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Police shootings open rift in Vegas

August 21, 2013|John M. Glionna
  • Las Vegas Sheriff Doug Gillespie bucked an advisory panel's recommendation that an officer be fired for shooting an unarmed man. Gillespie said the officer showed contrition and should only be suspended.
Las Vegas Sheriff Doug Gillespie bucked an advisory panel's recommendation… (Julie Jacobson / Associated…)

LAS VEGAS — The police came upon Lawrence Gordon Jr. one night in November while he was arguing with his girlfriend in the parking lot of a recreation center here.

The girlfriend left the car to talk with the officer while Gordon, a 23-year-old pizza deliveryman, stayed in the passenger seat. Suddenly, Officer Jacquar Roston turned on him.

"Why you moving?" Gordon recalls the cop saying. Roston then fired his service revolver, striking the unarmed Gordon in the right leg. "He didn't say anything else -- just, 'Why you moving?' " Gordon said. "Then he shot me."

The bullet missed his femoral artery, but shattered his thigh bone; doctors had to insert a metal rod and eight bolts in Gordon's leg. Roston later told superiors he mistook the shine from the label on Gordon's Angels baseball cap for a weapon.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, August 23, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Las Vegas police shootings: In the Aug. 21 Section A, a graphic accompanying an article about officer-involved shootings in Las Vegas said that a comparison of such incidents in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New York showed shootings per capita for 2010. In fact, the numbers were the rate of shootings per 100,000 residents.

A review board recommended that Roston be fired. But Sheriff Doug Gillespie, who presides over the joint city-county police force, rejected the panel's unanimous decision, reasoning that Roston showed contrition and should be suspended but not lose his job.

That decision in late July has reverberated across this desert resort mecca, a city with one of the highest rates of police shootings in the nation. For tens of millions of tourists who flock to Las Vegas each year, the police appear as a benign force that maintains order on the Strip. But residents outside the bubble of the casinos see a much different side.

"It seems like this city has an officer-involved shooting once a week," said attorney Paola Armeni, who in 2011 helped win a $1.6-million judgment in an excessive force case in which police tackled the brother of a fugitive at his home. "I get updates on my cellphone and often I say to myself, 'There's another one.' "

In 2010, police were involved in four times the number of shootings per capita in Las Vegas as in New York, and twice as many as in Los Angeles -- cities with far larger populations -- according to a series by the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper, which compiled statistics obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests.

A federal inquiry

The alarming number of shootings prompted a review by the U.S. Justice Department, which found that Las Vegas police committed numerous tactical errors due to a lack of training and suggested a series of reforms, including a more transparent review process of officer-involved shootings.

But the federal review has done little to change what many here see as a cowboy culture in which, critics say, police officers shoot first and ask questions later, knowing the department will bail them out of any trouble.

Members of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department's Use of Force Review Board, which had recommended Roston's firing, were outraged when the sheriff reinstated the officer. The panel that sought Roston's job was made up of four civilians and three police officers.

"Tell me this isn't true," Robert Martinez, a former journalist on the review board, recalls saying to Assistant Sheriff Ted Moody, co-chairman of the group. "Yeah, unfortunately, it is true," Moody responded.

Martinez was stunned: "I didn't know what to say. I just felt betrayed."

Martinez and five other civilian board members resigned in protest and Moody abruptly retired from the department, saying Gillespie's decision had undermined the integrity of the review process.

The controversy comes as Gillespie has pushed to increase the Clark County sales tax rate, in part to hire more police officers. That has angered some residents.

In late August, four people were arrested for scribbling graffiti critical of the department on the sidewalk outside Las Vegas police headquarters. One of the messages read: "Not one single cop in Metro's entire history has been charged after shooting someone. Even if that person was unarmed and/or innocent."

In 2010, police in Las Vegas shot 25 people, killing eight, according to a comprehensive review of 20 years of police shootings compiled the Review-Journal. By contrast, New York saw 34 police shootings and Los Angeles had 32.

And the Las Vegas police shootings continue: On Aug. 11, an off-duty detective shot and wounded a man in the wrist outside the Excalibur hotel-casino. The officer said he could not see the man's hands, but thought he was reaching for a weapon inside his car.


In its report, the Justice Department made numerous recommendations, including that Las Vegas police provide more training on the legal parameters of vehicle stops, which officials say are more likely to lead to police-involved shootings than other incidents.

Many say the Roston case has shaken hopes for reform in a department critics fear is slipping out of control.

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