John L. Smith On The Review Of The Police Shooting Of Jorge Gomez
There have been dozens of reviews of police shootings and killings over the last several years.
But one on Friday was a bit different.
It focused on the death of Jorge Gomez. Las Vegas Metro Police officers shot and killed Gomez on June 1, 2020, in downtown Las Vegas.
It was the night of one of the many protests over the George Floyd killing.
Just moments earlier, a Metro Police officer had been shot more than a mile away on the Strip and was fighting for his life.
Gomez was armed, which was his right under Nevada's open-carry weapons laws. The protest he was at had, at times, grown violent.
Police shot and killed him near the steps of the federal courthouse on Las Vegas Boulevard.
Originally, police said he pulled one of the three pistols he carried, as he ran away from police after they shot a beanbag round at him. Surveillance videos do not support the claim that he pulled a gun.
And none of the officers wore body cameras.
So a public fact-finding review was held Friday at the Clark County Government Center. These aren’t courtroom hearings. They produce no conclusions. They bring out known facts.
They are very different from the Coroner's Inquests that were once used to investigate officer-involved shootings, State of Nevada contributor John L. Smith said.
“They’re a lot more analytical. They’re a lot less emotional,” he said.
Instead of a stream of witnesses being called to the stand to explain what they saw, a Metro officer outlined what was found in a 127-page report about the shooting, Smith explained.
In addition, the proceedings were done under COVID restrictions.
“That left it an even more analytical feel and less like a courtroom drama, that’s for sure,” Smith said.
Questions were asked and answered, including some from the audience members, he said.
“There were a few questions that were raised that were, I think, interesting and compelling and spoke to what’s not known about this case,” he said.
For instance, one person asked if the social media and email accounts of the officers involved had been investigated, but Smith pointed out that the district attorney had already decided not to charge anyone in connection with the shooting.
“This hearing exists to, basically, vet materials in public so that people will have more confidence in the process,” he said.
One of the key questions in the whole case is whether Gomez "leveled" his weapon at police.
Smith said there is no video of that exact moment, but he did see video of the moments leading up to the fatal shooting.
“You could say that he was moving furtively, in terms of, back and forth, not taunting the officers necessarily, but this is at the courthouse itself right near the steps. When he runs away, that’s really when the action starts in earnest,” Smith said.
Gomez was heavily armed and he was wearing body armor. Officers on the scene responded to him running away by shooting a beanbag, or low-lethality, shotgun round.
The officers involved in shooting Gomez came after the round was fired. When they arrived on the scene, Smith said they would have seen Gomez heavily armed and running away.
However, they were not wearing body cameras, which is a standard operating procedure for Metro.
“These officers, we learned, were called into the scene because of the increasing activity downtown, and they were not wearing body cameras, according to the witness,” Smith said.
The officers who responded are weapons training officers, he said. They are the officers who training other cops how to respond to dangerous and violent situations.
Interestingly, the officers who actually shot and killed Gomez were not interviewed for the report. Instead, other cops, who didn't actually fire their weapons, were interviewed.
“Now, the reason why those officers involved in the shooting weren’t interviewed, we learned, was to maintain their Fifth Amendment rights,” Smith said.
However, if the point of the hearing was to clarify what happened and bring transparency to the public, Smith questions whether not having the actual officers involved be interviewed helps that effort.
“Without having those officers interviewed it tends to leave that part of the puzzle out,” he said.
What was part of the report was a detailed look at Gomez's social media content. Smith said it gave insight into his state of mind but also an incomplete picture.
“It gives you a thought about what Gomez might have been thinking about in those days leading up to his death. That includes conversations about being ready for war, about being ready to take it a step further,” he said.
Smith said Gomez talked about how peaceful protests only go so far and that nothing really changes without violence.
Investigators also talked with Gomez's father, who told them that in the weeks leading up to his death, his son had become radicalized; however, there are no specifics on what that exactly means.
“That, for now at least, remains somewhat of a mystery,” he said.
Smith said that while the hearing is supposed to answer questions it really does bring up a lot more questions, like why did Gomez get shot but militia members who pointed weapons directly at police officers during the 2014 standoff at the Bundy ranch were not shot and not arrested?
Smith is not going as far as to say that Gomez was treated differently because of his race because he doesn't know the motivation for the shooting.
“I do know Gomez was ordered out of the area. He was either slow to go or he refused to go. The response was a beanbag shotgun blast that wound up, basically, calling officers to the scene more quickly,” he said.
Overall, Smith said the encounter was a "fog of battle moment" with the shotgun blast moments before, a fellow officer being shot that same night and protesters in the street.
While he understands the difficulty of the job that night, Smith does point out that the job comes with training, and officers should be following that training, especially when it comes to wearing body cameras.
Gomez's family has filed a wrongful death and negligence lawsuit against the department and the four officers involved.
John L. Smith, contributor