It’s been almost a month since a gunman opened fire on a group of police officers in Dallas, Texas, killing five officers and injuring nine others.
Just a few weeks later, a Missouri man ambushed and killed three law officers and wounded three others in Baton Rouge.
This all in the wake of the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police officers, igniting racial tensions in the country once again.
Las Vegas Metropolitan Police sheriff Joe Lombardo implored Las Vegas to stand up and say “not in our city” at a meeting with community leaders.
Nonetheless, the department instituted doubled-up patrols after the shootings, as a precautionary measure.
Undersheriff Kevin McMahill, the second-in-command at the department, joins KNPR to talk about these tensions and others in the Las Vegas valley.
This is, sadly, not the first time we've had these conversations with you on our show. But we have to ask – when things like this happen, what is going on in your officer's minds – are they scared?
We have to remember that police officers are human beings. When you have these incidents where police officers are specifically targeted and these are mass casualty deaths. I would say yeah say that fear is part of the normal emotion that an officer feels.
But I also think there is a steady resolve that develops and a very clear understanding about what our role is within a particular community. And how it is that we as an organization… police here in Las Vegas.
What is that role? And how has that changed over the years?
You see the old logos on the sides of police cars about protecting and serving and that certainly that is a key component of what law enforcement does.
Probably, the most substantive change I can put my finger on now is I believe that the police are responsible and deal with the failures of every other system in government. Homelessness is a police issue. Addiction is a police issue. Fatherless families is a police issue. The list goes on and on.
Besides that, we also have to recognize that since we are dealing with so many of those failures that we as a police department have a role in many of those systems… We have to take part in programs like Hope for Prisoners, where I have officers assigned as mentors to returning offenders. Those programs have wild successes. But 26 years ago, when I became a cop, we would have never thought about participating in a variety ways with things other than what we always deemed to be law and order.
After Dallas, there were stories that upheld Metro as an example of a department that knows how to de-escalate that knows how to do good policing. When you get this kind of recognition how do you go about maintaining that record and improving it?
The first thing you do is you don’t believe your own press. If you allow that narrative to be written by others, you’re never really going to change what needs to be changed to change culture. Changing the culture of a very large organization is a very difficult thing to do.
We needed some prodding and some assistance from the Department of Justice in some of the comprehensive reform effort that we underwent. What many people don’t recognize is of the 73 recommendations that we were provided with and worked with DOJ on we had already been underway with 35 of those recommendations.
We have to continue – no matter what the media says – to take that critical look at ourselves and find ways we can be more effective at reducing the numbers of officer-involved shootings, being more effective of building those relationships in our community - with every single corner of our community.
There has been a group formed, called Blue Lives Matter. It's angered many of the Black Lives Matter supporters, who say it's only widening the gap of community-police relations. It was started in 2014, and one of its national spokespeople is Randy Sutton, a former Metro lieutenant from Las Vegas. What do you think about this group?
I think it is a good group. I also think it gives a voice to law enforcement where often times we have been voiceless as a group.
Let’s be candid about it. If all we have is a certain focus on a particular minority group, what are we as police? We have to look at Asian lives, Hispanic lives, black lives, LGBTQ lives. It doesn’t matter where you come from… we have a role and responsibility to apply our efforts equally across the board.
A lot of people are going to say that that doesn’t really get to the heart of what black lives matter is and stands for and there is absolutely a concern about the number of officer-involved shootings, involving police officers. And in my opinion, the biggest issue is the unarmed African-American male that has been shot.
I believe in the very core of who I am… I’ve been at the scene of a shooting where a young black man is laying there dead or shot and gravely wounded. I can tell you this, aside from all of the protestors, aside from all of the rhetoric that was there, there has always been one group where black lives really mattered and that is to the police. And I can show you that time after time after time.
It didn’t matter who did show. It didn’t matter who didn’t show. Our investigators, our officers were always there working diligently to collect evidence, to interview witnesses, to find suspects and the prosecute people and bring a sense of justice and closure to those families.
But that goes against the experience of many black people, who have over most of the 20th Century and part of the 21st Century, felt harassed by the police, felt afraid of the police, felt victimized by the police. What do you say to them?
I agree with them. There are dozens and dozens of examples of that disparate treatment… You have to acknowledge there is a problem. So, let’s be honest – there has been a problem. But also what you don’t hear in that narrative, is the thousands of other people that are very satisfied with their interaction with the police.
This week, two police officers were cleared in the shooting death of a 24-year-old man, who lunged toward them with a metal wrench and a screwdriver. The body camera was important in this.
When you say cleared, you’re saying cleared criminally. There is still a number of processes with any officer-involved shooting after the district attorney as chosen not to file a criminal charge. We have a use-of-force board that those officers will also appear in front of. That use-of-force board is consisted of four voting citizens and three commissioned officers that vote. Our citizen voting members on the use-of-use board outnumber the commissioned officers on use-of-force board. I don’t think you’ll find that anywhere else in the country. That use-of-force board as well as the tactical review board looks at the policy, procedure, training and leadership of that entire incident to include from the moment that the call came in to all the way through to the conclusion of that event.
That has not happened yet in the particular case that you’re referring to. It will happen. That is exactly what occurs throughout every one of those shootings.
Question 1 includes a background check initiative for gun ownership. The NRA is against it. Sixteen elected sheriffs in Nevada oppose it. Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, however, has elected to remain neutral. Do you agree with his decision to remain silent?
I just don’t believe that the wording of that particular initiative allows us to be successful in effort that we’re trying to accomplish.
The wording on that particular initiative is, I think, particularly confusing. What are we trying to do? Are we trying to close the loophole of who can buy private party to private party are we trying to close the loophole at gun shows?
There are a number of things that aren’t addressed in how we would implement those throughout those processes. We don’t think that the way that the bill is currently worded is good for Clark County.
The valley has seen a little over 100 homicides this year. Most of them have been shootings. Do you think that having background checks would help that?
No. I don’t. I have to be candid with you. Our shootings aren’t occurring because we have great citizens that are involved in these types of things. These are people who are out there committing a number of crimes and using more often than not stolen firearms, firearms with obliterated serial numbers, firearms that they trade in the drug world. These are not legal firearms being used in the murder of 101 people for the most part.
There are some but I don’t think, personally, that background checks are going to have an significant impact on that. What it will do, hopefully, in some version of it, is to keep firearms out of the hands of individuals that shouldn’t have them. But the vast majority of people that are getting firearms in their hands that shouldn’t have them aren’t going through a background process.
Kevin McMahill, undersheriff, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department