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Rise in police-involved shootings raises concern in Las Vegas

The Associated Press

LAS VEGAS- Police insist it's not their fault. They say criminals in America's famously anything-goes city are getting more brazen, and officers have had no choice but to shoot 21 people so far in 2006.

Eleven people have died in police confrontations, including one who was stunned with a Taser. By comparison, Las Vegas police were involved in 13 shootings in all of 2005, nine fatal.

"Every situation needs to be judged on its own merits," said Clark County Sheriff Bill Young, whose 2,118 officers cover the glittering Las Vegas Strip, a gritty downtown, vast suburban sprawl and remote desert hamlets in an area the size of Massachusetts.

"To say we have a cowboy mentality is just not true," Young said. "No cop goes to work wanting to be involved in one of these."

The number of shootings is not a record. Police shot 41 people in 1974, and 28 in 1978, the year Young graduated from the police academy. The department had 30 police shootings in 1986, when the region had fewer than 600,000 residents. Today 1.8 million people call the Las Vegas area home.

But with shootings on a pace to exceed 33 this year, critics worry whether younger academy grads are too aggressive. Amid a hiring push aimed at raising the number of officers on the streets to 2,300, the average age of rookie Las Vegas police officers has dropped from 29 in 2001 to 27 today.

They're expected to take command, respond quickly and act appropriately - sometimes forcefully, sometimes gently - in a dizzying array of unpredictable situations in a transient, fast-growing community with a rising crime rate.

Gayle Biggham, 42, hears a lot about police as office administrator at the Las Vegas NAACP. At home, she teaches her 18-year-old son to keep his hands in plain view if he is stopped by officers, and to be respectful.

"I tell him, 'No. Don't run, son. They shoot first and ask questions later.'"

Young says that's not fair. He defends department training and officer decision-making in almost every case. But he said the rash of shootings is spurring a departmental review.

"If we're right, we're right, and I'm going to defend it," he said. "If we're wrong, we're not going to fold our arms and make like there isn't room for improvement."

Two cases stand out: the slaying of a handcuffed teen shot in the back while running from homicide detectives in May, and the fatal shooting July 4 of a motorist who police say defied bicycle officers' commands to turn down his booming car stereo on the Strip.

"Uneasy is probably the best word," said Andrea Beckman, executive director of a police Citizen Review Board that can recommend departmental discipline for officers, but can't impose sanctions.

"Right now I think the public is uneasy," she said.

Samuel Walker, a police policy consultant, author and criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said the sheer number of shootings indicates a problem.

"You need to look at incident review, and look for patterns," Walker said. "It's really about policy, training and supervision."

Meanwhile, the cases keep coming. An armed man was wounded, tackled and arrested this week after police say he shot at a police car 14 times and took a woman hostage outside a mall where he robbed three people.

"Our critics will say we're shooting too much," police Capt. James Dillon said.

"Here we have a suspect who committed multiple robberies, lying in wait to ambush the officer," Dillon said. "It's amazing we don't have another officer killed."

On Feb. 1 the law enforcement community was shaken when Sgt. Henry Prendes, 37, a popular 14-year police veteran died in a hail of assault weapons fire while answering a domestic violence call. Police said he was ambushed.

The slaying, by an aspiring rap musician, weighs heavily on a department in which the last on-duty officer death was a mountaineering training accident in 1988. Young cited the Prendes slaying and personal reasons for not seeking re-election in November.

Las Vegas isn't the only metropolitan area to lose an officer and see a spike in officer-involved shootings this year. In Philadelphia, where an officer was shot and killed dead in May, 16 people have been killed by police - the most in at least 25 years.

But Las Vegas' livelihood depends on a tourist image as a fun, safe place for 38.5 million visitors a year, not video clips of police shootouts.

Clark County set up a panel last month to review the public hearing process, called coroner's inquests, that determines whether police are justified when they kill someone.

"The thing that has focused a white-hot light on this recently is the number of shootings has increased," said Rory Reid, county commission chairman and son of Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid.

Reid acknowledged outrage followed an inquest that cleared two detectives in the May 13 slaying of Swuave Lopez, a 17-year-old murder suspect shot twice in the back while handcuffed and running from a detective's car where he had been left unattended.

The FBI opened an investigation. The local NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union called the finding that the shooting was "justified" proof that the system favors police.

"We believe definitely that the system is broken," said W. Dean Ishman, president of the Las Vegas chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In 150 cases over the past 30 years, just one police officer, in 1990, was found to have acted improperly, said Gary Peck, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada.

"This is a big deal," Peck said. "The number of shootings is troubling. The way they are being handled is even more troubling."

Peck and Ishman said they have no confidence in an upcoming inquest into the July 4 slaying of 31-year-old Tarance Hall. After being told to turn his music down, police said Hall accelerated with an officer hanging out of his car window, hit a taxi and crashed into a barricade at one of the busiest intersections on the Strip.

The officer's partner shot and killed Hall, and horrified tourists videotaped the two officers pulling Hall's lifeless body from the wreckage and handcuffing him face-down on the pavement near Bally's hotel-casino.

In inquests, officers testify under questioning from a deputy district attorney before a seven-member civilian jury but they do not face cross-examination.

A lawyer representing Lopez's relatives is promising to use a $23.75 million federal civil rights and wrongful death lawsuit he filed this month to question the officers who shot and killed the fleeing teen.

The lawyer, James Myart of San Antonio, Texas, called the shooting an execution, and compared it with a jailer leaving a cell door open and shooting an inmate who tries to escape.

The lawsuit also asks a judge to declare the inquest process unconstitutional, and seeks a court order to force police to install cameras in patrol cars and on officers' lapels.

Castle Nishimoto, a former FBI agent and SWAT sharpshooter, said equipping police with cameras won't curb officer-involved shootings.

"Lapel cameras don't get what's going on in the brain," said Nishimoto, who was involved in standoffs at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas before retiring in 2001. He said he never pulled a trigger on the job.

"The crime rate in the valley, I can tell you, has grown astronomically with everybody moving in," said Nishimoto, who runs a business called Tactical Response Training and Consulting. "From my experience, I think the criminals are more brazen. My parents' house was burglarized. My son's car was stolen.

"Just look at the shootings for crying out loud. These guys are just challenging the cops. If the police feel their lives are being threatened, they have a right to shoot."


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