Correction: 8 News Now mistakenly wrote in the report below, which also appeared in the Breaking Down Barriers special, that an officer had been murdered during a demonstration, the error has been corrected to report that an officer was shot and injured. The officer was not killed.
LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — The death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minnesota earlier this year, set off a wave of racial unrest and street demonstrations across the country, including in Las Vegas. The police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, is the latest flashpoint in what has been a hot and violent summer of racial unrest.
But it was the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police officers that ignited massive demonstrations and long-simmering anger about police use of force against minorities.
In Las Vegas, demonstrations began as peaceful protests, then erupted into violence and bloodshed, with clashes in the streets, the shooting of a heavily armed man, and a police officer shot in the head.
Metro officials thought they were ready.
“You could tell. You could just feel the anger coming from the people that were out there, and, and listen, rightfully so, right? I mean they’re angry at the injustice of what they’ve seen in Minnesota and other states,” Deputy Chief Kelly McMahill, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
Metro Police officials say they’ve been ahead of the curve when it comes to reforms. Still, they also admit they were surprised by the level of anger directed at police officers during the demonstrations because the department has made so much progress on race relations in recent years.
Las Vegas, once known as the ‘Mississippi of the West,’ has shed its segregationist past, but tensions with police have re-emerged from time to time in response to notorious use of force incidents that resulted in deaths. Metro reached its turning point 10 years ago.
“We were coming off 2010 where we’d had more officer-involved shootings than we’ve ever had in Metro, and although the number was concerning, the most concerning piece is that we realized that we were shooting a high number of unarmed minorities in our community and we realized we had to do something about that,” McMahill said.
And they have. One area of change that affected things was Metro’s hiring process. The agency conducts more stringent background checks on officer applicants, and they do polygraph and psychological screenings to weed out racists or potential problem cops.
The department has dramatically increased its outreach to minority communities as part of a recruitment effort to hire more minority officers. Training has also changed. Not just for new hires but for veterans too.
Reality-based training teaches officers how to better handle touchy situations to avoid deadly force. When deadly force is used, each incident is openly discussed in public briefings.
The violent images seen on tv of over the top violence unleashed on protesters by other police departments have been used by Metro as learning tools to drive home the point of what is or is not allowed.
“More than anything, we want people to know that just like them when we watch what happened in Minnesota, it breaks our hearts,” said McMahill. “It makes us angry, all those feelings, and I think it is even more so because that man had a badge on.”
As long as Metro hires humans to be police officers, mistakes will happen. But changes made by Metro have made it easier to monitor officers’ behavior, to watch for signs that an officer is targeting minorities or using excessive force, and to make sure those who cross the line no longer carry a badge.
In the weeks since the Las Vegas protests, thousands of hours of body cam video has been reviewed by internal affairs.
“I’ve been in this job for almost 20 years. If there are bad cops out there, I don’t want them standing next to me out there in the community, According to Fred Haas, Metro’s Internal Affairs Captain. “I don’t want them in the department. If they’re doing bad things and doing bad things to our citizens, then I will help them find their way out of this department. If the officers right, I want to prove that fact.”
“We do every day look at ways to get better,” McMahill said. “We’re imperfect for sure, but it’s not for a lack of trying.”