Just three years ago, the U.S. Justice Department blistered Las Vegas Metro Police, characterizing its training program as scattershot and inconsistent.
The department said police were involved in too many shootings, did nothing to train officers on racial bias and had little or no accountability.
Three years later, the police department has changed the story. In April, the Las Vegas Sun reported the department is now seen as a model for other departments coping with racial bias.
Undersheriff Kevin McMahill told KNPR’s State of Nevada that following the scathing report the department worked to implement 73 recommendations from the DOJ. He said Metro embraced the recommendations with the goal of reducing the number of officer-involved shootings.
“One of the first things that we had to actually do was we had to listen to those in the community that we were policing, what they were telling us about what we were doing and how we were doing it,” McMahill said.
McMahill said in the past, after an incidence of violence, Metro would go into the neighborhood and saturate the area, stopping almost everyone.
He said police believed it would stop the violence. However, after looking at how they approached situations in predominately African-American communities compared with how they approached them in other communities, Metro realized they needed a new way.
“The tactics we were using, that we wholeheartedly believed were going to be effective, were actually further alienating members of those communities and we were actually having the complete opposite effect than what we believed we were having,” McMahill said.
In October, Metro addressed its training problem by implementing a new program.
Officer Marla Stevens is the fair and impartial training officer for the department. She said one of the first things she tells officers in her classes is that everyone has biases and they are not always bad.
“The first stage in overcoming that bias is admitting that you have one,” Stevens said. “They have an unconscious bias that they’re not even aware of and that may come from the years of being exposed to elements in the community that they work in.”
She said it is important for officers to understand where the bias comes from so they can overcome it.
Captain Will Scott knows how tough it can be for officers who may have been raised in a different era to reverse years of stereotypes. But as the captain of Bolden Area command, an area that takes in the historically African-American West Las Vegas, he has a simple message.
“The conversation I have with them is really simple: ‘Treat people the way you want to be treated,’” Scott said.
He makes sure his officers understand that people who might live in a poor community deserve just as much respect as those who live in affluence.
“Just because people have an unfortunate situation in the neighborhoods they have to grow up, economically challenged neighborhood, doesn’t mean that the police services that they receive is different than any other community,” Scott said.
He also believes in educating his officers about the cultural differences between ethnic groups.
He remembers as a young officer responding to a report that a group of men were about to fight. When he got to the scene, with three other white officers, he realized immediately that the men were having a good time shooting craps. The officers he was with responded differently with guns drawn ready to engage the men. Scott says that is an example of the differences between cultures that can cause tension.
“We have to be able recognize different cultures, how different cultures act, their mannerisms and then how to deal with those,” Scott said.
Phil Pascal is a young African-American man who lives downtown. Although he has never had any run-ins with police, Pascal said he has been stopped in ways he felt were based on the color of his skin not on what he was doing.
He said he understands police have a tough job, but he shouldn’t be worried about his safety.
“You’ve guys have a tough job, not knowing if you’re coming home that night, I totally get that, but as a black man, I should be afraid to leave my house,” Pascal said.
He thinks both the officers and residents should make an effort to get to know each other and understand individual points of view.
McMahill said the interactions between Pascal and officers were not ideal. He said the officers could have easily explained why they had stopped him.
“The more that we encourage those officers to have open dialogue with those that they are interacting with the more that we begin to see one another as human beings from the very get go the better off that we’re going to be,” McMahill said.
Stevens said officers need to ask themselves why they stop certain people and not others as a way to explore their own biases.
“We need to have those uncomfortable conversations,” Stevens said.
Rev. David Couper has been working on this issue for years first as a police officer and then as police chief in Madison, Wisconsin and now as a pastor.
Couper said he is impressed with Metro’s efforts to address some of these tough problems.
“Policing is in a crisis in America right now and we need to know the police departments that are making the move that are getting closer to the community,” he said.
He believes the question that all sheriffs and police chiefs need to answer is: what will they tell their community in the aftermath of a questionable shooting.
“What do you say when your community comes together and says ‘stop the killing?’” Couper said.
Undersheriff McMahill admits while progress has been made there is a lot more the department could do. He said one way to do that is to listen to the critics.
“Anybody that is a critic of this organization, we need to listen to so that we can find ways to serve this community in a better way,” McMahill said.
Kevin McMahill, undersheriff, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department; Will Scott, captain Bolden Area Command, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department; Marla Stevens, fair and impartial training officer, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department; Rev. David Couper, former Madison, Wisconsin police Chief, author of "Arrested Development"; Phil Pascal, downtown resident
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