Police reform gets off to rocky start in special session

Efforts to tackle police accountability play out in two hearings; one prompts outrage

State Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro on Friday. (David Calvert/Nevada Independent)

For criminal justice reform advocates, the Nevada Legislature’s response to demands for police transparency and accountability isn’t living up to the moment.

One police reform bill heard Saturday, while earning support, was characterized as merely a step in the right direction. Another dropped at the last minute without notice and prompted outrage from reform advocates.

On Saturday, the Assembly passed Assembly Bill 3, which includes provisions restricting chokeholds and requiring officers to intervene in incidents of unjustifiable use of force.

But while civil rights and criminal justice reform advocates along with local attorneys were testifying on one bill, legislation to revise the controversial “Officers’ Bill of Rights” was introduced and, within a short period of time, heard by the Senate.

Senate Bill 242, which was carried in 2019 by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, a prosecutor in the Clark County District Attorney’s office, allows for the 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. 

In the wake of George Floyd’s death in May and ongoing protests nationwide demanding police reform, some Nevadans rallied lawmakers to repeal SB 242 in a special session. Senate Bill 2 was introduced Saturday to amend but not repeal the 2019 law. 

“The irony isn’t lost on me that SB 2 was supposed to be an attempt to fix the transparency issues of SB 242 from last year but it was completely done in private without any input from the community and then dropped at the last minute without any notice or warning,” said Wesley Juhl, the communications director with the ACLU of Nevada. 

Advocates who have been pushing for a full repeal of SB 242 were outraged at how lawmakers handled revisions to the law. And they let lawmakers know.

“We are deeply disappointed in the lack of transparency and leadership in the drafting and presentation of Senate Bill 2, which addresses the disastrous Senate Bill 242 that passed during the 2019 legislative session,” wrote the Progressive Leadership of Alliance of Nevada in a statement following the hearing. “We understand that during a special session things move quickly, but the hearing for this bill began before the bill text was made available to the public, and while the Assembly was hearing another bill related to policing.” 

Annette Magnus, the executive director of Battle Born Progress, also noted that it was unacceptable that the public was only given minutes to review the bill. 

“The community has been begging you to fix SB 242 with a complete repeal,” she said. “What this process tells community advocates is that the police are still the priority and the community once against doesn’t really matter.” 

Even those who originally supported SB 242 were equally angered by how fast SB 2 materialized and moved through the Senate.

Despite concerns and frustration, the Senate committee passed SB 2 on a party-line vote. 

“With AB3, we had a chance to discuss our ideas with assembly leaders and we have a chance to have those conversations,” Juhl said. “With SB 2, that didn’t happen at all.”

Over and over again during the testimony for support for Assembly Bill 3 earlier in the day, people stressed the legislation was the bare minimum Nevada could do to provide police accountability — but lawmakers should pass it anyway. 

The legislation, if passed, would:

  • Prohibit an officer from using a chokehold or restricting an airway of a person in custody.
  • Change existing law to say officers can only use reasonable force rather than “all necessary means” when making an arrest. 
  • Call for officers to intervene and report unjustified use of force. 
  • Require officers to look for signs of distress and ensure medical aid is given to a person if they are injured during the arrest.
  • Mandate law enforcement to adopt a written policy on drug and alcohol testing after an officer involved shootings or in cases of substantial bodily harm.
  • Set up a process for collecting data during traffic stops.

Assemblyman Steve Yeager, who presented the bill, said the legislation was the “embodiment of what we could do better in Nevada.” 

Lawmakers referred to death of George Floyd, who died in Minnesota in the custody of law enforcement.

But they didn’t mention any local cases of police use of force or people dying in the custody of law enforcement, which has also pushed local advocates to call for statewide changes. 

Tashii Brown, whose family received a record $2.2 million settlement from Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department late July, died after being placed in a chokehold in 2017.

Byron Williams died in police custody last September. Metro said it attempted to stop Williams because of a broken bicycle light when he fled. After being chased, eventually apprehended and pinned to the ground, Williams said “I Can’t Breathe” around 20 times. 

“Because you’re fucking tired from running,” the officer responded. 

During public comment, the bill’s supporters cited both those Nevada cases as evidence of the need to pass AB3 and then adopt bolder changes in the 2021 session.

“I support the bill but I do believe the bill could be stronger because there doesn’t seem to be any accountability measure tied to the legislation,” said Nissa Tzun, the cofounder of the Forced Trajectory Project, which documents stories of police brutality. “If officers break this law, what would be the consequences?”

Tzun also questioned the influence of law enforcement agencies on the bill, versus that of criminal reform advocates and those impacted by police brutality. 

During the hearing, Yeager acknowledged Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department lobbyist Chuck Callaway, who answered questions about the language in the bill during the hearing, played a hand in crafting the legislation. 

AB3 was also heard by the Senate.

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.