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Police Reforms: Does Nevada Need Them? Will They Work?

metro_police_motorcylces.jpg

Associated Press

A line of Las Vegas Metro Police motorcycles.

Congress seems uniquely united that something needs to be done about policing throughout the country.

But will a ban on chokeholds or a national review board be the solutions needed?

UNLV Law Professor Frank Rudy Cooper is an expert on policing. He directs the program on race, gender and policing at the Boyd School of Law.

He gave the ideas in the House Democrats police reform bill a high grade, but he said there are some pieces missing, including the concept of qualified immunity.

Under qualified immunity, a court must find that a police officer has violated someone's civil rights, but the second part of the concept, the court must also find that it has already been clearly established that the misconduct was constitutionally unreasonable.

Cooper explained that currently, courts look for any case that is exactly like the one being decided, which means they may find the officer has qualified immunity because he used his knee to hold someone down until they died and not his hands - a case that was already decided. 

The House Democrats bill also calls for a ban on racial profiling and bias. Cooper admits those can be tough to prove.

He hopes such a ban could address a famous case in which the Supreme Court ruled that if a police officer pulls a driver over for being black but could have pulled the driver over for waiting too long at a stop sign, then why the officer pulled the person over is relevant. 

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“My hope is that banning racial profiling in this way would lead the courts to say, ‘Okay, we have to rethink that idea that you have to do a pretextual stop that is supposedly for something minor that you would never investigate for, but in reality, it’s because you saw somebody black and you wanted to harass them,’” he said.

The House Democrats also want to limit the amount of military hardware the federal government gives to police departments. Cooper said that is important "in terms of the message it sends."

“When we see, still to this day, protesters being faced off with tanks with machine guns on top of them, that sends a message that the police are not really thinking of these as their neighbors, and instead, they’re thinking of them as enemies,” he said.

As the country has a conversation about policing and racism, one of the ideas that has become front and center is defunding or dismantling departments.

Cooper doesn't believe defunding departments is the answer but funding the social services that police are now required to do is.

"For me, the main thing we ought to do is not say: defund the police, but instead say: level up social services," he said, "That seems to me something a lot people could agree on."

Roberto Villaseñor is the former police chief of Tucson, Arizona and was on President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. And he is one of the people who does agree with Cooper on that idea.

He doesn't think police should be sent to everything but there should be a more diversified response to issues in the community. Villaseñor said everything started to fall to the police as funding for other services was cut over the past decades.

"Who is out there on a 24-7 basis - police," he said, "So, we just kind of had everything fall to us. And we started going to all these mental health issues. We started going to non-criminal quality of life issues. We started going to animal control issues. Just about everything that no one else was doing fell to police."

Villaseñor said it is time to get those issues off police officers' plates. Those issues need to be addressed by people who have been properly trained and who have a mission to take care of those problems.

While he supports the idea of spending money on beefing up social services and taking police out of those situations, Villaseñor is concerned that money will be taken from departments before those other services are up and running.

"I think we have to be very careful when we talk about defunding or reallocation," he said, "I think we should get away from that word 'defunding' it has a negative context. We should use reallocation but let's set that up before we actually make things occur in that way."

Another piece of the police reform discussion has been the police unions, those calling for reforms have pointed to unions as one of the main reasons bad cops are allowed to stick around.

Villaseñor believes there is a place for police unions but he said it has gone overboard in some areas to the point that the unions handcuff police department administration.

"As a chief, I know several times where I had officers where the misconduct was quite clear and everyone knew that including the union membership and yet they still try and defend that member," he said, "And to me, there needs to be a line where you say, 'Ethically, this is wrong and we cannot defend this without hurting our profession.'

Guests

Frank Rudy Cooper, law professor, UNLV Boyd School of Law; Roberto Villaseñor, 21CP Solutions, former police chief of Tucson, AZ; member of President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing

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