Roxann McCoy, president of the NAACP Las Vegas, tries to calm the audience during a panel on race and the justice system. The panel included Sheriff Joe Lombardo and District Attorney Steve Wolfson. (Photo: Michael Lyle)
Toward the end of an NAACP Las Vegas panel on race and the justice system, Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson and Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Sheriff Joe Lombardo were asked by an audience member how their respective offices identify and address racial disparities in arrests and convictions.
Earlier in Saturday’s forum, which was sponsored by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Foundation, Wolfson said that in the thousands of cases his office sees each year it doesn’t “have time to look if the person is Black or white or otherwise.”
“I believe what the question is asking, if you’re seeing cases of minorities constantly being arrested and you’re seeing trends, if you’re taking a colorblind stance, how would you begin to correct that?” responded Sherrie Royster, one of the event’s moderators, trying to clarify the audience question she was reading. “Is the sheriff’s office seeking out information so you can use it to review or discipline your own officers who are committing these acts?”
Wolfson and Lombardo didn’t answer the question.
Instead, Wolfson pointed to other work his office does, such as a precharge diversion program for low level crimes, adding “a lot of people of color come under that category.”
“That was my question and they are not answering it,” one woman shouted from the audience. “My question is why are police allowed to arrest Black and brown people on charges they know are going to be dropped?”
As security removed her, she continued trying to ask why LVMPD and the district attorney’s office aren’t making sure people of color aren’t disproportionately picked up, saying that “people are stuck in jail over the weekend and end up losing jobs.”
While some in the audience wanted the question answered, the panel moved on.
‘Not content with the content’
The event, according to the NAACP, was an effort to bring law enforcement and community together so “there can be a deeper dialogue around policing efforts, community concerns and the importance of diversity representation when policing.”
In addition to Wolfson and Lombardo, Attorney General Aaron Ford, acting U.S. Attorney Christopher Chiou, Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent in Charge Francisco Burrola and FBI Agent in Charge Aaron Rouse were also on the panel.
“Our intent is to bring senior levels of law enforcement and the community together in one room so there could be a deeper dialogue around policing efforts, community concerns and the importance of diversity efforts in policing,” said Roxann McCoy, the chapter president of the NAACP Las Vegas.
Most of the questions were directed to Wolfson and Lombardo.
The purpose might have been to engage law enforcement officials about race in the justice system, but their answers left many in the audience agitated.
Frustration reached a boiling point during McCoy’s closing remarks, when audience members began chanting “How do you spell racist? LVMPD” as the panelists exited stage right.
“During the forum, you heard a lot of people whispering in the crowd, and that’s because the community was not content with the content being provided,” said Athar Haseebullah, the executive director of the ACLU of Nevada. “People are beyond the point of accepting generic responses to the questions that are posed.”
Reflecting a growing movement to overhaul the criminal justice system, which disproportionately detains, arrests, punishes and incarcerates people of color at higher rates, local organizers sought to oust Wolfson during his 2018 reelection campaign, and worked to pass legislation to reform the cash bail system, abolish the death penalty and decriminalize traffic tickets.
There are still lingering questions around accountability and racial disparities within Southern Nevada’s justice system.
As campaign season for the 2022 midterm election ramps up, groups will continue to press officials, especially Lombardo, who announced his gubernatorial bid last month, for answers.
Pointing to the generic answers offered Saturday, “we should all be prepared for a lot of politicking over the next year,” Haseebullah said.
‘It’s clearly campaign season’
Panelists at the forum were asked about a variety of justice issues, including the process for addressing police misconduct, the rise of hate crimes in the Asian community, disparities in arrests, enforcement in the immigrant community and the use of body-worn cameras.
Repeatedly, the answers pointed to the importance of implicit bias training when it comes to identifying systemic issues and problems among staff.
Lombardo said “implicit bias training is endemic to Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department” and under his tenure LVMPD “made significant adjustments to increase the training associated with community engagement, especially communities of color.”
“There was a 200% increase in the number of hours associated with that training,” he said. “It is an annual training required by both the federal government and myself as the sheriff of LVMPD.”
