Civil rights groups hope to put police reforms on agenda in sheriff’s race

By: - March 29, 2022 6:33 am

Kevin McMahill, Tom Roberts, and Stan Hyt are running for Clark County sheriff. (Campaign photos)

In theory, the upcoming election for the race for sheriff is the first chance since the 2020 protests following the killing of George Floyd that Clark County voters have to elect a law enforcement official who could implement some reforms to policing. 

Some civil rights groups, who cite lackluster answers and conflicting priorities by sheriff candidates thus far, aren’t optimistic.

“I still remain skeptical that there is going to be any level of reform within (Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department),” said Athar Haseebullah, the executive director of the ACLU of Nevada “LVMPD has not demonstrated its ability to do that at scale.”

In an attempt to begin pressing candidates on their positions, the ACLU of Nevada, the Clark County Black Caucus and the Las Vegas chapter of the NAACP  hosted a recent forum with former Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department undersheriff Kevin McMahill alongside retired Sgt. Stan Hyt. 

The purpose was for the community to ask the candidates questions about enforcement of low-level offenses, use of force policies, race relations, hiring practices and the power of the sheriff.

A week later, McMahill, who has far outraised opponents with more than $1.3 million and has been endorsed by current sheriff and Republican gubernatorial candidate Joe Lombardo as well as the two sheriffs before Lombardo, appeared on a Las Vegas Police Protective Association podcast with Hyt. Another candidate, former assistant sheriff and current Assemblyman Tom Roberts, who didn’t attend the previous candidate forum, was also featured on the police union podcast. 

Yvette Williams, the chair of the Clark County Black Caucus, said she is concerned after listening to the podcast and couldn’t help but notice the conflicting priorities, in particular from McMahill. 

“With politics, the thing is trying to get through the mask,” she said. “But what is your real position? I feel confused and that I don’t know who you really are.”

Organizers have long pushed for law enforcement to refrain from targeting communities of color and low income neighborhoods when enforcing minor infractions. 

Leisa Moseley, a member of the caucus who’s also the Nevada director for the Fines and Fees Justice Center, asked candidates at the earlier forum about positions on decriminalizing such offenses as a way to prevent unnecessary community interactions.

She used the example of Byron Williams, who was pursued by police for having a broken bicycle in 2019, handcuffed, placed face down and died in police custody while crying “I can’t breathe,” as an example of how routine stops by police for low-level offenses can easily escalate.

McMahill agreed these infractions can result in a high number of incidents by police, but argued officers don’t make the laws. 

While he didn’t “support completely decriminalizing traffic” he said there were other infractions, such as being ticketed for having objects hanging from the rearview mirror, that should be addressed. 

Hyt said there wasn’t any low-level offense he’d considered decriminalizing or legalizing. 

“I think some of the blame has to be the public that resists or fights or lies or tries to get out of certain things when you are looking at possibly going to jail,” he said. 

During the podcast interview, McMahill advocated for going to the Legislature to pass laws that restore rights to police officers and target people who protest outside the homes of police officers. 

“It literally outrages that we have police officers at their homes with their wives and children and we have these protesters show up and go over to their house and put wanted posters and say wanted for murder and all these things,” he said. “We have no elected officials willing to do anything about that. It wouldn’t be that hard to pass a law to say it is illegal to protest at a private residence. That’s what I will be pushing for as a sherrif because that’s terrorism at its finest.”

Police Protective Association President Steve Grammas also questioned why someone could protest outside an officer’s house but “apparently you can’t confront someone in a government at a restaurant and say bad things to them because this becomes a problem.”

He was referring to an incident by a man, another candidate for sheriff and a fellow podcaster, who confronted Gov. Steve Sisolak at a restaurant last month and threatened to hang him for treason.

Grammas also bemoaned a 2021 law that decriminalized minor traffic tickets, like driving with a broken taillight. The law converted low-level traffic offenses into a civil infraction, but the interviewer incorrectly asserted people couldn’t face criminal penalties for speeding. 

McMahill, the former undersheriff, didn’t correct him. Instead, he went on to criticize past legislation lawmakers enacted amid nationwide calls for more police accountability. 

Assembly Bill 3, which was passed with overwhelming support during a special legislative session in 2020, prohibited chokeholds or restricting airways and required officers to look for signs of distress if a person is injured during an arrest. Civil rights groups and organizers, including Williams, called it a small but meaningful step.

