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Undersheriff McMahill On The Challenges Facing Las Vegas Metro Police

Las Vegas police have had their hands full. 

Las Vegas Metro Police gets about 10,000 calls per day. Now, its caseload could get even bigger thanks to a new ordinance passed by the Las Vegas City Council.

The council recently passed an ordinance that allows homeless people to be fined or even arrested if they refuse to go to an open shelter bed. Under the ordinance, Metro Police officers would talk to homeless people about leaving the street for a shelter and then potentially arrest them if they refuse.

Undersheriff Kevin McMahill told KNPR's State of Nevada, in a wide-ranging interview Thursday morning, that how the ordinance will wprk is still being figured out.

“We don’t know exactly how all of this is going to work yet. There’s a lot of details to be worked out,” he said.

One of the most confusing aspects of the new ordinance is that Metro has jurisdiction over both Clark County and the city of Las Vegas, but the two governments have different laws covering homeless encampments.

For now, McMahill said the department would continue to use its mobile outreach team to help homeless people find the services they need.

“The cops are trying to help people and that work remains very important to our organization,” he said.

The undersheriff also addressed questions about the change in policy when it comes to immigrants and holds by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In the past, Metro would do a database check of someone who was foreign-born and arrested for a felony, gross misdemeanor, driving under the influence or domestic violence charge through a federal database to see if he or she was undocumented.

If that person was undocumented, ICE could detain that person and possibly start deportation proceedings.

However, a recent California court ruled that system was not legal. So Las Vegas police stopped doing it.

McMahill said the program had been helpful in getting violent criminals out of the country.

"There were a number of violent individuals that had been arrested that ICE placed a detainer on and removed from our facility for departure from our country," he said. "(They) committed robberies and murders and sexual assaults, those types of things. There are literally hundreds of those that have occurred over the last almost five years that the sheriff has been in office."

Metro has also been under scrutiny since the September death of a 50-year-old Byron Williams in police custody.

Police tried to pull Williams over because he was riding a bicycle without a safety light. When police tried to talk to him, he fled. He ditched his bike and police chased him on foot.

Police caught Williams without incident. But as he was handcuffed lying facedown, he complained over and over that he couldn't breathe..

Officers eventually brought him to his feet, moved him to another location and removed the handcuffs after his body went limp and he was later declared dead.

I n October, the medical examiner ruled his death a homicide. Coroner John Fudenberg said Williams died of a methamphetamine overdose with contributing factors including the "prone restraint" he was put in; cardiovascular disease, lung disease and pulmonary fibroses.

Dduring the incident, officers turned off their body-worn cameras for several minutes. When a sergeant arrived and the officers realized the suspect was in cardiac arrest, they turned the cameras back on.

Undersheriff McMahill told KNPR's State of Nevada that the department is not done investigating. He said the cameras should have been on the entire time.

However, he said an incident like this one is a chance to improve policy.

"Any incident always helps us strengthen policy, which is why we go back through that critical incident review process and we look at policy procedures, training, tactics, leadership and supervision on all incidents.

"Clearly, policy was not strong enough in this particular area because policy basically says when you're done with your investigation, or when you're done with your stop, you can turn your body-worn camera off."

Overall, the undersheriff supports the officers' decision to pull Williams over. saying they were doing their job and it's dangerous to ride a bike in Las Vegas without a light.

(Editor's note: This interview originally aired November 2019)

Kevin McMahill, Undersheriff, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.