But Wolfson, who also boasted about the training within his office, couldn’t say whether implicit bias training works.
“I can’t tell you that I know it’s working,” Wolfson said. “In reality we are who we are. I’m not going to say there aren’t biases. I would never say that to anyone on this panel or in this audience.”
He added that “I have trust and good-faith belief in my lawyers, who are people of integrity and follow their oath of ethics, that they’re going to make decisions” not based on their own biases.
The assertion that there is “no indication whether there is any efficacy surrounding implicit bias training” troubled Hassebullah. “From an overall data perspective, the fact there is no assessment on whether or not these trainings are useful is incredibly problematic,” he said.
Haseebullah was struck by another element of Lombardo’s response to questions.
Though leaning on support for implicit bias training and the need for cultural diversity on Saturday, Lombardo has also campaigned against “critical race theory” being taught in schools.
The Clark County School District doesn’t teach critical race theory, an academic concept taught at the collegiate level. The term has become a catch-all for any teaching of race in U.S. history on the populist right.
“Sheriff Lombardo just tweeted a couple days ago that he was opposed to public tax dollars being used for critical race theory, which they haven’t been,” Haseebullah said. “He is making statements on social media that are exacerbating racial tensions and exacerbating the divide and it’s going unchecked.”
Lombardo made no mention of his campaign for governor during Saturday’s forum. And there weren’t any questions on whether statements on the campaign trail regarding teaching about race in schools contradicted his support for implicit bias training.
Other questioners asked panelists about the effectiveness of body worn cameras, data surrounding police misconduct, and if increased attention on people of color, predominantly Black men, being killed by police shows it’s not just “a few bad apples.”
“Just because you see it on video doesn’t mean it’s absolutely 100% accurate,” Lombardo said. “It might be a different angle. There might be something else associated with it. Everything has to be evaluated with other factors associated with it.”
Haseebullah called Lombardo’s response problematic.
“Being told not to believe videos that demonstrate incidents involving potential misapplication of the use of force, I’m not exactly sure what to take away from the event other than it’s clearly campaign season,” he added. “I think the sheriff telling community members that videos didn’t seem to be wholly accurate and there is more to the story than what the viewers’ eyes may see is troubling in many different respects.”
Wolfson and Lombardo were asked about Byron Williams, a Black bicyclist who was detained by police in 2019 and died in their custody while saying “I can’t breathe” more than 20 times.
Wolfson decided against bringing charges against the officers.
A federal lawsuit was filed last week against Metro, Clark County, the City of Las Vegas and the officers involved in the case.
“The officers involved in the case of Mr. Williams, that case was thoroughly reviewed pursuant to the County ordinance, we conducted a public fact finding review hearing, which was a very transparent public hearing,” he said. “At the end of the day, it is a very difficult decision to charge police officers and to be able to prove beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law that they committed a crime.”
Lombardo said he couldn’t commit because of the pending lawsuit.
Haseebullah said the public needs more transparency regarding what both offices’ practices with respect to police misconduct and accountability.
“What they were really lacking was a description from the district attorney’s office of how they hold police accountable for when the issue of police accountability came up,” he said. “What are the actual investigatory steps? What data supports the fact that anyone should have confidence in the district attorney’s office to actually prosecute cases of misconduct?”
Haseebullah said Wolfson and Lombardo resorted to talking points.
But even the policies and programs being referenced — such as the precharge diversion program Wolfson highlighted as a solution to helping low level offenders — lacked data.
“During all of these years he has been in office and has not implemented this program, but to say at this event the program exists, is problematic in large part because it’s on the cusp of what’s going to be another campaign announcement,” Haseebullah said, noting Wolfson is up for reelection next year. “It’s constant sales over and over. What would have been more helpful for the community would have been to share the amount of those cases that have been diverted during his tenure.”
Several audience members wore shirts that said “Justice for Jorge” referencing Jorge Gomez, who was shot and killed by Metro officers last summer.
“Absolutely there should have been questions asked about Jorge Gomez considering what the audience composition looked like, and folks were literally there to specifically have those issues spoken about,” he said. “It’s challenging to see them skip over any conversation around Jorge Gomez.”
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