What does police reform look like?

A look at where Nevada has been, where it is, and where it might be going

Officers walk by a crowd of Black Lives Matter demonstrators during a protest in Downtown Las Vegas on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. (Daniel Clark)

Last summer, a six-year-old video of an unarmed Black man choked and arrested by Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department officers surfaced and began to circulate around social media. 

Later identified by the Forced Trajectory Project as James Williams, he was approached by officers for selling water on the Strip in a public right-of-way, which is illegal according to Clark County municipal code, and eventually placed in a chokehold, which was legal at the time. As media outlets began reporting on the video, Metro responded that internal affairs investigated the video and found no violations in its policies. 

Metro has since restricted its use of “neck restraints,” which they argue is different from a chokehold, and made changes to its use of force policies, while the state passed legislation to enhance accountability such as in 2017 mandating all law enforcement wear body cameras.

The restriction didn’t come in time to save Tashii Brown, who died when he was placed in one by Metro officer Kenneth Lopera in 2017 months prior to the policy change. Lopera was fired and later charged with two felony counts of involuntary manslaughter and oppression, but a grand jury opted not to indict and Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson took no further action.

The use of body camera footage didn’t protect Byron Williams, who was chased by police for having a broken bicycle light, arrested and can be heard on Metro footage crying “I Can’t Breathe” more than 20 times while he was handcuffed and face down on the ground. His death on Sept. 5 2019, has gotten recent national coverage and drawn comparisons to George Floyd. 

Leslie Turner, an organizer for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada’s Mass Liberation Project, says there is a difference between changing policies and reforming policing. 

“As we often do in this country, we are addressing the symptoms and not the root cause,” she said. “We are essentially triaging police violence versus actually looking at the system of policing and really dismantling that and building something new.” 

Southern Nevadans have joined in ongoing protests around the country to decry how Black people are systematically killed at the hands of the police, like in Floyd’s case, and demand reforms to the way policing is conducted. 

Attorney General Aaron Ford recently presented 73 potential police reform policies for lawmakers to look at. Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson has suggested a special legislative session could include justice legislation.

As Nevada goes forward, protesters and the communities most affected by over-policing are seeking to uproot and reshape the system. 

“We’ve been talking about diversity in hiring, cultural competency training, multicultural awareness and implicit bias training for decades and clearly they are not working because we are still having the same conversations about police violence,” Turner said. “I think we need to start being a little more radical in how we view the purpose of policing and looking at what’s happening in communities that’s requiring the police and how do we address those problems.”

What ‘defunding the police’ means

In 2011, Alma Chavez called 911 because she was afraid her 23-year-old son Rafael Olivas was going to take his own life. Southern Nevada has struggled with funding mental health resources, so interventions can often fall on Metro.

Alma Chavez holds a poster of her son, Rafael Olivas, who was fatally shot by LVMPD.

By the time Metro arrived, Olivas, who had grown more agitated, had a knife. After firing “low-lethal rounds” that didn’t subdue him, Olivas was fatally shot by police. Chavez along with many in the community don’t understand why Olivas, who was experiencing a mental health crisis, had to die. 

“Police and (Clark County Detention Center) are the biggest mental health providers in the valley,” said Emily Driscoll, a law student at UNLV Boyd School of Law. “It’s very clear police are not equipped to handle those kinds of calls.”   

As protesters have taken to the streets to demand reforms, many have called for “defunding the police” — reducing police budgets in order to direct money into communities of color and more appropriate prevention and treatment programs, including mental health and homelessness services.

“Defunding the police is not removing all the money from the police department and having no police,” Turner explained. “It is a reprioritization of the budget and money. It’s reprioritizing how we spend money on the front end in communities and investing in things that help us thrive as opposed to investing more in punishment and reacting to crime in our community.”

According to PLAN, Nevada spends $1.93 billion on law enforcement. The largest budget is Metro’s at $650 million. 

The City of Las Vegas and Clark County together contribute about $435 million to Metro with 36 percent from the city and 64 percent from the county, a formula determined by state law. 

Several community organizations, Turner said, along with law students like Driscoll are researching and planning to submit a proposal on how parts of Metro’s budget could be reinvested in other areas of the community. 

One idea Driscoll said they are looking at is to have both the city and the county reallocate $100 million each from Metro’s budget into other community services. 

“It doesn’t even cut into a third of Metro’s budget,” she said. “I think people understand things from a numbers perspective. Surely the cost of imprisoning someone or the amount of resources that are going toward criminalizing homeless people is enough to warrant some kind of alternate resource.” 

One area she suggests reinvesting in is education programs that help at-risk communities. Ideas could also include rehousing the homeless or funding mental health services, meaning police officers wouldn’t be called in those situations. 

“The City of Las Vegas has an ordinance where people can be fined and arrested for not having shelter, but there isn’t enough shelter,” Driscoll said. 

Reinvesting in rehousing people rather than having police enforce the shelter ordinance would be a better use of resources, she added.

Turner also pointed to other ideas like developing universal basic income, an experiment going on now in Stockton, California. The 18-month program, which began in 2019, gives 125 residents $500 a month.

“We know many crimes are the result of the lack of basic needs like the lack of housing, the lack of food, money, a good job or stability,” Turner said. “If we can address those things on the front end, then eventually we will reach a point where we aren’t relying on policing or relying on prisons because we’ve found ways to give our communities what they need to thrive.”

While many have oversimplified or distorted the concept of defunding the police, activists counter it’s because they don’t fully understand it. 

“When you think about abolition, defunding the police or abolishing prisons, these are things that would happen gradually over time,” Turner said. “If abolition is the goal, right now we’re starting to till the soil so that we can get there. Maybe in 10 years. Maybe in 20.”

Even Metro Sheriff Joe Lombardo isn’t automatically opposed to the idea of reallocating funding.

“Defunding I can support in some aspects,” he told KLAS-TV Wednesday. “Over time, society’s asked police to expand their resume” to deal with incidents involving mental health, homelessness and other social issues, Lombardo said.

Noting police have neither resources nor training to handle those issues, the sheriff said “if they want to defund to develop teams per se, or social workers, that type of profession to address that type of calls, I’m in full support of it.”

‘Everything is interlinked’

“The state of Nevada has been doing pretty good around criminal justice reform,” said Yvette Williams the chair of the Clark County Black Caucus. “We’re seeing good things like restoring voting rights, banning the box, and training programs.”

But there hasn’t been as much focus, she added, on legislation addressing overall interactions with law enforcement and some of the reasons why people end up incarcerated. 

“The protests are more about rights as a citizen and how we’re treated by law enforcement even before we’re taken down to the station, or within criminal procedures when we go to court,” she said. “Those are the kind of bills I’m hoping are addressed next session.”

The governor is expected to call a special session in July to cope with budget shortfalls, but there have been rumblings of taking some action on police and justice reforms. 

Ideas Ford has suggested lawmakers look at include:

  • Establishing a law enforcement and public safety accountability unit with the Attorney General’s office to investigate and prosecute allegations of misconduct.
  • Creating a new statute establishing a new cause of action for excessive use of force.
  • Implementing statewide regulations to ban chokeholds and require all other actions be exhausted before shooting.
  • Creating a criminal statute for police misconduct that results in death or serious bodily injury on a person.
  • Improving data collection on police misconduct, officers involved deaths and traffic or pedestrian stops.
  • Improving training requirements.
  • Adopting community policing standards.

Lawmakers haven’t confirmed any details on what items will be included in the proposed session. 

“What could possibly be done to impact the foundation and institutional racist system in a special session?” Williams asked. “What bills are you going to pass? Everything is interlinked and we have to deal with this holistically.”

Meaningful reform, she added, is going to be a lengthy process made more complicated by a part-time Legislature.

“We have interim committees and people show up and ask questions and we do a study,” she said. “Then, we have to wait another year and a half and it goes to the Legislature. Then we have a discussion about the report and then we have to figure out what bill we should draft from the report. This is a really lengthy process. We’re looking at four years before we could really see real, structural changes. I think it’s important we get a commission up and going during a special session.”

Williams has suggested setting up a commission through the attorney general’s office as a way to expedite, and continue, reform efforts beyond a legislative session.

As elected-officials mull reforms, both Turner and Williams said legislative priorities around policing have given them concern. 

Williams compares a police bill of rights bill, Senate Bill 242, which passed in 2019 nearly unanimously, to a law enforcement and prosecutorial accountability measure, Assembly Bill 292, that didn’t even get a hearing.

Sponsored by Democratic Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro, SB 242 allows questioning of officers by superiors to stop under certain circumstances, prohibits an officer’s compelled statement from being used in certain civil cases, and puts a time limit on investigating alleged misconduct. 

“That bill really was an effort to make sure that officers were being treated fairly in the workplace,” Cannizzaro said during a June 7 panel with Ford. “There were some good pieces of that bill. I understand the concerns being raised over the use of officers’ statements in a civil context.”

During the panel, neither she nor Frierson indicated whether that bill would be revisited or amended in future legislative sessions. 

“We’re not against the police and we understand the importance of having law enforcement and someone to make sure laws are followed,” Williams said. “What we’re asking for is to be treated the same. Everyone should have access to the same justice. That’s not the case. I’m not opposed to law enforcement having a bill of rights … You’re preventing us from having laws that hold police officers accountable.”

Williams isn’t the first person to note that Cannizzaro works for the district attorney’s office and some of the meaningful legislation to reform policing goes through her. 

“When a legislator has a job that’s in direct conflict with legislation that’s come before them how do we deal with that to make sure that bill gets a fair hearing?” Williams asked. “This is something that needs to be addressed if the people’s voice is going to be heard.”

Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo, an attorney who sponsored AB 292 and who is now running for a seat on the state supreme court, said there have been cases where law enforcement and the district attorney’s office have withheld or hid evidence, and when they get caught there aren’t any repercussions. 

“What happens when I file a motion or any attorney files a motion and says to a judge, ‘there is information out there I’m not getting?’ The answer we get from the district court judges is, ‘counselor, the district attorney’s office knows their obligations,’ ” Fumo said. “That’s true, they do know their obligations but they also know when they get caught the judges don’t do anything about it. I don’t blame law enforcement for not turning it over to the district attorneys and I don’t blame district attorneys for not turning it over to the defense. I blame the judges because when they catch the DAs doing it, they don’t do anything about it. They don’t turn them over to the bar, they don’t reprimand them. They just shake their finger and say, ‘Next time I’m going to do something.’ But they don’t.”

Fumo’s legislation sought to rectify that. He added that other states have passed similar legislation after district attorneys were accused of misconduct for hiding evidence. 

“If we would have had the foresight to at least give a bill like that a hearing, and let the public have input in it, I think Nevada would be much better off right now,” Fumo said. 

This story has been corrected to reflect Metro’s policy on “neck restraints,” which is restricted not banned.

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.