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Arrest Of Legal Observers At Protest Raises Questions About Metro Tactics

Protests Saturday on the Las Vegas Strip.
Brent Holmes/Desert Companion

Protests Saturday on the Las Vegas Strip.

Las Vegas police say they have changed, that they are far and away better than other police departments when it comes to protecting citizens' rights and addressing police misconduct.

But stories from lawyers at a protest -- who were clearly identified as legal observers -- seem to tell a different story. A half dozen of them were detained, some cited and some taken to jail.

Paloma Guerrero was a legal observer on the Strip that night. She told KNPR's State of Nevada that it was a peaceful protest of about 200 people, which started at the Bellagio and headed south on the Strip.

She said protesters were following directions given by police. At one point, the crowd overflowed the sidewalk and spilled into the street. 

When the crowd reached Russell Road and Las Vegas Boulevard, she saw the legal observer she was working with arrested along with a protester.

"What the reports that we've taken stated that there was a police line on Russell and Las Vegas Boulevard," Guerrero said, "There were about 20 SUVs down there and they had already created that line as the demonstrators were traveling southbound. 

When the demonstrators were directly in front of the police line, that was when the dispersal order was made and they were directed to travel westbound on Russell."

Protesters take over the Las Vegas Strip June 14, 2020/Brent Holmes/Desert Companion

Guerrero said protesters did start walking west on Russell Road but a police line had been set up blocking entrance to Las Vegas Boulevard. She explained that she and the partner she was working with were towards the back of the crowd, which is what legal observers are trained to do. 

"Everyone began traveling west on Russell, as they were told, and my partner and I stayed in the back, by the police line that was now blocking access to Las Vegas Boulevard and Russell and that is where I was taking names of officers, especially the officers that were blocking the sidewalk, and a group of officers asked me what it is I really do and I explained what the legal observer program is and how we're there to document police interactions with demonstrators, and then shortly after, when my partner was getting information on a protester who was getting arrested for asking if she can cross the police line to get to her car, then my partner as we were leaving, following directions, a couple of officers ran after him and grabbed from the back and took him behind the police line and he was detained," Guerrero said.

She said her partner was charged with pedestrian intentionally obstructing the sidewalk.

Tenisha Freedom is one of the organizers of Saturday's protest. She said demonstrators did occupy the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Tropicana for about 10 to 15 minutes to rally.

However, she said police were targeting legal observers and other volunteers trying to keep the protest organized.

"We want to be clear that from what we witnessed and from what our videos and the reports we're getting from our people on the ground it was clear that they targeted not only the legal observers, they targeted our volunteer medics. They targeted our volunteer security staff. Basically, anybody that they saw that was part of keeping our action localized and orderly," she said.

Freedom said the organizers had set up a water station in front of the Luxor hotel-casino but Metro officers blocked access to that water station.

Protesters march on Las Vegas Boulevard June 14, 2020/Brent Holmes/Desert Companion

Sherrie Royster is the lead attorney for the ACLU of Nevada. She said her organization is shocked by what happened on Saturday and is considering all options, including possible legal action.

Royster noted that Guerrero's partner was not the only legal observer detained by police. She said pockets of observers were also detained and she wonders why.

"I think that because they are clearly marked as a legal observer because the officers made the conscious decision to arrest them when they were not in any way obstructing or disobeying any orders," she said, "It is hard-pressed to believe that they were not trying to send a clear message by doing that."

Royster said that under the law a dispersal order by police applies to everyone, including journalists and legal observers. She also noted that legal observers have been at other protests over the years and she finds it hard to believe that officers did not know their role.

Las Vegas Metro Police at protests on June 14, 2020/Brent Holmes/Desert Companion

Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones is also dismayed at what happened on Saturday. 

He was a legal observer when he was in law school and was arrested at a protest for failure to disperse. 

Jones has already talked to Sheriff Lombardo about the department's actions that night. He said he has grave concerns about how protesters were treated.

"I think when you watch the video of protesters walking up the sidewalk southbound on Las Vegas Boulevard and going in the direction that they were directed as a result of the dispersal order and then were boxed in by SWAT teams and then fired upon by SWAT teams, I have many questions," he said.

Jones wonders how officers expected protesters to comply with a dispersal order that they can't comply with. He said the same problem has come up in previous protests.  

Freedom said there appeared to be a lot of confusion even between officers about who ordered the dispersal and where demonstrators were supposed to go.

"At one point, when we were being fired upon with rubber bullets and tear gas, there was actually a commander, a lieutenant of sorts, that had come up to one of volunteer security to figure out how we could get people safely back to their cars, or which direction they wanted us to go," she said, "And the SWAT team that was coming up from the back end began firing upon... while their own person was kind of in the way, I guess, of the fire. It was kind of like they weren't communicating whatsoever."

Jones wants to have a conversation about these issues with Metro immediately so protesters can exercise their constitutionally protected right to protest "without being forced into chaos."


(Editor's note: KNPR News asked Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo to be part of the discussion. He did not answer the request.)

Tenisha Freedom, protest organizer;  Palmoa Guerrero, legal observer;  Justin Jones, commissioner, Clark County Commission; Sherrie Royster, lead attorney, ACLU of Nevada, 

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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.