When Police Go Wrong, What Do Local Police Chiefs Do?
The George Floyd murder and Derek Chauvin conviction laid bare serious problems with some police in this country. And it demonstrated the difficulty some departments have in getting rid of bad cops.
Talk to almost any police department these days and they’ll admit it: use-of-force reforms are needed. Evidence comes almost every day from body camera footage.
Stories of excessive force or other forms of misconduct are nothing new. What’s newer is the difficulty some departments have in weeding out bad cops. A recent story in the Las Vegas Review-Journal talked about just how hard it is for local area police to fire bad cops.
Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Art Kane wrote the story. He told KNPR's State of Nevada that he looked through databases that Las Vegas Metro Police, North Las Vegas Police and Henderson Police gave him.
The databases included information about internal affairs investigations of police officers; however, only Henderson provided Kane with detailed information from those reports.
Both Metro and North Las Vegas refused to give him the details of the misconduct reports.
What his investigation found was a wide variety of rates of misconduct investigations and officers fired.
North Las Vegas, for instance, has fired 12 percent of its officers with misconduct allegations and sustained twice as many complaints as Las Vegas police.
North Las Vegas Police Chief Pamela Ojeda said her department tries to balance disciplining officers and keeping the trust of the community.
"When we try to weigh what their discipline is versus what the complaint is, we have to keep in mind that we need to not only protect our community but also hold our officers accountable for their actions," she said.
Ojeda also said she believes North Las Vegas Police have been ahead of the curve when it comes to reforms that are now the center of a national discussion.
For instance, she said the department has always banned chokeholds and has always had a duty to intervene policy.
One of the difficulties when it comes to terminating cops is the power of police unions.
Ojeda said her department has a good relationship with the police unions, but unfortunately, the arbitration process makes it difficult to fire cops they want to terminate.
"We have terminated several people in the past, and we've had just cause to do that and we believe strongly, but unfortunately, according to the bargaining contract they have the right to arbitration, and if we lose an arbitration, that arbitration ruling is upheld, and it's binding, and we have to take that person back," she said.
Kane said a third of the cops that Metro tried to fire were hired back through arbitration.
"You're talking about 30 people who Metro doesn't want as employees that are now employees because of the contract," he said, "Whether it's the union that's powerful or the departments haven't done enough to put protections for themselves into the contract, I don't know, but it does seem like they have some weight."
Clark County Undersheriff Chris Darcy said police unions serve a purpose, but it can be challenging to try to terminate officers.
"It is challenging sometimes when we have a case where, specifically progressive discipline, when they've been in trouble before, we move forward to terminate them and then we have this binding arbitration that we're stuck with," he said.
There is a secondary problem as well. The department isn't in charge of which officers lose their certification. A state board makes that decision. If an officer keeps their certification, they can get another job at another department even if they're fired for misconduct.
Darcy said Metro tries to stay ahead of problems by pushing out awareness reports to all its employees after a national issue, like the video of police in Colorado aggressively arresting a 74-year-old woman with dementia on a small shoplifting charge.
"You really have to inspect what you expect, if you're not doing that there could be that one person out there that's not paying attention that could lead to a tragedy or lead to bringing the entire department into a bad light with a video," he said.
Pamela Ojeda, Chief, North Las Vegas Police; Chris Darcy, Undersheriff, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police; Arthur Kane, reporter, Las Vegas Review-Journal