Lessons from Las Vegas

Welcome_to_Fabulous_Las_Vegas_sign.jpgYou may have seen in the paper recently that the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, the Mayor and Chief Eden conducted a 3-day site visit with the Las Vegas Metro Police Department to learn from their reform process. Two representatives from the APD Forward campaign, Peter Simonson and Steven Robert Allen of the ACLU of New Mexico, accompanied the group to observe and learn.

A few years before Albuquerque, LVMPD went through a major spike in officer-involved shootings, most of them targeting unarmed Black men. Rather than sit back and wait until DOJ came knocking with an internal investigation, the Chief sought out the DOJ’s assistance, and thereby avoided the kind of court-ordered agreement that APD is now facing. The DOJ assigned the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program to work with them on a “collaborative reform process.” Basically, COPS contracted with an outside agency to make a series of 75 recommendations for changes in the department’s policies, training and use of force investigations. While we definitely want to avoid the kind of “gentlemen’s agreement” approach to reform where the APD is concerned, the LVMPD has made some important improvements with COPS’ help. 

Here are some of the main takeaways from this site visit from our point of view:



  • LVMPD now divides their investigations of use of force incidents into two branches: the officer’s decision to use force (and whether it involved criminal intent) and the tactical response to the incident that set the context wherein the officer decided to use force. So, for example, the Critical Incident Review Team could determine that the officer was justified in his use of force, but that the tactical decisions he made before that moment (or the tactical decisions by the supervising officer or the dispatcher or anyone else) were in error. Maybe the officer shouldn’t have pursued the subject into a building or approached the subject so closely, etc. LVMPD claims to have either disciplined or terminated officers in 27% of the use of force reviews since they implemented this approach in 2012, some for use of force decisions, some for tactical decisions.
  • Both the use of force and tactical review boards are made up of both civilians and police officers, although the civilians only have voting power in the case of use of force review.
  •  The ACLU of Nevada made extensive recommendations for changes to LVMPD’s use of force policy. The department adopted only a few of their recommendations, the most significant of which was an introductory statement acknowledging the “sanctity of life” and the officer’s obligation to protect it.
  • In response to COPS’ recommendations, LVMPD expanded their reality based training for officer use of force. Based on conversations with APD Major Montano, the LVMPD training puts officers through more rigorous scenarios than APD such as “the box” and “the gauntlet” where officers are faced with one high stress scenario after another in quick succession.
  • A lot of the changes to LVMPD’s policies and trainings have emphasized de-escalation and getting officers to “slow down” their encounters with civilians to give them more time to make good decisions. Interestingly, they said the greatest barrier to introducing this change is that it runs contrary to officers’ sense that they have to show themselves as forceful and take charge.

Again, we believe that the only way to reform APD is to have a court-enforceable agreement in place with continued community engagement and monitoring of the process. Albuquerque will have to find its own model for reform based on our particular set of challenges, but the Las Vegas visit was an interesting view inside a police force troubled by similar problems. The APD Forward will continue to hold the city accountable as we follow our own path to police reform.