Las Vegas Metropolitan Police headquarters in Las Vegas. (Photo: Ronda Churchill)
The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department marks its 50th anniversary on July 1, 2023, a landmark it may reach without ever having a woman in the highest ranks of leadership — sheriff, undersheriff or assistant sheriff.
Black police of both genders are also a rarity among Metro’s hierarchy, evidenced by the department’s organizational chart featured in its 2020 annual report. Carla Alston, a Black woman who led the Public Information Department, has since retired.
“I pick from captain level and above for executive staff. I have 14 members on my executive staff. And unless a person of color is within the ranks of the captain I don’t have access or ability to go outside of that,” Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo said at a recent forum on race. “As I go through the process I can only choose from what’s available.”
Lombardo, who is running for governor, declined to be interviewed for this story.
According to its annual report, women make up a third of Metro’s overall 5,815-member staff, which includes corrections employees and civilian support staff, but they comprise a fraction of its commissioned sergeants, lieutenants, and captains.
In 2019, the last year for which data is available on Transparent Nevada, a website that tracks public employee pay, 33 of 421 Metro sergeants (8%) were women. Of those, 17 served in Corrections, which is not considered a policing position.
The same year, eight of the 36 captains at Metro (22%) were women, as were 14 of 108 lieutenants (13 %).
In 2019, Metro employed seven deputy chiefs, according to Transparent Nevada. All were men. Two women were promoted in the last two years to the spot, which is a recruitment pool for Assistant Sheriff.
Of those two women, one is married to the man hoping to succeed Joe Lombardo as Clark County Sheriff, a factor that could complicate her ascension.
Deputy Chief Kelly McMahill is the wife of former Undersheriff Kevin McMahill, who announced his campaign last week for Clark County Sheriff. She was appointed to her post in February of 2020.
Metro offered the Current an interview with Kelly McMahill for this story, but the next day said she was no longer available, when her husband announced his candidacy.
McMahill declined to say whether he’d promote his wife, if he’s elected sheriff.
“Kelly does not anticipate being with LVMPD when Kevin is elected as Sheriff,” said Bradley Mayer, McMahill’s campaign manager.
“That would be a tough situation to be in. If he promotes her, it’s nepotism,” says retired Metro Deputy Chief Kathy O’Connor. “If he doesn’t, that’s bad because she only has two appointed positions to move up to. I don’t think he’d pick her just because she’s his wife.”
“Currently, there are more women in leadership positions than in the history of the LVMPD,” Kevin McMahill said in a statement to the Current. “As Sheriff, I’ll continue to build on the strides the department has made in these areas, as the work is never finished.”
“During my time at Metro, we implemented innovative programs to make our approach to policing representative of the diverse community the LVMPD serves,” McMahill said.“We also worked with Metro’s recruitment councils on various programs targeting hiring among women and communities of color.”
But in July, Lombardo lamented the lack of Black officers qualified for promotion to Metro’s top ranks.
“In the last six months, my number three and my number four assistant sheriff on the police department were African American and they chose to retire,” Lombardo said at the July forum on diversity. “Also, the other public information officer was African American and she chose to retire the last couple months.”
“I am committed to continue working to make LVMPD representative of the community we serve,” Kevin McMahill said in a statement in response to Lombardo’s comments and demographic data provided by the Current.
“You want to reflect the community,” says Tom Roberts, a state assemblyman and retired assistant sheriff who is also running for Metro’s top spot. “A lot of African Americans have left the department.”
He says mentoring would help fill the race and gender gaps in Metro’s hierarchy.
“We made a concrete effort to mentor African Americans and minorities, too,” he says of his time on the force. “Ideally, you should mentor everybody.”
“At one point we found we had no female captains. Several of us took it upon us to groom and mentor some lieutenants and sergeants to get them to promote. We worked diligently to get women at the captain’s rank,” Roberts said.
Appointments to higher ranks are at the discretion of the sheriff.
“Metro is still a boy’s club,” said a retired female employee who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. “If you’re not having cigars or hanging out with the boys after hours or on the weekends, you’re not going to ascend to a higher rank.”
Positions of authority are achieved “because of relationships, not competence,” the source said.
“People have told me they don’t feel the appointment process is completely fair,” says Roberts.
Metro’s promotion process is more fair today than it was 20 years ago, when “they were taking sergeants and making them deputy chief,” says retired Metro Sgt. Michelle Jotz. “You have to check every box now. You can’t skip ranks.”
The oral interview, the only subjective part of the promotion process for those below captain, “gives the appearance of impropriety,” says Jotz. “Internal raters have their own bias. Anytime you’ve got face-to-face personal interaction, there’s the opportunity” for a less-qualified candidate to prevail.
“The goal is to bring in the most qualified people. Making decisions based on gender or race is potentially putting the community at risk and also potentially setting those people up for failure,” says Jotz.
But experts suggest the public’s trust in police erodes when the ranks are not representative of the population.
‘A different touch’
“It takes a special woman to get into the job. It takes a different personality, especially now,” according to O’Connor, who says the nation’s “anti-policing” mentality has enhanced the danger.
“It’s sad because women bring a different touch to law enforcement. Sometimes we have to finesse because we can’t muscle. Our communication skills are very important,” she says.
O’Connor is one of only five women to have held the position of Deputy Chief in Metro’s nearly half century of existence.
She lost out on an appointment to assistant sheriff by then-Sheriff Doug Gillespie, who chose Joe Lombardo instead.
“It was very difficult being the only woman up for promotion for assistant sheriff and that being threatening to the guys,” she says. “You were stabbed in the back. And I don’t think it’s much different now.”
O’Connor retired after 28 years at Metro.
“All of the last three sheriffs have done a good job of promoting women,” she says.
“She is one of the most brilliant minds — incredibly competent and capable,” Jotz says of O’Connor. “She was definitely judged harsher than any male. She was an incredible cop at every rank. I have so much respect for her.”
“It’s kind of like a shark tank when you get to that level,” says O’Connor. “Once you make captain you’re appointed to everything. There’s a lot of infighting. Sometimes people make more effort to make others look bad rather than working to excel themselves.”
Today, two policewomen hold the title of Deputy Chief — McMahill, who is in charge of Professional Standards and was appointed by Lombardo in 2020, and Sasha Larkin, who oversees Homeland Security and was appointed by Lombardo this year.
“When I hired on in 1985, policing was a very respected position,” says O’Connor, aside from the people who would ask her when the “real police” were going to show up. “There were only 13 women on the force back then. The lack of respect now causes women to reconsider.”
“It’s really a tough job right now. Not only do they have to worry about someone taking their life, but they have to worry about a split-second decision where they and someone else could be prosecuted” for their actions, she says.
But attracting women to police work has long been a challenge.
“Despite efforts to increase representation, the percentage of women in law enforcement has remained relatively stagnant for the past few decades. Women constitute less than 13% of total officers and a much smaller proportion of leadership positions,” says a U.S. Department of Justice report from 2019.
“At one time I was in Personnel (at Metro) and we really tried to recruit women,” says O’Connor. “In this town there are so many jobs that are comparable pay for women.”
While women and men in the same positions earn similar salaries at Metro, men earn significantly more via additional pay, such as overtime.
The highest paid employee at Metro in 2019, based on salary, was then-Undersheriff McMahill, who earned $239,851.
The highest paid employee at Metro, based on total pay in 2019, was Deputy Chief Shawn A. Andersen, who earned a salary of $151,800 plus $323,621.00 in other pay, bringing his total pay in 2019 to more than $545,000, including benefits.
According to Michael Schauss of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, which manages Transparent Nevada, police departments “often outsource officers for private events, etc. — and ‘other pay’ could include extra compensation related to those agreements as well, since it might not qualify as overtime or ordinary payroll. “
Only four women are among the top 100 earners at Metro, based on total pay, with only one — a corrections sergeant — in the top 20. Corrections Sgt. Shimeka Graham earned the 12th highest income at Metro in 2019 of $322,445.
The highest paid civilian woman at Metro is attorney Liesl Freedman, who earned a salary of more than $194,000 in 2019.
Lombardo currently has an appointed undersheriff and three appointed assistant sheriffs, all men.
A spokesman for Metro says the department does not track gender and ethnicity of its commissioned police ranks.
The department’s ethnic breakdown, including civilian employees, is 58% White, 19% Hispanic, and 10% Black, according to Metro’s annual report for 2020.
In 2011 a Justice Department investigation of Metro’s use of force found a majority of unarmed suspects shot by police since 2008 were Black or Hispanic, including every suspect shot as the result of an officer-initiated contact.
“LVMPD does not conduct department-wide fair and impartial policing training that includes a focus on use of deadly force,” the Justice Department report said. “In addition to the community perception of biased interactions in incidents of deadly force, our review of agency data found that in seven out of 10 (70 percent) incidents where unarmed suspects were shot by LVMPD, the suspect was black. Furthermore, six of nine (66 percent) OISs that began as officer-initiated stops involved black suspects.”
The Henderson Police Department has 479 commissioned officers. Only 65 (13.6 ) are women. The vast majority, 60 percent, are white men.
Seven women in the Henderson police department ranked among the top 100 earners in 2019.
That year, the city’s first female police chief, LaTesha Watson, was fired for allegedly failing to get along with union employees and not cooperating with outside investigators. She is suing the department.
“The Henderson Police Department engages in positive efforts to employ ethnic minority group members and women by taking affirmative action to achieve a ratio of minority group employees in approximate proportion to the composition of the community they serve,” says city spokeswoman Kathleen Richards.
In North Las Vegas, where the City Council named Pamela Ojeda as Chief of Police in 2018, ten of the top 100 earners are women, according to data from Transparent Nevada.
Equitable treatment is an obstacle to retaining women on the force, according to Michele Royal-Vorce, who was a detective in property crimes when she was plucked from her job to drive then-Sheriff Doug Gillespie.
“I didn’t want to take it but knew I better take it,” she says. “It came with the caveat that I’d leave the job as a sergeant.”
The position put her at the sheriff’s beck and call for two years. It also made her the target of rumors.
“I was the first female driver at that point. No one had ever had a driver,” she says. “Within those two years I studied to become a sergeant, and thankfully, I ranked really well.”
She served as a sergeant for 10 years.
“I did community policing, problem solving, McCarran Airport, tourist crimes, missing persons and sexual assault -- all as a sergeant,” she says.
A change of policy at Metro, requiring candidates for lieutenant to have college credit, dashed her hopes of promotion.
“I was a single mother. I had no family in Vegas,” she says. “If I’d been promoted earlier I wouldn’t have needed credits, but I didn’t have time to go to school.”
“My lieutenant was managing four different units. They scale back and you do more with less. He asked me if I could knock off a few of his on-line training classes for him,” she says. “Everyone does it. The higher ranks have administrative assistants that do the classes for them.”
She got caught.
“We got called to Internal Affairs. I admitted everything,” she says. “He (the lieutenant) said ‘I didn’t tell her to do it.’ They knew he was lying. He had to give me his password to do it.”
“If you lie to Internal Affairs you are supposed to be terminated. He retired with full credentials. I retired on my 50th birthday and didn’t look back,” she says. “I know my story is not so different from other females.”
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