Advocates say an encounter between police and a street vendor caught on video will erode the little trust between street food vendors, who are largely Latino immigrants, and police officers in Las Vegas. (Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department bodycam video)
A video showing a violent confrontation between police and a street food vendor near the Welcome to Las Vegas Sign has exposed significant holes in the implementation of a bill meant to bring the iconic retailers out of the shadows.
Less than a month after Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo held a heavily publicized signing ceremony for a bill that would reduce regulatory burdens for street food vendors — who face criminalization due to outdated policies that deny them access to business permits — a video emerged showing a police officer pointing a taser at a food vendor near a crowd of tourists waiting in line to pose for photos.
Several videos of the confrontation have circulated online, resulting in fierce criticism of the Las Vegas Metro Police Department on social media.
The video shows a white police officer becoming increasingly agitated as the Spanish-speaking street vendor fails to produce a driver’s license, before the officer reaches out to arrest the street food vendor while giving instructions in English. The vendor then tells the LVMPD officer not to touch him before struggling to walk away. (In a statement, the LVMPD claims the vendor pushed the officer to the ground.)
In response, the officer can be heard shouting expletives as he pulls out a taser and points it at the street food vendor on the busy resort corridor.
“Get the f–k on the ground now! You want to f-ing play? Get the f–k on the ground now!” the officer can be heard yelling.
Advocates say the viral nature of the video will erode the little trust between street food vendors, who are largely Latino immigrants, and police officers in Las Vegas.
The incident is “not a good picture for Metro,” said Rico Ocampo, an organizing director with Make the Road Nevada. “I believe this situation with the street vendor has damaged that relationship.”
“LVMPD is still reviewing the entirety of this incident,” said the law enforcement agency in a statement.
While the bill gives counties and cities the authority to establish a clear path for street vendors to operate legally, it’s still uncertain when those ordinances will be developed, creating a legal gray area for street food vendors operating in the state.
Because the bill is a permissive law — meaning it is neither required nor prohibited — counties can choose not to give street food vendors the ability to operate legally in the county. However, according to the bill, if a county does not establish ordinances governing street vending by a certain timeframe they will also forfeit the ability to set up criminal penalties or fines to street vendors operating without a business license.
Prohibition of street food vendors near a resort hotel, event facility, or conventions center won’t take effect until October 15, according to the bill, but the flexible nature of the law gives counties the leeway to continue citing street food vendors operating without a license, say bill sponsors.
That ambiguity “has caused a lot of confusion within the street vendor community,” said Ocampo. Street food vendors are not the only ones left confused. Ocampo said advocacy groups supporting the bill, like Make the Road Nevada, have struggled to navigate the boundaries of the legislation.
“An example of this miscommunication is when the governor made an announcement to the Latino community, during two ceremonial signings, that things were going to change. And so we have street vendors that heard him say these things, but yet this incident happened,” Ocampo said.
During the bill signing ceremony last month attended by Lombardo and LVMPD officers, street food vendors and advocates celebrated the passage of the bill with speeches, applause, and a Mariachi band.
“Nevada is open for business,” Lombardo said during the ceremony.
Clark County, the most populous county in Nevada, disagrees.
Legal gray area
In the days after the video went viral, representatives for Clark County said, “while legislation has indeed been signed by the Governor, street vendors are currently not legally permitted to operate within Clark County without a license.”
Clark County officials said they do not have a firm timeline for when the county would pass an ordinance to create a path to licensure. The Clark County Commission is set to discuss licensing of street food vendors during their August 15 meeting, according to the county agenda.
During the signing ceremony last month, Lombardo said he hoped the bill would reduce “fears that the Latin community experiences in the presence of people in uniform,” as he reassured street vendors present that “the police department is your partner and your friend.”
Those hopes were quickly dashed with the circulation of the video over the weekend, highlighting the difficult reality ahead for street food vendors who are now operating in a legal gray area.
“Street vendors saw law enforcement officers coming up to them getting a Raspado, elote, agua frescas and then the next day, they’re doing this to one of their street vendor brothers? It’s a situation that needs to be addressed,” Ocampo said.
Lombardo’s office did not respond to questions about whether the viral incident undermined his message during his signing ceremony.
Another issue contributing to confusion over the bill is that the mandated task force under the secretary of state charged with recommending regulations for sidewalk vending has yet to be established.
Ocampo, the organizing director with Make the Road Nevada, said lawmakers, advocacy groups, and police departments need to quickly work together to come to a consensus and relay clear information to street food vendors. He warned that more incidents like the one in the viral video may deter street food vendors from engaging with the licensure process in the future out of fear.
“What we don’t want to see is for law enforcement to use that gap as an excuse to cite individuals for selling food on the street, or even worse, arrest them. That’s what we don’t want to see,” Ocampo said. “This kind of situation does not help with the trust that law enforcement wants to build within our communities.”
This story was revised to clarify the secretary of state office’s role in implementing the law.
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