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How Las Vegas Metro PD got ahead of OIS and UOF controversies

Cooperation, collaboration, and honest communication between police and the community can prove fruitful in enhancing police/community relations and reducing officer-involved shootings

With the onset of nationwide controversy concerning police-involved shootings and use of force, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) is already ahead of the curve. The department has been proactive in its efforts to critically assess its own department in terms of police shootings and diverse populations.

The proactive stance taken by LVMPD evolved when the law enforcement agency recognized that the shootings of unarmed black males were disproportionate and, in 2010, there were 25 officer-involved shootings. In 2011, the main newspaper in Vegas, The Review Journal did an expose and profile of a 25-year history of deadly force.

Consequently, LVMPD realized it had to do something and acknowledged the fact that they could proactively seek assistance or sit back and wait until the government stepped in with a consent decree that would have been a morale buster. Here are some lessons learned that other police leaders can leverage across the country.

Cooperation, Collaboration and Communication
LVMPD learned of a new program in The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and sought out a collaborative approach with COPS. As a result, the Center for Naval Analysis (CNA) came in and assessed the organization as well as the community, and LVMPD opened up its books for them. The review focused on policies and training and use of force investigations as well as relationships and the issue of trust with the community.

The review lasted one year. Seventy-five recommendations were issued.

“We completed most requirements before the report was done. We could not afford to fail,” Captain Matt McCarthy said. McCarthy — a 23-year veteran of the department — currently serves as the Captain of Internal Oversight and Constitutional Policing.

The LVMPD recognized it was vital to keep the recommendations fresh and alive. Thus, they asked themselves if there was a policy that needed to be adjusted and, moreover, they looked at all consent degrees in the country to see what was occurring nationwide.

Traditional Diversity Training vs. Fair and Impartial Policing and Procedural Justice
In the past, diversity training was required only for supervisors and was a mandatory class given every two years which taught that protected classes of people could not be discriminated against. Moreover, it provided information on how to conduct sexual assault investigations, deal with hostile work environments, and information about people in protected classes that could not be discriminated against.

“Our agency was really tired of traditional diversity classes,” Captain McCarthy said. “Diversity training had nothing to do with policing.”

Consequently, the department focused on Fair and Impartial Policing and Procedural Justice and made this a priority in terms of training and implementation. The department wanted relevancy and legitimacy with the officers.

Fair and Impartial Policing considers the study of bias. Procedural Justice is the concept of fairness and how to treat people fairly. Through the training, officers are exposed to biases and come to realize that there are real biases that must be acknowledged and dealt with. Officers are educated to evaluate their own minds, consider their own biases and take ownership of them and change their behavior when necessary.

Process for Change
The department engaged in the following process to bring about change within its police culture:

1. In 2012-2013, LVMPD conducted surveys regarding best practices and training curriculums. Every feedback form was read. In addition, recommendations were derived from a study by Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff which indicated there needed to be relevancy. Dr. Goff is recognized as an expert on contemporary forms of racial bias and discrimination. Additionally, a block of time needed to be allotted to digest material and be trained by credible employees who believed in the material and who themselves were trained by an expert.
2. The department sought technical assistance from Dr. Laurie Fridell from the University of South Florida who is a noted expert in the field and whose involvement was approved by CNA. She trained the trainers.
3. In addition to Dr. Fridell, two professors from the University of Las Vegas were engaged for their knowledge and to conduct oversight of the training module.
4. All train-the-trainers modules were reviewed and modifications were made where necessary. A determination was made as to whether they hit the benchmark. In addition, the selection of trainers focused on people that were passionate about conducting the training and who were also comfortable with the training. The department was very mindful about bringing a diverse work force together and that required credible instructors and material.
5. The training was presented to the public and feedback was obtained; subsequent to any modifications, the training began.

Before the class was rolled out, it was presented to a multi-cultural group of citizens on the advisory council that included Hispanic, Asian, Jewish, Muslim, gay, and lesbian members. Many of them were challenged with their own biases and had to introspectively critique their own biases. As a result, they provided productive feedback. The training was subsequently opened up to civilians in the community, most of them minorities.

“It was a lively conversation going on in that room — the role of policing is a partnership,” McCarthy said.

He acknowledged that the number one priority was to get citizens involved in the process because the department recognized that civilians could provide different services to help officers overcome biases.

A Commitment to New Training
It took two years to put the class together. Captain McCarthy acknowledged that his agency knew the training had to be done correctly. The department had to establish a training program that rose above a program of diversity and one that also had credibility with the law enforcement workforce.

“The training focuses on professionals who are well versed in conducting their business with respect and fairness and doing their work with equitability,” he said.

The first class began in October 2014. The entire department — a total of 5000 employees, including civilian staff — was trained by June 2015.

Dispatchers were also included in the training. Dispatchers tend to profile on the phone based on how someone sounds. Consequently, dispatchers had an “ah-ha” moment when they thought about whether or not that influenced whether or not they conducted further questioning and if they spent additional time on the phone with the individual.

The LVMPD took an old run-down substation and created a compound for training purposes.

“We didn’t spend a lot of money to make it happen,” McCarthy said. He explained that small agencies can find ways to provide quality training of incidents happening in their communities. “All our scenarios came from our own experiences,” he said.

Lessons Learned and Positive Change
LVMPD has learned that the more they are able to train officers about differences of people and that differences are okay, the fewer officer-involved shootings and fewer incidents of force will occur. The class focuses on changing behavior and the way individuals perceive one another.

“It’s all of us trying to work together. We found that so far it is working well for us. At the end of the day, it causes people not to have so much fear. For us, we think it is a win-win,” Captain McCarthy said. “Fair and Impartial Policing and Procedural Justice --it is here to stay in policing for a long time.”

McCarthy attributed positive changes in operations to what they learned and the department’s self-imposed decision for the need to change. “You can allow the federal government to change the culture or you can do it yourself. We chose to do it ourselves,” he said.

“Fair and Impartial Policing is only one mechanism to reducing force in the organization. Other mechanisms are reality-based training, advanced officer skills training, de-escalation (verbal and tactical) and routinely providing current trends to the force as it relates to the squad level. We take incidences that occur throughout the country and want our officers to discuss them. This is why we’ve had a decrease in officer involved shootings and reportable force. To me, it’s all those things collectively,” McCarthy said.

He stressed the importance of constant messaging to inform the work force what the agency is doing through reality-based training which involves teaching, demonstrating, repetition, providing honest feedback and praise.

The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department has made significant strides in changing the culture of the department related to bias. Through reality-based training along with considering all reportable use of force in the field, the agency has proven that change can evolve. Cooperation, collaboration, and honest communication between police and the community have proven to be fruitful in enhancing police-community relations and reducing officer-involved shootings.

Karen L. Bune is an Adjunct Professor at George Mason and Marymount universities and a consultant for the U.S. Dept. of Justice. Board Certified in Traumatic Stress and Domestic Violence, a nationally recognized speaker, she also serves on the Institutional Review Board of The Police Foundation. She received the Police Chief’s Award and County Executive’s Recognition of Service Certificate from Prince George’s County, MD. She is in the Wakefield High School (VA) Hall of Fame. She holds the AU Alumni Recognition Award and Marymount University’s Adjunct Teaching Award. She appears in “Marquis Who’s Who in the World” and in “America.”