Jacob Snow, Henderson City Manager
Patrick Moers, Henderson Chief of Police
BY JOAN WHITELY -- Municipal leaders in Henderson have been pushing organizational and cultural change within the Henderson Police Department. Its city manager and police chief talked about their efforts on KNPR’s “State of Nevada.”
“There a new city attorney, there’s a new city manager, there’s a new chief police,” says Jacob Snow, who took the city manager job in early 2012. “Almost the entire (police) command team of the city of Henderson is new” since 2012.
Several high-profile incidents involving Henderson officers have raised community concern over the past decade, leading to the city’s push for police change.
In 2008, Henderson police shot and killed a 42-year-old woman after she raised a kitchen knife to police for stopping her husband in his ice cream truck due to a traffic violation. The family settled a wrongful death case with the city for $700,000.
In 2004, Henderson paid $350,000 after officers broke the rib and hip of an 84-year-old man during an arrest.
But the high-profile incident that Snow said worried him the most was the 2010 traffic stop of a man driving erratically, who was brutally kicked by officers from Henderson police and Nevada Highway Patrol for failing to respond to their orders. The man turned out to be in diabetic shock, which can lead to behavior that mimics intoxication. In early 2012, he and his wife received a settlement of $250,000 from Henderson.
Shortly after the settlement, then police Chief Jutta Chambers took a buyout and abruptly retired. Snow became manager the next month.
The incident “could have been handled better. He was kicked numerous times,” Snow acknowledges. “That specific outlier incident is a good reason for the changes” that have occurred in Henderson since 2012.
Studying the Problem
In part, the city has tackled the issue of faltering community trust in its police by commissioning two studies of the department from outside organizations, said Snow, who was joined on “State of Nevada” by Chief Patrick Moers.
As a result of one recommendation, Henderson has placed an explicit reference to the “sanctity of human life” in its police policies and training. The recommendation is in the study by the International City-County Management Association (ICMA).
The city also incorporated the ICMA suggestion that SWAT officers and canine officers be used to assist patrol officers when the former are not involved in critical incidents. “It’s a tremendous efficiency and a great public safety gain,” Snow says.
Moers says a key way that Henderson intends to build community trust is its new Police Action Review Committee, which evaluates not only officer-involved shootings, but all use of force by Henderson officers. He said the committee’s incident reviews are used in police training.
The second study, by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada (ACLU), found fault with vague wording in several Henderson police policies, including the use of deadly force. Moers said the department took the ACLU’s advice to spell out in training and policy that officers are to deescalate their use of force if a person resisting lowers his or her level of resistance.
“We’ve made a number of changes” based on ACLU recommendations, Snow says. “Those changes have been communicated to our force.”
Snow and Moers stand their ground on civil rights case
One high-profile incident the city manager and police chief spoke about is the subject of a federal lawsuit recently filed against the cities of Henderson and North Las Vegas. The incident began when a SWAT operation handled a domestic violence call in Henderson in summer 2011.
The suit’s three plaintiffs are members of a Henderson family who were bystanders to the domestic violence incident unfolding at a neighbor’s. The three Mitchells allege that SWAT officers violated civil rights when they forced entry into the home of Anthony Mitchell without a warrant, and also separately entered the home of his parents, who live on the same street.
Anthony and his father, Michael Mitchell, were taking photos and using cell phones while they watched police, and disregarded officers’ orders to stay indoors. Anthony also was setting off car alarms. When police rammed their way into his home, Anthony was wearing body armor.
“When I read those (police) reports, that’s very provocative action by the Mitchells,” says Snow, who declines to discuss the lawsuit itself.
Henderson’s city manager says he disagreed with the opinions expressed on KNPR by constitutional law expert Gloria Browne-Marshall, who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. After she read the lawsuit and police reports from both Henderson and North Las Vegas officers, Browne-Marshall says violations of the Fourth Amendment and even the rarely litigated Third Amendment – which forbids forced quartering of troops in private homes without consent – may be present in the Mitchell incident.
According to Snow, the police reports from July 2011 clearly show that the father and son were interfering with police operations. Snow said the reports show that Anthony Mitchell was loading an assault rifle when police entered.
But that version appears only in a Henderson police report. The North Las Vegas report says Anthony was using a cell phone when officers entered.
Both Anthony Mitchell and Michael Mitchell were arrested for obstructing police and jailed, though Henderson eventually dismissed the charges with prejudice. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that the city also dismissed with prejudice the domestic-violence charge against the neighbor, but the case has been sealed.
While the Mitchell suit moves through federal court, awaiting the discovery phase, Henderson’s Snow urged the public to remember the controversial incidents are isolated. Henderson police, he says, focus on “being guardians of the public, as well as servants of the public.”