Fatal shooting of protester raises questions about ‘open carry’ police response
Nevada law requires no training for law enforcement
A video still of Jorge Gomez in late May, walking past police on the Las Vegas Strip during protests of the police killing of George Floyd. (Video courtesy LVMPD.)
The four Las Vegas cops who fired 19 rounds at 25-year-old protester Jorge Gomez are firearms training officers, according to police. But in an ironic twist, the training Metro officers receive is silent on dealing with people like Gomez, who was openly carrying firearms when he was killed by police.
“It’s legal, so we don’t do anything,” says Metro Officer Lawrence Hadfield.
Hadfield admits the sight of citizens openly carrying weapons can turn police heads. Nonetheless, training is non-existent.
“There’s nothing to train for because it’s legal,” he says.
Nevada law lacks a prohibition on openly carrying weapons in public, with the exception of at schools, on college campuses, at daycares, and in public buildings. Open carry status has played a role in high-profile, high-stakes incidents, such as the Bundy ranch standoff in 2014, the fatal shooting of Costco shopper Erik Scott in 2010, and now, Gomez’ June 1 death in front of the Lloyd George Federal Courthouse.
State law also lacks any requirement that police be trained in dealing with a person exercising his or her Second Amendment right, says Chris Carter of Nevada Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), a regulatory agency responsible for compliance inspection of law enforcement training in the state.
Carter says nothing in state statute or administrative code “requires that training to be delivered so it’s not anything we’d be inspecting for.”
“It would seem like the potential threat of the use of a firearm would warrant some sort of training for dealing with individuals who are carrying lawfully,” says State Sen. Ben Kieckhefer. “It would seem reasonable in a state that allows open carry that officers would be trained on how to interact. It can certainly increase people’s attention, and best practices as to how to interact with them would make sense to me.”
“I don’t know what to say. I’m completely shocked,” says Assemblyman Edgar Flores, a state legislator who says he had no idea police are not trained in dealing with citizens who openly carry firearms.
“In a state where you know it’s legal to carry a weapon, in a state where there is a history of folks having a standoff with law enforcement, like the Bundy Ranch, it’s almost unbelievable that they would say they don’t train on how to deal with folks who are protesting,” Flores said. “Just like you need to train an officer on how to speak with an angry human who is driving too fast, it would seem obvious you would have some kind of de-escalation training with someone who is carrying lawfully.”
Ten years ago, Metro’s Citizen Review Board took up the case of Tim Farrell, a Las Vegas resident who tested police by openly carrying firearms on the Las Vegas Strip. He was detained and his guns were temporarily confiscated, despite the fact he was abiding by the law.
Andrea Beckman, the Citizen Review Board’s executive director at the time, said the case illustrated “the significance of how to train police officers on open carry.”
The department hastily arranged a training session for all officers. It’s unknown why that training no longer exists. Beckman passed away this month.
Flores, who represents the Gomez family in his role as a private attorney, believes the young man’s weapons caught Metro’s unwarranted attention at a June 1 protest of the police killing of George Floyd, contributing to a confluence of events that ended in tragedy.
“Taking my hat off as anything other than a legislator, I understand how stressful it is to see a man walking down the street exercising his Second Amendment right, having learned minutes before that an officer was shot,” Flores said of the officers perched atop the stairs of the federal courthouse. “The stress, anger, frustration, plus being very tired, having been out in the heat — the storm of emotions and literally in minutes you see a man walking down the sidewalk armed. I think it was more an emotional reaction than procedural and someone decided to engage him.”
Gomez’ weapons were mentioned prominently the night of the shooting when Sheriff Joe Lombardo addressed the media, and noted police “encountered a subject who was armed with multiple firearms and appeared to be wearing body armor.”
“This is a sad night for LVMPD family and a tragic night for our community,” Lombardo said, referring to the shooting of Officer Shay Mikalonis and Gomez’ death. “With these protests which are leading to riots, one tragedy is leading to another.”
Days later, Assistant Sheriff Chris Jones noted that multiple officers saw Gomez at protests “as he exercised his right to open carry, walking at times just feet from our officers.
