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One Man Dead, Police Officer Critically Injured -- Can We Change Without Violence?

Police and medics stand at the scene of an officer involved shooting in front of a federal courthouse after a Black Lives Matter protest Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in Las Vegas.
(AP Photo/John Locher)

Police and medics stand at the scene of an officer involved shooting in front of a federal courthouse after a Black Lives Matter protest Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in Las Vegas. 

The protesters kept coming; the police kept responding. Some protesters carried guns openly. Some not so open.

As arrests took place in front of Circus Circus on the Las Vegas Strip, a Las Vegas Metro Police officer was shot and is on life support.

Miles away in downtown Las Vegas, a man, who police say reached for his gun after being hit by a low-lethality round, was shot to death by law enforcement outside the Foley Federal Building on Las Vegas Boulevard.

Las Vegas has joined a list of cities around the country reeling from violence associated with protests in reaction to the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after being knelt on by a Minneapolis police officer.

Leslie Ann Turner is with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN) and attended the protest. PLAN has also worked to pay bail for protesters who have been arrested.

Most of the protesters have been released on their own recognizance.

Turner said it is unfortunate that an officer was shot and another man lost his life during Monday night's protests. She said that is not what marchers want.

"That's not what we want. That's actually the reason why we're out there in the first place - the loss of life," she said, "And the fact that we're all fed up with it. We all don't want people to constantly have to be dying in the streets;"

Turner said her heart goes out to the people who were shot Monday night and their families but it doesn't change their message.

"The system is flawed. The system is problematic and we're tired of seeing our people killed at the hands of law enforcement every day," she said.

Turner said the protest Monday night on the Strip began peacefully. But, following a pattern of previous nights, she said as the crowd started to disperse, police fired tear gas into the crowd.

Turner added that she is concerned that Monday night's violence will mean even more aggression from police officers.

"I don't condone violence from protesters or people in the street. That's not what we want. What we want is for them to stop killing us," she said.

The death of George Floyd and others before him have the entire country talking about race and policing.

David Couper has been studying the problem of racism and policing for decades. He is aformer chief of police in Madison, Wisconsin and since then has worked on reforming police departments.

Couper said police departments around the country have been working on improving relationships with communities of color but conceded those improvements never seem to stick. He believes that's because it is not about policy and procedure.

"I think that it is a collective attitude," he said, "I think we need to look very strongly at the police culture and why is that culture trumps... training and policy."

He said it is difficult for police officers to speak out and contradict other officers. They want to show that they are part of the team and won't rat on another officer.

Couper pointed to the other officers involved in Floyd's death. One officer, Derek Chauvin, has been charged in his death, but the other officers on scene did nothing to stop him from kneeling on Floyd's neck.

He said there needs to be a pledge between officers to speak up when another officer is doing something wrong. Couper said peer intervention is a key element in changing police culture.

In addition, departments need to be able to get rid of officers who aren't buying into that culture change. Couper said police chiefs need to layout the basic ideas of how to do the job and remove those officers who don't buy-in.  

"That's the problem. The conflict is you don't know what the job is about," he said, "They have their own interpretations, 'My job is to kick ass, to keep people in line, get those black people out of the white people's neighborhood and that's my job. What's the problem?' Well, there's a real big problem with that."

Couper said that culture is not just in one or two police departments around the country but it is a nationwide problem that crops up in even the best police departments.

Rashawn Ray is a Rubenstein Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institute in Washington D.C. He studies and writes about policing in America.

He recently wrote an article about the bad apples in police departments. In it, he argues it is not just bad apples but the rotten tree they come from. Ray said racism shows up in the training of officers in police academies.

"It shows up subtlely and it shows up more directly," he said, "So, in the subtle ways in which we see it show up, it shows up in the type of examples that are used during training."

Ray said videos and descriptions used for training used black suspects, even though in absolute numbers white people commit more crimes than black people because there are more white people in America.

"That disbalance, oftentimes, creates in officers' minds that they need to be more fearful of black bodies," he said, "That is one way in which we see it playing out."

Ray said more direct examples include using dummies for physical training that are depicted as black.

Beyond addressing systemic racism in police training, Ray said the way victims of police violence are paid out after successfully suing needs to change.

Right now, if a department is found liable for an officer's misconduct, taxpayer funds pay the judgment against them. However, Ray suggests departments need to start paying in a way similar to hospitals that have to pay out for doctor's misconduct through rising insurance premiums.

"Eventually, when the premiums go up for the hospital, they do a cost-benefit market analysis to say whether or not there's a physician costing them too much money to operate at their hospital," he said, "This, what I'm proposing, gives police chiefs the same leverage to say, 'You know what, Officer Chauvin... you have had our premium increase X to Y, we can no longer have you here." 

Ray said it is the same thing as fed up parents taking away the keys of the car after the second accident their teenage driver is involved in drives up their insurance costs.

Ray also argues that the way police unions handle misconduct should change. Often, police unions tell officers to resign before they're fired that way they can get another job at another department and keep their pension.

The three other officers involved in the Floyd case have since been terminated, but not charged with any crimes. 

For the people crying out for even more progress, Ray said get a seat at the decision-makers table and voice your concerns. He advised people to write, email or call their state legislatures to ask for changes to police policy and justice system reform.

"People are having conversations about policing and racism in America who have never had those conversations before at least not these types of conversations when now they have to say, "Jeesh, I can no longer admit that this isn't a thing,'" he said, "There is something about seeing a dead body in the street underneath the knee of a police officer that haunts people, regardless of people's race."

Ray pointed out that there is a national database covering the number of people who are killed by jellyfish every year - but not a national database of people who have been killed by police.

David Couper, police reform specialist/former chief, Madison, Wisconsin Police Department;  Rashawn Ray, Rubenstein Fellow, Governance Studies at Brookings Institution, Washington D.C.;  Leslie Ann Turner, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada,  DeCarceration Organizer


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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.