Taking Fire

What’s behind the high number of officer-involved shootings this year?

It used to be that society gave officers the benefit of the doubt when they shot people, absolving them in the court of public opinion long before Internal Affairs or the courts got the chance to study the facts. But if reams of stinging online rebukes following a series of local officer-involved shootings are any indication, that time has passed.

Much of the vitriol revolves around two cases: the July 10 fatal shooting by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department of 38-year-old Erik Scott, a West Point graduate, outside a Summerlin Costco; and the death of Trevon Cole, who was killed June 11 by an officer. In Scott’s case, police say he pointed a gun he was carrying at an officer, but his family disputes that. In Cole’s case, an officer confused the 21-year-old with a violent criminal with the same first and last name, even though Cole was younger, shorter, weighed less and only had a misdemeanor California conviction for the unlawful taking of a vehicle.

To date this year, Metro officers have shot 18 people, including three people during an eight-day span in June. Metro cops had shot 15 people by this time in 2009, on their way to a total of 21 for that year. There were 14 officer-involved shootings in 2008, 15 in 2007, 27 in 2006 and 12 in 2005. At the current pace, Metro could top its 2006 figure.

So what’s behind the recent shootings? An influx of inexperienced cops? Increasingly brazen criminals? Recession-fueled angst? Experts say it could be one, or a combination of all three.

Nearly 1,000 officers have joined the force since voters in 2005 passed the More Cops initiative, the first of two quarter-cent sales tax hikes designed to add 1,700 officers to Valley police forces and boost Metro to about 1.7 officers per 1,000 residents, still far below the national average of 2.24 officers per 1,000 residents.

In the push to put new officers on the street, the department hasn’t sacrificed public safety for speed, Metro spokesman Bill Cassell says. “We never cut corners when it comes to training. We did restructure the academy to handle the influx of additional recruits. We had more trainers and more classes to accommodate the additional bodies. But the 19 weeks of training that everyone goes through was the same.”

Included in that training, Cassell says, are scenario-based drills mimicking “everything the cadets will face as cops,” such as standard operating procedures in an officer-involved shooting.

“There’s also lots of training on shoot-and-don’t-shoot decisions,” Cassell says. “And there’s training to prevent being involved in a shooting, such as using alternative methods of force. Sometimes using weapons is unavoidable. We are noticing that there are more people out there carrying weapons who are willing to use them against the police. Our officers are being faced with more and more situations on use of deadly force.”

Although some incidents have involved veteran officers, UNLV criminologist William Sousa says research shows that less-experienced officers are more likely to be involved in shootings because they have less know-how on using nonlethal force and assessing dangerous situations.

The three officers involved in the Scott shooting each have five years experience or less on the force: Joshua Stark joined the department in September 2008, officer Thomas Mendiola joined in March 2009 and William Mosher joined in June 2005.

“What we do know is that police shootings are rare events considering that departments have millions of interactions with the public each year,” says Sousa, who declined to comment on local cases because they are still under investigation. “What we also know is that younger officers are involved in more shootings because they tend to be quicker to use their weapons, that police firearm use is more likely if a suspect has a firearm and that most officer-involved shootings are categorized by the degree of ambiguity and surprise. Departments are really looking at the decisions that officers make prior to shooting. They are exploring types of training they can implement to reduce ambiguity, to reduce surprise factor and to reduce the likelihood officers will have to fire their weapons.”

UNLV sociology professor Andrew Spivak says assessing the factors behind officer-involved shootings is tricky because there’s scant data on the subject. Crimes like domestic violence can be tracked over time and have bodies of research available for meaningful study, Spivak says, but the same isn’t true for incidents that end in gunfire. “The numbers of shootings aren’t large enough to get a good handle on what influences them, whether it’s the economy or something else entirely.”

The small numbers make year-to-year comparisons difficult, Sousa says.

“When you have 20 in one year, 15 in another year and 10 in another year, an increase or a drop of five to 10 is huge. … But it doesn’t mean that the shootings are any less of a concern.”

Former state Assemblyman Wendell Williams, head of the newly formed civil rights group League of Action, agreed. Williams’ group has accused Metro of harassment, racial profiling and using undue force in urban neighborhoods. The group gathered last month to demand changes to the coroner’s inquest system, the way police treat females they are questioning or arresting, and for officers to give people more information on why they are being handcuffed.

“There’s a concern among many minorities that cops tend to shoot first and ask questions later,” Williams says.