A video, provided by police, shows officers taking a second look as Gomez walks on the Las Vegas Strip in the days before the shooting.
“As the crowd began to disperse, officers lost sight of Mr. Gomez,” Jones said, an indication the weapons garnered more than a passing glance from police.
A portion of the video that police say is from social media shows Gomez making his way slowly down the sidewalk in front of a line of police stationed across the stairs of the courthouse.
“One of the officers noticed Mr. Gomez and he actually thought that he was carrying a baseball bat as he was approaching the area where the officers were,” Jones told reporters. “This officer confronted Mr. Gomez and during that exchange the officer fired five low lethal rounds at Mr. Gomez, fearing he was going to strike the officers with a baseball bat.”
The non-lethal rounds sent Gomez running into the sights of the training officers en route to Circus Circus, where one of their own, Officer Mikalonis, had been shot at the scene of a protest. The four, identified by Metro as veteran training officers, say Gomez was raising a weapon pointed in their direction. Metro says the officers were not issued body cameras because they are not patrol officers.
“It seems like a glaring gap in public policy,” Kieckhefer said. “It might be time to revisit that and ensure that when people do get assigned to some public-facing detail, that body cams are assigned to them in one way or another.”
Metro and the family are asking the public for video of the shooting. Police say they are also checking bodycam footage of other police in the area.
Last week, Gov. Steve Sisolak noted what he called “a double standard” between the way police clashed with protesters in Las Vegas but stood down as Nevadans demanding the state’s economy reopen stormed the Governor’s Mansion in Carson City.
“And those militia members, whatever you want to call them, carrying AR 15s and AK 47s, if these young black men who have been out here protesting did that, what do you think would have happened? They can’t even carry a backpack.”
“I shudder at the thought of what could have happened to any of those individuals,” the governor said. “There’s a double standard and the double standard is going to stop in the State of Nevada.”
Sisolak would not respond to requests for comment on whether, given that double standard, he supports the ability to openly carry. The governor would also not say whether he thinks Gomez was a victim of that double standard.
Attorney General Aaron Ford, who is holding weekly forums on justice and policing, declined to comment.
Flores says the Carson City protesters “walked up and down the street and held their weapons with a sling,” a more threatening manner, he says, than Gomez.
“Undeniably, if someone is just shot at, you don’t know if there’s a coordinated attack. Sometimes peoples’ constitutional rights collide with peoples’ fears and that made a difference,” Flores says.
“He’s walking on the public sidewalk,” Flores says of Gomez. “He had been there for days prior. At no point was there any indication he was threatening them.”
“Carrying openly visible guns in public can quickly turn arguments fatal, be used to intimidate and suppress the First Amendment rights of others, and create confusion for law enforcement responding to shootings,” says the Giffords Law Center. “Despite the evidence that openly carrying firearms endangers public safety, most states lack laws to limit open carry—and some have even taken steps to weaken the regulation of visible guns in public.
Open carry is allowed in 31 states, according to the Giffords Law Center. California, Florida, Illinois and the District of Columbia generally prohibit open carry. New York and South Carolina prohibit openly carrying handguns but not long guns, and it’s the other way around in Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Jersey.
Police training is spotty with some states, like Nevada, requiring none. Others incorporate the training into critical incident response protocol. Most focus on concealed carry. Texas, where open carry is legal, has a training module required of all officers.
Gomez comes from a law enforcement background, according to Flores, who says “the family had the knee jerk reaction that everything told to us by law enforcement is one hundred percent absolutely true.”
Now, he says, with the story “evolving” and police suggesting Gomez was becoming increasingly radicalized and citing concern from a family member, they are reserving judgment.
“Police haven’t talked with anyone in the family,” Flores said Wednesday. “We are having a hard time deciphering what evidence they have of that.”
“The four officers who were involved, the family said they are praying for them and they know how scary it was for them knowing an officer had just been shot,” Flores said.
“If they did make a mistake they are praying for them knowing they have to live with that on their conscience.”
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