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Stopped and frisked

Stop and Frisk
Illustration by Brent Holmes

What should have been a small incident opens a window onto a larger disconnect between police and the community


My hand was on Carson Kitchen’s door handle — I wondered whether my friends were waiting in the patio or bar — when a cop yelled for me to “stop right there.” They approached on bicycles, an Officer Thiele leaping from his as if prepared to engage in hand-to-hand combat. I was informed of my violation. Then after confirming I was a local who “should know better,” the interrogation turned to whether I’d ever been arrested before. Guests in the restaurant’s front window stared at us, curious, I’m sure, about exactly what I’d done. Thiele also wanted to know if I’d received previous citations in Nevada. And was I carrying a weapon? The answer to all of the above was no, but he asked if his partner could search me anyway. 

I now had my hands up against a wall in a Downtown alley while a Metro officer patted me down for weapons. I’d complied because I wanted to calm what felt like an oddly hostile situation. Thiele said, “Spread your legs, and put your hands behind your back like you’re praying.” So I did as told. My hands outstretched behind my back, palms touching, I was put into a painful wrist hold. The officer searched the insides of my pockets, going as far as to dig two fingers into the coin pouch on the front of my jeans. I assumed they were looking for drugs, too, since rarely does a knife or gun fit into a change pocket. Thiele had my ID, but he also wanted my Social Security number so they could run a more comprehensive background check. All of this because I was caught jaywalking. 

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That’s right — I crossed Las Vegas Boulevard at Carson against a “don’t walk” signal. Apparently that’s a real scourge Downtown. But if my experience was indicative of the broader approach, Metro’s investigative tactics might be the bigger threat to our community.  

Why do minor stops so often include body searches when experts say these tactics do more harm than good?

“When you’re doing searches on large numbers of people, the overwhelming majority of whom have done nothing to warrant that, people know what’s going on, and they don’t take kindly to it,” says David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “They may feel humiliated or scared, they may feel powerless and bullied, and the thing is, that doesn’t go away. People carry it around with them, and to the extent that it’s an almost universal experience in communities of color to have these kinds of encounters with police, these things are passed on through the community.”

An expert on the dynamic between police methods, crime stats and community relations, Harris says stop-and-frisk-style tactics net evidence at a fairly low rate, and the evidence they do nab tends be relatively trivial — small amounts of marijuana and the like. Metro doesn’t keep records of body searches that don’t result in arrests, so it’s hard to tell how effective the strategy is in Clark County. But in New York, 98.5 percent of stop-and-frisks failed to produce a weapon. There, the tactic was deployed with little probable cause until it was deemed unconstitutional in 2013, because black and Hispanic men were disproportionally singled out. 

Aggressive practices like these hurt law enforcement’s relationship with the community. Harris says they erode public trust and might result in an unwillingness to cooperate with actual criminal investigations and prosecutions — dangerous fallout when one considers how much justice relies on community support. 

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In my four years as a Clark County resident, my encounters with Metro have been largely positive. But I’ll attest to the frustration an unnecessary body search can inspire. I’d consented, but the experience still left me feeling angry, embarrassed and confused. Adding to my bemusement was the fact that I wasn’t alone in my jaywalking spree; a blond man in a blazer crossed the street right next to me. The integrity of the process is not elevated, either, when Thiele mistakenly addressed me as “Mr. Cruz.” I had to remind him toward the end of the exchange that my name is Hernandez. 

Officer Larry Hadfield, Metro’s spokesman, says every precinct uses different tactics, and patrols Downtown can be particularly rigorous due to the area’s rough-and-tumble past. “It’s a part of making proactive stops,” he says. “Downtown has had issues historically with narcotics.” 

It would seem counterintuitive that a person with drugs or a weapon would consent to a body search, yet Hadfield says “dumb” criminals allow them at times. He adds that “if an officer asks a citizen if they can conduct a search for contraband and that citizen consents, then that citizen has given consent.” 

I presented this fact to Harris, who pointed out what I, and other Las Vegans I’ve spoken to, have felt. That these requests “don’t always feel like requests.”

Sean Breckling, 33, recounted a time in 2014 when he was stopped while riding his bicycle on Pecos. The officer said the street was “too dangerous” for cycling despite signs advising motorists to share the road. There was a search request, which Breckling denied. Then the officer allegedly said that if he didn’t allow his bags to be searched, Breckling would have to wait one hour for a drug-sniffing dog to arrive. He then consented and watched the investigation unfold while in handcuffs, only to learn later that holding him for one hour without probable cause would have been illegal. 

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It merits noting that urban police departments throughout the U.S. are now confronting decades-long tensions with minority communities fed up with what many deem to be unnecessarily aggressive tactics. But Metro has been something of an outlier in this story, having already made great strides in curbing its use of deadly force thanks in part to Justice Department recommendations in 2012 for more rigorous training. De-escalation exercises, “reality-based” use-of-force scenarios, anti-bias classes and new systems of accountability, such as body-worn cameras and civilian-led oversight committees, have helped make Metro the statistical envy of urban police forces around the nation.  

But in its approach to minor infractions, I’d argue that more (or, depending on how you look at it, less) work is due. Our crime rate has gone up, which will likely lead some to excuse intrusive tactics. Yet while acknowledging that these facts might be unrelated, when New York reined in its use of stop-and-frisk, the city’s homicide rate continued to decline, suggesting the method had little impact as a crime-stopping tool.

“What’s important for the departments to understand,” Harris told me, “is that body searches are legal, stopping people for jaywalking is legal, asking for consent is legal — but just because you can do something doesn’t mean you always should. There should be a reason you do stuff like that. It should have a direct connection to public safety. It shouldn’t be all the time, and it shouldn’t be random, allowing your biases to kick in.”

After my background check cleared, I received a $160 jaywalking ticket, and was then treated to a slew of wary glances as I entered the restaurant. My friends ordered burgers. I was too wound up, so I asked for a small plate. Having overheard my story, our server brought me a free glass of Fernet — a bitter, aromatic spirit for an event that failed the police reform smell test.