[Follow-up] Image is (or isn’t) everything

When it come to public perception, the Henderson Police Department has left far more questions than answers

Damon Hodge

At the end of the day I think there are many, many fine and professional police officers on the Henderson police force, but there are enough red flags right now to wonder if there are institutional problems that hurt all of Henderson’s officers, even the good ones; that give the department a bad perception.”

–Gary Peck, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada

What makes the current controversies bedeviling the Henderson Police Department so intriguing, so confounding and, in fact, so sad is that you don’t expect them to happen in a city like Henderson. In North Las Vegas, maybe, with its reputation as a militarized zone. Or in smaller but rougher places like East St. Louis, Illinois, or Gary, Indiana, where police don’t crime-fight as much as they fire-fight, dealing with the aftermath of the embers of violence.

But officer-involved shootings and police abuse in Hooterville, the Anytown USA nickname coined by JFK? Even now into its sixth decade as a city with more than 250,000 people within its borders, Henderson comes off as a nicely maturing community, comfortable in its municipal skin and ready to embark on the next stage of its metropolitan development, winning the rights to annex land out to Jean.

Overall, the place has a nice suburban sheen to it. Buzzing commercial enterprise, newish neighborhoods, a steadily growing state college and ritzy mansions in the hills lend credence to city police spokesman Keith Paul’s demographic snapshot of a town that skews older, better educated and more well-to-do than, say, North Las Vegas or Gary. Which is precisely why it’s hard for me, a non-Henderson resident, to wrap my brain around HPD’s specious image.

History tells us to that the problems Henderson is facing are endemic to big-city outfits, i.e., more than a century’s worth of misconduct in the NYPD (tens of millions paid to settle brutality cases in recent decades); drug trafficking in the Miami Police Department; the LAPD’s violent and criminalistic Rampart division. You get the drift.

Even the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, whose massive jurisdiction covers 1.5 million people and 7,000 square miles, isn’t free of taint. Metro officers have been arrested for everything from possession of child pornography to solicitation of prostitution to driving while intoxicated in recent years. Four years ago, the FBI investigated Metro after cops fatally shot ex-felon Orlando Barlow in February 2003 during a domestic-disturbance call. Barlow was unarmed, surrendering and on his knees at the time. Internal police sources said officers created commemorative shirts with the initials “BDRT.” Cops said it stood for “Big Dogs Run Together,” but sources claimed it was an acronym for “Baby Daddy Removal Team,” a slap against deadbeat dads. A coroner’s inquest absolved the officers.

On rare occasions these negative incidents spark public outcry. In general, though, most of us dismiss news of trigger-happy, bullying and corrupt cops as par for the course—the cost of doing police work.

UNLV law professor Kenneth E. Fernandez, an expert in public policy, public opinion and crime and criminal justice issues, says large metropolitan police departments will always have a higher number of problematic incidents because of the size of their cities and the diverse clientele encountered, everyone from bank robbers and gangbangers to prostitutes and white-collar thieves. In these cities, he says, watchdog groups monitor the cops, ready to carp or sue at a moment’s notice. Since smaller departments generally have fewer controversial incidents and less stringent community oversight, Fernandez says they may not be as concerned about enhancing/debunking/maintaining an image. So when controversy comes, they often close ranks and clam up when they should be doing the exact opposite.

Particularly vexing, he says, is the case of ice cream truck driver Deshira Selimaj.

“You have lots of witnesses contradicting the cops,” Fernandez says. Henderson police fatally shot Selimaj on February 12 after she came to the aid of her husband, who’d been stopped by HPD for traffic infractions. Cops claim she threatened her children with a knife. Witnesses say she was compliant after being tased and shouldn’t have been shot. A coroner’s inquest is set for April 11. Fernandez finds the Selimaj case more problematic than that of an FBI agent who sued HPD after three officers allegedly roughed him up outside the Gold Mine Tavern on August 13 of last year.

“In the FBI agent’s case, there was no real harm done. [Selimaj] was a mother of three with no criminal record. This woman is dead,” Fernandez says, likening her case to that of Swuave Lopez, the 17-year-old murder suspect shot in the back by Metro cops after he escaped a patrol car. Lopez was handcuffed at the time. “The Swuave Lopez cops are protected by law. But what they did was morally questionable. Do we want police to have that type of latitude? At the same time, we don’t want to scare cops into not using lethal force if it’s necessary.”

So what’s a smaller police department spokesman to do when trouble comes? Be more open. So says Chris Ryan, whose Phoenix, Arizona-based company specializes in police-media relations. In recent years, departments have turned their public information offices into full-fledged information-dissemination outfits. Reporters who sign up for Metro e-alerts can get a half-dozen or more press releases each day on everything from traffic accidents to toy giveaways to homicide investigations.

Says Ryan, “I often ask the question of police executives, ‘What’s your image worth?’ A lot of the people I train are the first spokespersons their department has ever had. Many have multiple job duties when there should be one person, or a group of people, dedicated to the department’s image. Image can affect community relations, budgeting, traffic stops. What is the perception of the department when an officer makes a traffic stop? Is it good or bad?”

After serving as a deputy constable in Arizona, Ryan embarked on a career in public relations, specializing in crisis management and assisting police departments shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He’s since trained officers from a handful of departments. His next four-day seminar takes place May 5-8 in Henderson. Ryan’s seminar topics have subversive-sounding names: “Secrets and tricks reporters don’t want you to know,” “Gunslinger journalists: Are you their next target?,” “Control more of what is printed and broadcast.” But he insists that he’s not teaching police to spin.

“I was in Croatia teaching, and a reporter asked me if I told police to lie about what happens. I said no, you have to be transparent. You have to recognize that people are going to have questions.”

On the one hand, he says, HPD has got to tread carefully in the Selimaj case because it could wind up in court while simultaneously feeding the beast—reporters eager to break the latest news. “It a tough place to be.” As troublesome facts come to light, he says departments should, against their base instincts, make them public. “HPD seems to be a pretty sharp bunch, pretty progressive. I wouldn’t say HPD has any more bad apples there than any other agency.”

Paul says the department has never contracted Ryan’s services. For what it’s worth, Paul (generally the voice of the HPD) is amiable and professional, a classic police PIO. But he retreats to canned cop speak when asked about specific cases (We don’t comment on items under investigation ... Our officers will be vindicated in the coroner’s inquest process, etc.), which is commensurate with his duty to serve and protect his department’s image.

About that image.

Part of me struggles to have empathy for Henderson residents other than those who appear to have been unequivocally wronged by cops. Enough controversy has been stirred to cause me to wonder about Henderson cops’ actions in the fatal shooting of Donna Morrow in June 2005 and the shooting of Regina Hunt a month later. Both allegedly raised guns at the police.

I don’t intend to demean anyone who’s been unduly hassled, detained or degraded by HPD. I simply intend to say, welcome to the club. Now you can add your story to the running novel that is police misconduct in this country.

For too long, most of us have adopted a no-look response to police abuse. The standard response is that it happens to people who deserve it, or in neighborhoods where order needs to be restored. In turn, victimized communities have come to view cops as foreign occupiers. Rather than a liberating force, they are but another instrument of oppression.

The danger here lies in the fact that I could be wrong. That HPD has serious abuse issues. That it’s no different from its larger police brethren, outfits that can’t—no matter how well-vetted recruits are—pinpoint the bad apple who’ll despoil the whole department’s image. If this is true, will Hendersonians rise up and demand change?

“In Chicago there was the case of the cop who was refused drinks and beat the female bartender. Nothing happened until the District Attorney realized there was footage. Then criminal charges came,” Fernandez says. “Anyone who studies police organizations, DA’s offices and mayors’ offices would tell you: If there’s no footage, there will be no criminal charges. It’s a sad commentary.”

But it’s the power we’ve accorded to police, by virtue of their sacrifice, their willingness to serve and protect us from bad people. What do we do when the cops, themselves, are the bad people?

Fernandez says change is easier to effect in younger departments such as HPD. Personnel changes, minor reforms and firings can make a difference. “These incidents have really hurt the legitimacy of HPD. I think, I hope, that HPD will start behaving differently.”

For everyone’s sake, let’s hope so.

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