During a press conference Tuesday, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Sheriff Joe Lombardo said the legal observers who were arrested Saturday were agitating officers and not acting as impartial observers.
Armed with four edited video segments, Lombardo presented clips from the protest to explain why he believed legal observers were arrested.
“I think what we saw for the most part was legal observers trying to do their job, which was to get between protesters and police, record what was going on and when a protester was arrested ask for information from the officers so they could follow up in regards to who the protester was,” said Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones who watched the clips following the press conference.
The Nevada Current was told legal observers are planning to have a press conference Thursday to respond to Metro’s claims.
Tuesday’s press conference comes after elected officials including Gov. Steve Sisolak and Attorney General Aaron Ford recently called for an investigation on Saturday’s events.
It’s not the first time Metro has been questioned about its actions at protests, in particular among those documenting events. Chuck Callaway, Metro’s lobbyist and police director, told county commissioners at a June 2 emergency meeting that the two journalists arrested in a May protest were “antagonizing the crowd.”
In the three weeks of mass demonstrations calling for police reforms and accountability, protesters have shared videos and social media accounts of law enforcement reacting aggressively toward crowds, firing pepper balls and tear gas as protesters walked away and even arresting people well after they’ve dispersed.
Lombardo said Tuesday Metro has received 15 official complaints, and they will be handled by Metro itself, a prospect that has also drawn concern from the community.
“There isn’t a more comprehensive, more professional, more knowledgeable, more scientific investigation conducted than by LVMPD,” Lombardo told reporters when asked about Metro investigating itself. “That’s why you see Henderson and North Las Vegas ask us to sit next to them in an investigation. Until you can show me an incident where we have concealed information or purposefully skewed the investigation toward a police officer, I’m confident that LVMPD should continue to do those investigations.”
Tuesday’s press conference was the latest attempt for Metro to explain some of its tactics deployed at protests.
As with many of the other demonstrations, legal observers, some Clark County public defenders and others legal students, attended Saturday’s demonstration on the Strip.
“A guide generated by the ACLU states that it is the job of the legal observer to be neutral and impartial and observe and witness events,” Lombardo said. “This did not happen on Saturday. In fact there are several videos of legal observers walking into the middle of the street along with protesters as officers tried to get them out of harm’s way and back onto the sidewalk.”
The majority of the videos Lombardo showed were from traffic cameras and didn’t have audio to give context or to show interactions between officers and legal observers.
One video showed legal observers using cellphones to record a group of officers after they grabbed and detained a demonstrator in the street. As the legal observer recorded, she was also detained.
Only one of the clips was from body worn camera footage. It showed two legal observers arrested on the sidewalk as they were walking away.
“If you look at it at face value, they weren’t doing anything,” Lombardo responded when asked about the video. “But the officers gave them a verbal warning that they needed to leave. They had been given a warning. Granted they were on a sidewalk, but the decision to take them into custody was made prior to that.”
In addition to monitoring the investigation, Jones said he’s requested body camera footage and has asked Metro to explain why they called in SWAT and why officers were “blocking access to Russell after that’s where protesters were directed.”
“It’s hard for me to say they’re going to do a thorough investigation when to date it’s been them having a press conference and presenting very selected evidence,” he said. “I’ll withhold judgement at this time and hopefully there will be more resolution. I think the sheriff said they would like to conclude (the investigation) within 30 days. I think it’s fine to allow them time to review many hours of body camera footage for multiple protests. But you can’t just have a 15 minute press conference with a few selected videos.”
Other groups fired back at the press conference.
“Metro’s job right now should be to listen to the community and make meaningful changes to protect Black lives, not to engage in rhetoric using a handful of video clips,” the ACLU wrote.
After showing the videos of legal observers’ arrests, Lombardo quickly pivoted to talk about the actions of some protesters saying he is “concerned about some of the dangerous rhetoric” from people attending.
“This is not healthy for Las Vegas and the community we serve and only emboldens agitators and extremists to behave in a certain way or do something that harms our community,” he said.
Lombardo suggested some of the protest’s organizers were from out of state and added 14 percent of people arrested were from out of state.
Throughout the press conference, Lombardo was questioned about aggressive tactics officers used on peaceful protesters.
He referenced one viral video from the May 30 protest of a masked person being grabbed by the backpack. Lombardo said the arresting officer was able to identify the person — an estimated 2,000 people attended the protest that night — as someone who previously threw objects earlier in the evening.
“That individual was identified prior to that officer’s encounter as throwing objects,” Lombardo said, referencing the arrest. “You can’t completely rely on video.”