Issues of perception and accountability follow turmoil on Metro use-of-force board

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<p>Illustration; not a Metro officer</p>

Two weeks ago, a Sacramento tourist, apparently confused and lost and potentially in the middle of a psychotic episode, was shot and killed by Metro police. It’s not clear why and how Southaly Ketmany ended up in a strange family’s house, miles from his hotel, dressed only in his underwear. Police said Ketmany advanced on them with a knife and hammer

Other than the concerns raised by Ketmany’s family and friends, there’s little reason to suspect that Metro did anything except its job when the officers fired. But there is a problem in the process of evaluating use-of-force incidents such as this one.

The citizens board charged with evaluating Metro’s use-of-force incidents is in turmoil. At least six members of the Use of Force Board have resigned in the wake of a decision by Sheriff Doug Gillespie to ignore a unanimous recommendation to fire an officer, Jacquar Roston, who shot a man in the leg last November. The man was unarmed but police said he made a furtive motion with a baseball cap.

Instead of terminating the officer, Gillespie — who has the final say on disciplinary issues — suspended him for a week.

The issue highlights the sometimes stormy relationship Metro has with the public, especially in minority communities. That uneasy relationship was on full view on Tuesday, Aug. 6, when members of the public queued up to speak as the County Commission met to consider a .15 percent increase in the sales tax that would go to police.

Supporters argued that the increase, which would add an estimated $30 million to Metro’s budget and hire hundreds of officers to replace the more than 400 laid off in the last several years, is needed to address rising crime. But many of the opponents cited incidents involving the use of force, including the killing of Stanley Gibson, an unarmed Gulf War veteran in 2011. Others cited the resignations from the use-of-force board.

According to news accounts, Roston was openly dismissive of the citizens board’s inquiry. (He later took responsibility for the incident in a pre-termination hearing. That apparently helped Gillespie decide on a suspension instead of the boot.) The board still has more than a dozen members who rotate in and out of the decision-making process, but it’s clear that the resignations have badly hurt a department that already suffered from negative perceptions.

The latest resignations came from Assistant Sheriff Ted Moody, board chairman, and Robert Martinez, co-chairman. Martinez accused Gillespie of deferring to the Police Protective Association, the officer’s union, while Moody told the Review-Journal that Gillespie’s decision would “fuel further suspicion and mistrust” of the 2,500-person police department.

The resignations have reignited some longstanding criticism of the department. The ACLU of Nevada last year submitted a petition to the U.S. Justice Department proposing significant changes to Metro’s use-of-force policies, specifically related to reporting and accountability of officers, for any incident more arduous than the handcuffing of unresisting suspects. Allen Lichtenstein, ACLU of Nevada general counsel, says Gillespie’s decision to ignore the recommendation from the use-of-force board will further erode confidence in Metro.

“People who have been civilian members [of the board], who enter this in good faith with the idea that this was going to make a difference, have become disillusioned,” Lichtenstein says. The purpose of the board “was to have transparency and greater accountability and to have greater trust between Metro and the public. This has been a significant blow to that particular goal, which is unfortunate.” And the issue of accountability will continue to affect Metro’s relationship with the public, especially in minority communities, he says.

“If they’re not held to a strict standard, they will operate without a standard. The use of deadly force can become a real problem and one we’ve seen in this valley over the course of many decades.”

Tod Story, ACLU of Nevada executive director, notes that police officers are sworn to protect and serve, but members of the public may question the department’s dedication to that goal. “I think any reasonable citizen has to wonder if that is the situation when they encounter a police officer. Are they here to serve and protect me?” Story asks. “Too often when there is deadly force, the circumstances do not warrant the use of force that has played out in those situations.”

Dr. Samuel Walker, an emeritus professor of criminal science at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, has closely followed efforts to reform use-of-force policies, including recommendations from the U.S. Justice Department for additional training that sprang from the Review-Journal’s investigative series titled “Deadly Force: When Las Vegas Police Shoot and Kill” in November 2011, as well as the ACLU’s recommendations.

He says the recommendations were good but the recent furor could derail the reform effort. “I am disheartened to hear the sheriff did not terminate the officer,” Walker said. “I am disheartened to hear that he hasn’t followed the recommendation, and that threatens to undermine this process that has been very, very good.”

He said the public has to play a role in changing the use-of-force policies. “The remedy at this point is public pressure from the community,” he said. “If the community walks away and doesn’t say anything, the sheriff will be able to do these things.”

Gillespie appointed Assistant Sheriff Joseph Lombardo to replace Moody on the board. In a statement July 31, Lombardo said Metro “is moving towards a more accountable and transparent process involving strong oversight and participation by boards which include civilian members.”

According to the RJ, Metro last year instituted changes to its policies following the ACLU and Justice Department reports. Since then, the Use of Force Board has recommended termination for two officers: Roston and Jesus Arevalo, who killed Gibson. Gillespie still has to make a decision in the Arevalo case; if he chooses to ignore the recommendation from the board again, it will almost certainly spark even more community concern.