Knowing the answers didn't change anything

The video of Las Vegas Metropolitan Police officers Robert Bohanon and Blake Walford shooting Keith Childress to death is crystal clear. It was recorded at 8 a.m. last New Year’s Eve, a sunny day, from Bohanon’s body cam. You can plainly see the sergeant’s gun pointed over the roof of a red car at Childress, who walks calmly along the front of a beige stucco house near Desert Inn and Durango. Childress is dressed in black, has his right hand in his pocket, and swings his left hand by his side. Bohanon repeatedly yells, “Drop your gun! … Surrender! … Do not walk towards us! … Let me see your hands!” — in all, 24 commands that Childress apparently ignored. He does, in fact, walk toward Bohanon and the three other officers confronting him.

Then, pop-pop-pop-pop-pop, and Childress falls to the ground.

A woman in the audience screams. Several people around her, Childress’s loved ones, gasp and groan in horror. It’s Monday, August 22, the day of the police fatality public fact-finding review for Childress’s death. The video is being shown on two large screens in the commission chambers of the Clark County government center.

It’s hard to watch. No matter whose side you’re on in this situation, if anyone’s, you wish it hadn’t happened. You wish that a 23-year-old man with one toddler and a baby on the way hadn’t ended up in this situation — convicted of eight felony counts in Phoenix, wanted for outstanding warrants, tracked by U.S. Marshals to this neighborhood, where they called Metro for backup. You wish it had been clear, in communications between the marshals and Metro, that the gun found in the car where Childress was approached wasn’t his (it belonged to the owner of the car). You wish the marshals hadn’t told Metro that he was wanted for attempted murder (it wasn’t one of the eight counts). Most of all, you wish the officers hadn’t mistaken what was in Childress’s right hand for a gun. It was actually a cell phone.

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Childress was the first unarmed citizen shot and killed by Metro since the Department of Justice made 75 recommendations for reform in 2012. Metro leadership had called in the feds to do damage control. In 2011, a spate of questionable, high-profile officer-involved shootings had inspired the Review-Journal to do a sweeping investigative series called “Deadly Force: When Las Vegas police shoot, and kill.” The ACLU was considering suing. Something had to change.

And it did. Among the Justice Department recommendations implemented by Metro were mandatory classes on dealing with inherent biases, reality-based field training that includes de-escalation strategies, an expansion of community-based policing and widespread use of body-worn cameras like the one that recorded Childress’s death.

The accountability process was also revamped. The coroner’s inquest, a one-sided hearing in which officers who’d used deadly force would give their accounts of what happened, was replaced by the police fatality fact-finding review, such as the one on August 22. In the new format, someone from law enforcement presents the facts of the case. A county-appointed ombudsman represents the public and victim’s family, asking questions on their behalf.

During the Childress hearing, his family submitted a dozen questions to ombudsman Josh Tomsheck; for instance, “What else could have been done to de-escalate the situation?” Metro detective Craig Jex answered this one: “Childress would have had to stop and put his hands up.” The family also had the ombudsman ask whether Bohanon and Walford had Tasers, what the their range was and how far away from them Childress was when shot.

But knowing the answers — that, yes, Bohanon and Walford had Tasers with a range of 25 feet, and, at 15 feet away, Childress was within that range — didn't change anything. The fact-finding review is just that, a presentation of what is known. By the time the details of Childress's death were presented to the public, decisions about possible punishment for the officers had already been made.

“The District Attorney has reviewed the evidence in this case and determined that no criminal prosecution is warranted,” said Craig Drummond, the Las Vegas lawyer who oversaw the hearing. Officers Bohanon and Walford were placed on leave after the incident, but Metro’s Force Investigation Team didn’t return Desert Companion’s calls seeking to find out if they were disciplined.

Though the Childress family declined to give interviews the day of the fact-finding review, their feelings of injustice were clear. One man loudly repeated, as he carried Keith Childress's baby up the stairs and out of the chamber, "Shoot first, ask questions later, get a vacation."

Metro's reduced number of officer-involved shootings, from 25 (seven fatal) in 2011, to 16 (11 fatal) in 2015, indicates that the use-of-force measures it has taken are working. But some feel local law enforcement could still use work in the area of accountability, particularly prosecutorial justice.

"One conversation I think needs to happen is the conversation between prosecutors and people," says Ahmad Adè, who does community outreach for the Masjid As-Sabur mosque in West Las Vegas and who’s been involved in cultivating police-community cooperation in that neighborhood. “It’s one thing if a cop kills someone who’s armed. … But if there’s no weapon and no cause, that’s something else. People focus on the cops because they’re the ones doing the shootings, but if those incidents resulted in prosecutions — and that’s still rare — then it would be easier to build trust, because people would believe the system is working.”

 

Editor’s note: To read more about how Adè and other community organizers are working with Metro to avoid violence, see “Bonding on the Beat” in the September issue of Desert Companion.