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July 13, 2006
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FBI to investigate Las Vegas police shootings

By Oskar Garcia
The Associated Press

LAS VEGAS- The FBI will open an investigation into the increased number of officer-involved shootings this year, the county's top law officer confirmed Tuesday as local activists called for changes to hearings that review cases in which people die at the hands of police.

Sheriff Bill Young said an FBI special agent confirmed the investigation with him at a summit meeting for southern Nevada law enforcement agencies.

Eleven people have been killed in 20 officer-involved shootings so far this year, surpassing the total for all of 2005 when 13 police shootings resulted in nine deaths.

In the latest incident, police shot and killed a man Sunday outside a convenience store. Shawn Collins, 43, who was suspected of two domestic assaults, was shot several times after reportedly brandishing a revolver.

It was the fifth police shooting since the June 27 wounding of a man accused of kidnapping a child and wielding a knife at a McCarran International Airport checkpoint.

"Every one of these has to be judged on its own merit, and I believe that the more scrutiny we have, the better off we look," Young said. "Our commitment is to deal with it openly and righteously, at least that's the way I feel about it."

An FBI official said it is standard practice for the federal agency to look into each individual shooting incident, but would not comment on a broader investigation.

Meanwhile, local activists protesting the system that investigates fatal shootings by police called for changes to hearings that have cleared all but one officer in 150 cases since 1976.

"That's not good for the community, it's not even good for cops," said Gary Peck, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada. "Because when the coroner's inquest ends up making a finding, half the community doesn't trust that finding."

Peck and leaders from other organizations hope to meet with law enforcement officials to discuss changing the coroner's inquest system, Peck said, but no date was scheduled.

The Clark County Commission said it is scheduled to meet on the issue with the County Manager's office Aug. 1, and solicited government and community groups to help examine the inquest system.

"I can tell you that each and every officer involved with the use of deadly force as it pertains to Metro is scrutinized to the highest degree," said Young, who has indicated he would support reforms of the coroner's inquest system. "There are many sets of eyes that go on them."

After an officer is involved in a fatal shooting, the coroner's office conducts a hearing in which the district attorney presents evidence and testimony from the officers involved to a coroner's jury and hearing master. The jury then decides if deadly force was justified.

ACLU attorney Allen Lichtenstein proposed specific changes to the hearings, including adding an advocate for those killed, taking the responsibility of presenting evidence away from the district attorney and broadening the pool of potential hearing masters to include people outside of government.

"The police can't simply regulate themselves. They're accountable to the public and we need a process that is open, that is neutral and that is credible," Lichtenstein said. "The current coroner's inquest system is none of those things."

Among the supporters gathered Tuesday was the family attorney for Swuave Lopez. Lopez, 17, was shot twice in the back by police while handcuffed as he ran from a detective car after he was arrested May 13 for another teen's killing.

A seven-member coroner's jury unanimously cleared the officers involved.

Peck said he was troubled by disparate testimony given by the officers during the hearing that went unquestioned.

"There's a big difference between shooting someone in the back at point-blank range and shooting someone in the back from 30-35 feet," Peck said. "I don't know the answer but that's because nobody asked the question."

Young said citizen groups and other organizations play a large role in scrutinizing officer conduct.

"When we have to use deadly force it's an emotional, trying situation, not only for the officers but certainly we understand it's emotional for the community, the victims or the suspect," he said.

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