by Dana Gentry, Nevada Current
April 9, 2021
With the nation transfixed on the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, law enforcement in Nevada is opposing a measure that redefines when it’s justifiable to use deadly force against a fleeing suspect.
Killing a suspect who is attempting to escape is justifiable under Nevada law in a number of circumstances, including when the individual is arrested or convicted of a felony.
Police are allowed to use deadly force to prevent a suspect from escaping if there is probable cause the person has committed a felony involving serious bodily harm or deadly force, or if the suspect poses a threat to the officer or others.
Assembly Bill 396 requires both conditions to be met, prompting protests from police and the state’s District Attorney’s Association testifying before the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
Jennifer Noble of the Nevada District Attorneys’ Association testified the National Association “has publicly condemned, and continued to condemn the killing of George Floyd and the actions taken as Mr. Floyd begged for his life and called for his mother as an officer’s knee was jammed into his neck.”
“We certainly appreciate the intent of this bill and we don’t object to the concept that imminent threat should be in play when an officer uses potentially deadly force,” Noble said, adding the use of the word ‘and’ in place of ‘or’ could potentially prevent police from taking action.
“By keeping the word ‘and’ in AB 396, you are placing Nevada citizens and visitors and yourselves in additional harm,” testified Eric Spratley of the Nevada Sheriffs’ and Chiefs’ Association. Spratly said the law’s current language allows an officer “to make an immediate determination and rescue you by all force necessary.”
The new language, he said, “requires the situation to escalate” before the officer can act.
Vice Chair of the Las Vegas Police Managers and Supervisors Association Troyce Krumme asked lawmakers to amend the bill “to allow for law enforcement community opportunities to understand what is expected.”
A.J. Delap of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department testified in “technical opposition” to several provisions of the measure, including the requirement that deadly force only be used against a fleeing person who is suspected of committing a felony and poses an immediate threat.
In 2006, a rash of police shootings in Las Vegas drew the attention of the FBI. By mid-July of that year, police had fired weapons at 19 suspects, killing nine, including a man stopped on the Las Vegas Strip because the volume was too loud on his car stereo.
Two months earlier, Swuave Lopez, a handcuffed 17 year-old murder suspect, managed to escape from the passenger seat of an unmarked Las Vegas Metropolitan Police car while three homicide detectives chatted nearby. Detectives Ken Hardy and Shane Womack chased after Lopez with other officers, according to their testimony at a subsequent coroner’s inquest.
Womack testified he could not see Lopez’s hands but knew they were no longer behind his back. Police said they did not know whether the teen had obtained a weapon inside the vehicle.
Police fired two shots at Lopez as he fled. The second hit him in the back and killed him. A coroner’s inquest jury found the shooting justified.
Former New York transit officer and then-Las Vegas NAACP president Dean Ishman told the Los Angeles Times in 2006 that neither killing “should have happened.”
“I think some of these [police] have been overzealous in doing their duty and not considering the severity of the original offense,” he told the Times.
“What we are trying with this language to guard against is just overzealousness, maybe misunderstanding, maybe ignorance, by clarifying what this is supposed to be, which is ‘imminent’,” Ishman testified Thursday before Nevada lawmakers about the threshold for using deadly force.
Kendra Bertschy of the Washoe County Public Defender testified on behalf of her office and the Clark County Public Defender in favor of the measure, noting the legislation would “have an impact mostly on the trust of our communities.”
The bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Shondra Summers-Armstrong, testified that because of George Floyd’s killing, America understands “what’s going on. The African American community understands what’s going on much longer.”
Summers-Armstrong noted the definition of “imminent” is “about to happen” and dismissed law enforcements’ concerns that the bill asks too much of officers pursuing an escaping suspect.
“There really isn’t an issue with the ‘and’,” Ishman told lawmakers. “It’s clear a reasonable person would understand and be able to make a good decision based on those facts.”
“If we can give an officer an extra second to just be sure of the action that they are taking, I think it’s a good thing for all involved,” Ishman said, hearkening back to his training and his days as a transit officer in New York. “It was a long time ago, when first we [officers] sought cover, which I believe always gave you that extra second or two to determine what level of force you need.”
Today’s police training, Ishman added, may want to “borrow something from the days of old.”
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