With tear gas and pepper balls consistently used against protesters and people being arrested even while they disperse, questions on accountability were brought up by Attorney General Aaron Ford during Sunday’s panel on policing and justice.
“What happens to officers who violate policies?” Ford asked. “There are folks in your ranks that violate the policies in place regarding how you are supposed to interact with peaceful protesters and civilians. What are the ramifications? What do you do?”
Rendering Ford’s questions even more timely Sunday, six legal observers, including Clark County public defenders, monitoring Saturday’s protests on the Strip were arrested. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, whose officers made those arrests, wasn’t present on Sunday’s panel.
Last night, I worked as a legal observer during the protest on the strip. As a legal observer, I was not a protester but an independent and objective witness. The police snatched Belinda T. Harris and I off the sidewalk, zip tied us, and arrested us for nothing 1/x pic.twitter.com/WyivgAPn9X
— John Piro (@JohnPiroNV) June 14, 2020
Though the panel had representation from North Las Vegas, Henderson, Elko and Reno, none gave details on the discipline process.
“We do have a discipline process and hold people accountable, but sometimes our discipline procedures are tied by the bargaining agreements and the NRS,” said Pamela Ojeda, the North Las Vegas Police Chief. “That does limit some of the ways we try to discipline our officers.”
Some suggested that if law enforcement received advance notice from organizers it could help de-escalate any potential situations. Henderson Police Chief Thedrick Andres added if officers did go against policies when handling protesters, supervising officers would be there onsite to intervene.
“We’ve seen footage on social media and have heard enough accounts to know police have crossed boundaries,” said Holly Welborn, the policy director with the ACLU of Nevada.
Ford hosted his third panel on justice and policing as a response to nationwide protests around the death of George Floyd. While Nevadans have joined in demonstrations, many have taken to the streets to seek answers and demand solutions to statewide policies.
Agency representatives on Sunday discussed solutions such as adding more implicit bias training, the importance of community policy and increasing transparency surrounding body worn camera footage and use of force data.
“I go back to community policing and building a relationship with the community so the public understands how the police department is trained to police their neighborhoods,” Andres said.
Many elected officials across the nation on both state and local levels have proposed similar ideas despite civil rights leaders and Black Lives Matter activists wanting more to address systemic problems within policing.
In a Medium post published June 5, civil rights activist DeRay McKesson wrote implicit bias training, body worn cameras, diverse hiring and community policing sounded good but “were ineffective.” “Worse, they enable elected officials and police chiefs to tout their response when nothing has fundamentally improved,” he wrote.
Speaking specifically on community policing, Welborn said there is no indication that practice works. “Uniformed officers coming into a community are always going to give rise to potential hostilities if there isn’t a built-in trust in that community,” she said.
As organizers nationwide call for defunding the police, a proposal that means reducing police budgets and directing it into communities of color and other public services, Welborn said Sunday’s conversation lacked any discussion around alternatives to policing. She used police outreach with people experiencing homelessness as an example.
“Should law enforcement be playing the role of social workers or should we be using people who have the training and schooling?” she said.
While she commended the intent of the panels, she wants to see communities that are most impacted by policing practices, such as communities of color, consulted on solutions, especially as legislators have suggested policing might be brought up at a potential special session.
The reason discussions on police reform and racial justice are taking place is because protesters are pushing for them through constant organizing. The treatment of people attending protests, Welborn said, needs to be addressed.
Even though Metro didn’t attend and couldn’t comment on the six legal observers arrested — Theresa Haar with the attorney general’s office noted that Sheriff Joe Lombardo spoke at the first panel and the third panel was a chance to get other agencies a chance to speak — Welborn said panelists could have done more to acknowledged prolonged complaints from protesters.
Welborn, who has been a legal observer, has also been shot with pepper balls while monitoring protests in Reno.
“Even though the governor has come out in support of legal observers, it’s not just about journalists or legal observers being protected,” she said. “The protesters themselves should be protected.”
Gov. Steve Sisolak sent out a statement Sunday calling for an investigation into the arrests of legal observers.
“Any reports of police action against legal observers should be fully investigated and reviewed so a full understanding of what happened can be determined,” he said. “That information should be used to develop long-term solution to avoid a similar re-occurrence in the future.”
Ford is scheduled to host a fourth panel with police unions June 20.