How one of the deadliest police forces in America stopped shooting people

Stop in the name of accountability and well-reasoned police practices.
Stop in the name of accountability and well-reasoned police practices.
Image: Reuters/David Becker
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One night in June 2010, Las Vegas police knocked on the door of a man named Trevon Cole, a marijuana dealer who they believed they had a warrant to arrest. No one answered the door so the police raided the apartment with weapons drawn. Cole was in the bathroom flushing his marijuana down the toilet, and according to the detective who found him, he lunged at the officer—a claim contradicted by physical evidence gathered after the officer used deadly force.

Cole was killed even though he was unarmed. It would be a record year for officer-involved shootings in Las Vegas, and Cole’s death was one of several high-profile incidents which led to calls to reform what seemed to be a trigger-happy police force.

As it turned out, Las Vegas Metro wasn’t even pursuing the right Trevon Cole that night. The man they carried a warrant for had a longer criminal history, a different age and physical description.

Just a few months later in a similar case of mistaken identity, Metro officers shot an unarmed Gulf War veteran whose car closely resembled one used in an alleged burglary. The man suffered from paranoia and PTSD, and he refused to exit his car even when police had it surrounded.

Experts would cite both of these cases as examples of “poor training, a lack of clear policies, and an unwillingness to discipline problem officers” in a six-part investigative series titled, “Deadly Force: When Las Vegas Police Shoot, and Kill,” by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Now, five years later, the department is a model for police reform. Despite an uptick in violence directed toward Vegas cops, there were zero deadly force incidents involving unarmed suspects in 2014. The number of officer-involved shootings has dropped significantly as well.

In recent months, members of the NYPD, Baltimore police, as well as law enforcement agencies from Utah, Massachusetts, Albuquerque and even Australia have visited Metro to study its new training and accountability regimes.

Here’s how Las Vegas police halted a trend in excessive force.

Federal scrutiny

When the Las Vegas Review-Journal published its report on Metro’s history of excessive force, its most damning assessment came from independent experts who analyzed 20 years worth of Vegas police shooting data and concluded that most of the deadly force incidents could have been avoided.

After that, the US Department of Justice launched its own investigation—a complete audit of the force’s culture, training, and oversight—in what was then viewed as a test case for federal involvement in local law enforcement strategies.

The DOJ’s 75 recommendations included ideas that are now a part of the national conversation on curbing “use of force” abuses by police. One third of those suggestions had to do with new training concepts, the most progressive of which was an “inherent bias” class aimed at combating racially motivated behavior. The vast majority of Metro’s questionable deadly force incidents happened against unarmed black men.

“Fair and impartial policing” class

In a four-hour training seminar, Las Vegas cops are now educated on recent studies by social psychologists showing that all humans are prone to racial bias. These attitudes are programed in us by personal encounters, cultural preferences, and media portrayals that become generalizations and must be consciously ignored.

These automatic judgments can obviously have a menacing effect on an officer’s ability to do fair and impartial police work. And though difficult to eliminate, inherent bias can be managed by deliberately flagging negative assumptions and adjusting one’s behavior accordingly.

As Captain Matt McCarthy, the man in charge of Metro’s internal oversight, said in a phone interview with Quartz, “When you become aware that you have these biases, where they are toward a people or a race or a gender, and you feel that you’re going to act on that bias without any reason behind your action, you need to put yourself in check.”

“Reality-based” field training

Metro also changed two key aspects of its officer field training: It began emphasizing conflict de-escalation and developed new scenarios based on actual use of force incidents. These “reality-based” exercises were more complicated and ambiguous than the “predictable” field exercises that Metro arranged in the past, McCarthy said.

The drills take place in alleys, parking lots, and apartment units, and they may involve potential carjackings or burglaries with suspects who run away or fight back. The true-to-life event is recreated right up to the trigger-point. The officers decide if, or how much, force is necessary. And once they finish, a training officer critiques that decision. “Why did you draw your side-arm instead of the Taser?” for example, or, “How come you didn’t assure the suspect you weren’t going to shoot him when he expressed fear that you would?”

So to a greater extent than ever before, Vegas cops are now learning rhetorical techniques to calm situations that once reached tragic boiling points.

The DOJ wrote in its report that Metro’s training process was “inconsistent” and hurried to “get training done and out of the way” to keep cops on the street. Now, officers spend extra time in classrooms and doing field exercises, where they engage in more serious work.

Body-worn cameras

In 2013, Las Vegas became the first big city to conduct a pilot program for body-worn cameras on police. Some lawmakers expressed concerns that the gadgets were too expensive, the technology unproven, and the footage an invasion of privacy, yet thus far the program is considered a success.

Body cam footage allowed the department to fire an officer who beat up a woman suspected of loitering as a prostitute. (She had tossed aside a cup of coffee in a way the cop perceived as defiant.) In the past, that officer might have lied about the circumstances behind the woman’s arrest, but instead he became the first officer in the country charged with a crime for behavior recorded while wearing a body camera.

Police have been vindicated by the footage as well. On one occasion, an officer attempted to de-escalate a tense conversation with a man who ultimately pulled out a gun and opened fire. The subsequent shootout ended with that officer’s partner shot, and the driver killed. It was through a review of the body-worn camera footage that the department, the public, and the perpetrator’s family confirmed that deadly force was justifiable.

A culture of accountability

None of these initiatives would be entirely effective, however, if officers continued to enjoy a culture of impunity. According to the Review-Journal, before Metro’s reform process, a staggering 97% of deadly force incidents were validated by the department’s Use of Force Review Board.

Since then, Metro has shown a renewed willingness to punish, fire, and even prosecute problem officers. The Use of Force Review Board has been shuffled to allow its civilian representatives to out-vote members of the department.

McCarthy said, “The process that we have today is more accountability-driven than it’s ever been.”

The investigative process for fatal police shootings, a coroner’s inquest, was once labeled a “cop-clearing circus” by victims’ families. Now, McCarthy noted, when these investigations take place, an advocate for the decedent’s family participates in the fact-finding mission as the public’s ombudsman. The victim’s family can thus make sure its concerns are answered in a way that informs the punitive process.

All that aside, Metro still has progress to make before it achieves every goal the DOJ laid out in 2014. Tod Story, the executive director of the ACLU of Nevada, told Quartz that, like many American police forces, Metro doesn’t accurately represent its city’s diversity.

Clark County is almost 30% Hispanic, yet Latinos make up only 11% of area law enforcement. Story said Metro needs to hire more Spanish-speaking officers, more people of color—especially for patrols in minority communities. The department is attempting to recruit Latinos through trips to majority-Hispanic high schools and with ads on Spanish-language radio stations. But the response so far has been tepid.

Beyond that, the ACLU is cautiously optimistic that Las Vegas’s police reform effort is succeeding.

“I think what happened in the police department here is they said, ‘This is it. This can’t go on anymore. We’re under the spotlight and the community is fed up so we have to do something different.’ That’s the path we’re on now,” Story said.

“There’s still plenty of skepticism,” he added. “We are taking the trust-but-verify approach. But because the old way is no longer acceptable, we’ve all come together to say there has to be something new—there has to be a better way of doing this—and that’s what everyone is committed to.”