Lawmakers also made revisions to a 2019 bill, deemed the Nevada’s Officer Bill of Rights, which put limits on when a representative of the officer can inspect evidence associated with the complaint, got rid of a prohibition of using an officer’s compelled statement, and expanded the statute of limitations for launching an investigation into police misconduct from one year to five. 

The legislation was opposed by police unions and criminal reformers alike. 

“One of the things that really irritated me about my major opponent (Roberts) is he was in the Legislature and he did vote for a number of different things that made our cops’ jobs more difficult. Even the removal of the chokehold, I just didn’t agree with these laws,” McMahill said. 

Williams called his comments about the chokehold disturbing. 

“I couldn’t believe that,” she said. “So what is your position then on the chokehold? We have to ask that question, but are we really going to get a truthful answer?”

Prior to endorsing candidates ahead of the primary election June 14, Williams said the caucus plans to reinterview candidates to get more concrete answers on policy positions. 

“We will be able to go back and revisit these comments and get some clarity on exactly what you’re committed to and what your true position is. I understand this is politics and you try to not commit but say enough so people feel that you’re leaning their way without committing. But some of his comments seem to be a commitment and that concerns me.”

The false promise of ‘more police’

From transparency when it comes to use of deadly force to the detention of undocumented immigrants for low-level offenses, there are still questions the ACLU’s Haseebullah would like to see addressed by candidates running for sheriff. 

One line of questioning centers on how candidates and the community define public safety, a topic which Haseebullah said often lacks nuance and “is long-standing and incredibly problematic.” 

“To many, the only solution that they see when an issue of public safety arises is more police,” despite data showing that response has failed “time after time,” he said.   

“What might be a more productive question for voters to look at or for people to look at is, has the system of policing where we are increasing police budgets by millions of dollars year after year – which has happened in Southern Nevada – has that kept Southern Nevadans more safe?”

– Athar Haseebullah

Some saw the overwhelming public outrage over the death of George Floyd, who was arrested for buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill, as a potential catalyst for changes to policing and more informed discussions about public safety. 

“George Floyd’s murder and the significant amount of protest that occured nationwide including in Southern Nevada after will likely play a pretty significant role in some of these races,” Haseebullah said. 

Those deeper discussions aren’t materializing as many hoped.

Typically, the sheriff’s race tends to fly under the radar since people are “overflooded with information from other races and what else is going on in the community,” he added. 

As a result, many questions go unanswered, such as the effectiveness of police budgets. 

“The sheriff’s race is important because they control one of the largest (public) budgets in Southern Nevada,” Haseebullah said. “LVMPD’s budget is more than half a billion dollars. It’s $655 million annually. That’s a huge amount of money going in and it impacts different facets of society including elements related to racial justice, elements related to public safety, elements related to public policy.” 

He said there isn’t much discussion around if and how the police budget contributes to public safety and crime rates. 

“What might be a more productive question for voters to look at or for people to look at is, has the system of policing where we are increasing police budgets by millions of dollars year after year – which has happened in Southern Nevada – has that kept Southern Nevadans more safe?” he said.  

Criminal reform advocates have repeatedly called for divesting oversized police budgets and redirecting taxpayer money into front end resources and community services – defunding the police.

Elected officials and candidates seeking offices have weaponized the phrase to appeal to voters, even while somewhat supporting the concept. 

McMahill, when speaking on the podcast, first chastised calls to defund the police calling it a policy failure. 

He later admitted that “defunding the police was really about mental health, addiction and homelessness.”

“They wanted to take the funds from the police and put it over here,” he said, referring to social services. 

He then questioned how lawmakers were using relief dollars brought in by the American Rescue Plan Act to address those problems. 

“Do you hear any of our elected officials talk about handling mental health, addiction or homelessness? You’re not because they love the fact we are the ones out there dealing with it,” he said. 

Sisolak recently committed $500 million of relief dollars to go toward constructing affordable housing, which social service providers and nonprofits say is a fundamental prerequisite to contending with the homeless crisis.

Aside from the race for sheriff, reformers are planning to ask question candidates in the race for Clark County district attorney. They plan to invite community members to pose questions to candidates at another forum Thursday. 

“That doesn’t necessarily mean any of their positions are palatable to our organization,” Haseebullah said. “It doesn’t mean we are supportive of one candidate or another.” 

But it does put the contenders in front of “those in our community who might not have an opportunity to hear from any of the candidates.”

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues.