas, Reno, but probably not Winnemucca remains to be seen. But for the sake of discussion, let’s say he refrains. Or more likely, let’s say his notoriously scattered brain moves on to some other form of huffery-puffery on his evergreen agenda of ripping the nation apart at every opportunity.

Tweeting/spouting racist slurs and incendiary garbage is a far simpler and easier way for Trump to achieve his primary aim during the protests, which is not to move the nation forward in a constructive way, or even “to take care of … citizens,” but to whip up the base. He needn’t invade cities to rile the MAGA-hatted, who welcome every Trump instruction to jump with a full-throated “how high?”

So maybe Nevada will be spared, free to tackle its problems on its own. That is, assuming it wants to.

Does it want to?

There are outliers. The Nevada Republican Party is sending out releases about “Antifa” because anyone who is anti-fascism is persona non grata in today’s GOP, for obvious reasons. And Las Vegas City Councilman Stavros Anthony responded to the shooting of Metro Officer Shay Mikalonis by channeling Trump on the twitter machine. Anthony is a former cop so it’s tempting to cut him some slack, except he played Trump’s “thugs” card, idiotically proposed turning a prison in Jean into an internment camp for protesters, and let’s face it Anthony’s utmost aspiration is to someday be every bit as loved and admired as Michele Fiore, and by the same people.

But on the whole, Nevada’s official and/or prominent people and organizations have reacted more or less the same way: Yes of course people have the right to protest peacefully but jeepers no violence please and yes Black people are right about historic systemic injustice so someone should do something about that.

Nevada has had some chances to do something about that. The criminal justice reforms proposed during the 2019 Legislature would not have rid cops and courts of institutional racism by any means. But curbing (or eliminating!) a cash bail practice that criminalizes poverty, or decriminalizing traffic tickets so a busted tail-light doesn’t land a low-income single mother in jail and then in the system, are, as legislators like to say, good steps in the right direction.

They are also good steps the Democratically controlled Nevada Legislature failed to pass.

Those and a slew of other justice reform measures were axed by powerful legislative leaders. Oh hey coincidence state Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro’s day job is at Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson’s office, and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson’s job was at the same place during the 2019 session. Arguably the most notable case D.A.’s office has handled since Wolfson won reelection in 2018 was a sweetheart plea deal granted to a billionaire arrested on felony drug trafficking charges who — hey another coincidence — financed a ballot initiative Wolfson had cut ads for.

Prosecutors and law enforcement would exert a lot of influence with Nevada lawmakers even if they weren’t Nevada lawmakers. Deference to, and romanticizing, law enforcement is culturally ingrained in politics, both nationwide and in Nevada. Sisolak and Sheriff Joe Lombardo (who can be a little bit Trumpy) share a bromance cemented in the public relations aftermath of the October 2017 mass murder on the Las Vegas Strip, or as area PR professionals branded it, “1 October.”

If there is one thing Metro is, that thing is a publicly subsidized security force for the resort industry. The Nevada Resort Association issued a statement this week saying they support the right to protest but please don’t break their stuff, etc. The industry’s thoughts on the matter would carry more weight if their lobbyists had been directed to get justice reforms passed, which seems like a thing the industry might have done if only to assure fair and just treatment for employees and their families.

The Clark County Commission is the one governmental agency, inasmuch as there is one, with a modicum of oversight of Metro by virtue of having some say over the department’s purse strings, but over the years Metro usually has been the tail wagging the dog. Commissioners were scheduled Wednesday to hear/pass an ordinance to ban backpacks and strollers and such at protests. But surely the commission’s inquiries into Metro’s performance and recommendations for reforms will come … later?

Or not.

After the Review-Journal published a massive investigation of police use of force a decade ago, Metro did take steps to fix itself, and Las Vegas has even been touted as minor model of police reform. But that reform effort was sparked by the media and choreographed by the Department of Justice, not Nevada elected officials.

And that progress notwithstanding, protesters in Las Vegas in recent days have included family members of Southern Nevadans who died as a result of Metro’s more recent use of force.

Now that every Democrat in a Democratically controlled state is vowing to do something about systemic racism, will criminal justice reforms have more success, starting when lawmakers meet for their regular session early next year? Or even in the special session expected to happen this summer?

If not, why not?

Assuming, that is, Trump hasn’t imposed martial law in Carson City.

Hugh Jackson
Editor | Hugh Jackson was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and author of the Las Vegas Gleaner political blog. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and editor at the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune.