Community activists, AG discuss police reforms, what ‘defund’ means

A protester asks a question during a question and answer session with police in Downtown Las Vegas on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. (Daniel Clark)

Joining in a nationwide push for police and criminal justice reform, local community activists spoke with Attorney General Aaron Ford Sunday about reimagining policing and reallocating law enforcement budgets to go toward other community services. 

Laura Martin, the executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said law enforcement doesn’t “need to be a money holder or the middle man” and that funding should go directly toward licensed social workers, mental health providers or rental assistance.

“At the town hall that had the various chiefs of police from around the state, they were pretty proud that they received money for mental health advocacy,” Martin said. “I’ve sat in Clark County budget hearings where (Clark County Detention Center) officers are very proud about the Medicaid benefits they administer. As a community we should be embarrassed that the police are doing the work that trained social workers and community counselors can do. But we decided as a society to give those resources to people who show up to those types of crises with a gun.”

In the fifth panel on justice and policing, Ford heard from activists and groups such as PLAN and the ACLU of Nevada. 

Other panels have included police unions, law enforcement and legislators. Ford is planning two more events featuring prosecutors and public defenders to talk about prosecutorial discretion as well as judges to talk about sentencing. 

“This isn’t just about policing or just about training cops and how to interact with communities,” Ford said. “This is a systemic issue that has roots in every aspect of our existence.”

Among the many proposals for reform, protesters demanding local governments “defund” the police — divest from oversized police budgets and redirect taxpayer money into front end resources and community services — has been the most consistent call to action. It is also the most contentious, as people aren’t familiar with the meaning behind the phrase. 

The concept hadn’t been discussed at previous panels. 

Ford, who says he cringes at the phrase “defunding the police,” does support the concept of placing or redirecting funding into other aspects of community and public safety so law enforcement isn’t responding to calls of service they aren’t equipped to handle.

“This notion that cops have to respond on their own to something that involves mental health is something we recognize is inappropriate,” he said. 

The overall idea of moving to a place where communities aren’t over-policed isn’t an unfathomable concept, Martin said. 

“People in the suburbs enjoy that life every day,” she said. “They don’t have police on every corner. They don’t have police roaming around trying to get jaywalkers or people driving around without a seat belt. I do see that when I drive through Ward 5 or my community in North Las Vegas.” 

Like in previous forums, panelists voiced concerns about the lack of transparency and accountability for law enforcement. 

Those concerns were extended to law enforcement’s response to protesters, which included showing up in riot gear, using tear gas on the crowd and arresting people even after they disperse. 

But some worried the focus has shifted from why people are protesting, which is for racial justice and police reform, and onto the actions of protesters. 

“Instead of focusing on how we are handling the protests and making sure the protests are peaceful, how about actually looking at why people are out there protesting in the first place and see what can be done about systemic change,” said Leslie Turner, an organizer for the PLANS Mass Liberation Project.

Those critiquing protesters, as well as how Black communities call out police brutality and racial injustice in the justice system, have often admonished any form of protest. 

“We are essentially saying stop killing us,” she added. “So, respectability and upholding the status quo has not worked. It has never worked for centuries, so why would we do that? The question that needs to be asked is how is Metro defining violence because I didn’t see violence (at the protests). What I saw was people blocking traffic. That is not violence. You have Metro meeting protesters with riot gear, shields, military-grade equipment and pellet balls yet we’re supposed to stay non-offensive and peaceful when we’re not doing anything except blocking traffic.”

During the panel, community activists and groups like ACLU of Nevada discussed recent meetings with Metro on how law enforcement is engaging protesters. While they were thankful for the meetings, they are still seeking answers.

“At what point and what method of decision making is used before launching projectiles and tear gas on protesters?” asked Holly Welborn, the policy director of the ACLU of Nevada who met with Metro. “What is the bar that Metro has to meet before they start dispersing and taking actions and utilizing tactics that hurt people and damage people.”

Athar Haseebullah with Opportunity 180, a nonprofit focusing on education opportunities, also reminded the panels that protests are accomplishing exactly what they intended. 

“A lot of people are suggesting that protesters shouldn’t be doing X, Y or Z,” he said. “Society really owes a great deal of gratitude across the board to those who’ve been out. Had those kids not been out there, had those young people not been out there from day one, these conversations wouldn’t be happening. There wouldn’t be reforms happening across the board.”

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.