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Sheriff Lombardo Defends Arrest of Legal Observers, Observers Say It's 'Untrue'

(AP Photo/John Locher)

Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo speaks at a news conference, Tuesday, June 16, 2020, in Las Vegas. Lombardo spoke about arrests made in Las Vegas last weekend at a protest against police brutality sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25.

Earlier this week, Governor Steve Sisolak and Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford called for an investigation into the police arrest of several legal observers at a protest last weekend.

And based on video evidence, Las Vegas Police Sheriff Joe Lombardo stood before reporters Tuesday and said officers from North Las Vegas and Las Vegas were forced to make arrests as the legal observers were obstructing and "antagonizing" officers.

“On Saturday, there was a small group of people wearing red T-shirts, which identified themselves as legal observers of the protest. A guide, generated by the ACLU, states that ‘it is the job of the legal observer to be neutral and impartial and observe and witness the events.' This did not happen on Saturday. In fact, there are several videos, we’re about to show, of legal observers walking into the middle of the street, along with the protesters as officers attempted to get them out of harm's way and back onto the sidewalk.

One of the legal observers shoved her cell phone camera into the officer’s face in a confrontational manner. Another legal observer left the median divider and approached a police vehicle and leaned into the window, seemingly leading a crowd of aggressive protesters.

In both videos, they were in front of the protesters actively participating not observing. Most of the observers we saw out there were, in fact, just observing the protest, but several of the observers were actively engaged in the protest. These people were antagonizing and obstructing our officers.”

He said 21 people were arrested—taken to the jail, processed and released. Four people were given citations only.

Legal observers are lawyers who wear red shirts and are to act as neutral observers. They are supposed to follow the crowd and get information about protesters who have been arrested and about officers who did the arresting.

John Piro, one of the legal observers arrested, disagreed entirely with the sheriff's assessment.

“I would just say that the legal observers were trying to keep up with the protest. It was a really dynamic situation. I think even officers on the ground would admit as much,” he said.

Piro explained that the legal observer the sheriff described as shoving her cell phone into an officer's face might have been getting the officer's name and badge number, which is part of what they do after a protester is arrested.

Besides taking issue with the sheriff's description of one encounter, Piro is troubled by the language Sheriff Lombardo used to describe the observers.

“I also wanted to take issue with the word antagonizer because the sheriff seems to use the word frequently. He used it to describe media. He uses it now to describe legal observers. That is a purposeful word," he said, “It’s a dehumanizing word and it’s dehumanizing language used to justify unjust actions by arresting legal observers who are there simply observing what is going on”

Piro was cited for being a pedestrian intentionally in the roadway at Las Vegas Boulevard and Russell Road. He said he was on a sidewalk waiting for a Metro lieutenant to give him information about another observer who had been arrested.

“And the officers made a choice to come over, target and arrest us," he said.

In Tuesday's news conference, the sheriff explained that some of the arrests came later in the protest because officers had seen antagonizing behavior earlier and then arrested those individuals when they saw them at the end of the protest.

Piro does not buy that explanation.

“It’s after the fact justification to justify our arrest which was an unlawful arrest,” he said, “He’s doubling down on bad conduct.”

Piro said police used a chemical irritant and fired at the protesters. Some people said the officers used rubber bullets but Piro admits it might have pepper pellets. 

Piro said the legal observers have video of their own that shows a narrative the sheriff has not shared with the public. They plan to release that video in a news conference later this week.

In addition, Piro and other observers don't plan on just paying their fines and moving on.

“We are not guilty and we will definitely be fighting these charges,” he said.


John Piro, legal observer and Clark County Public Defender

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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.