I will tell you this, Henderson Police Chief Richard Perkins says: We have the finest police department in the country. These folks follow their training, without concern for themselves sometimes. They place themselves in harm’s way. It’s a violent world. Most of the general public don’t see that on a regular basis—and when they are exposed to it—when they see it in real life and it is not a television show—well, it affects them. But that’s the kind of world we live in.
A suburb of the Las Vegas metropolitan area with a fraction of the annual violent crimes endured by its neighbors in the Valley, the city of Henderson maintains a widespread reputation as a leisurely place to live. “That’s why it surprises people,” says Cal Potter, a longtime local attorney, “that there seems to be, in the last four or five years, a lot of excessive force cases brought against the Henderson Police Department.” Potter himself filed such a complaint against HPD in federal court last month, on behalf of his client, a covert federal officer who claims three Henderson policemen beat him up without just reason.
Dating back to 2002, when a string of excessive force complaints filed against Henderson police officers drew unenviable attention to the department, complaints of police misconduct have abounded in the city of Henderson. In fact, so many have been submitted to the ACLU of Nevada that its executive director, Gary Peck, says “there are a lot of red flags, a cause for concern.” And local attorneys like Potter, E. Brent Bryson and Leo Flangas have fielded such a disproportionate numbers of complaints about HPD, compared to the other two main law enforcement agencies in the Valley, that Flangas fires off this statement with conviction:
“There is a fundamental problem with the Henderson Police Department.”
Is there? The rash of complaints does not by any means prove the HPD culpable of any wrongdoing. But it does, doubtless, warrant particular scrutiny of the public agency. And, furthermore, it raises all sorts of questions.
“Is there something fundamentally wrong?” says Perkins, addressing the preeminent one. “No.”
And with the same breath he adds: “We had two back-to-back things that almost never happen to us. When they happen like that, they put a big spotlight on us.”
It’s true. The two incidents involving Henderson police officers to which Perkins alludes—the alleged attack of a covert federal officer at a downtown Henderson bar, and the shooting of an immigrant Albanian mother of three who drove an ice-cream truck for a living—have served as light switches to the white-hot heat that now suffuses the entire department. Both cases, while unadjudicated, highlight the department’s use of force, with the ice-cream lady incurring the most severe result: death. Hers, moreover, is the case at the center of the flame of controversy surrounding the Henderson Police Department—its policies, its procedures and above all its use of force.
On February 12, at 2:15 p.m., the owner of the Deer Runner Albania Ice Cream Company, Zyber Selimaj, was pulled over by an unmarked HPD vehicle. It was the second time that day that he had been stopped by the police for alleged traffic violations. This stop occurred on Pecos Ridge and Sunridge Heights parkways, an intersection nearby Coronado High School and torpid in that after-school hour. For reasons of principle and economics, Selimaj refused to sign the citation, which accused him of both speeding and failing to obey a stop sign. Selimaj, 65 years old, called his wife, Deshira, who, after speaking with both her husband and the police officer, arrived on the scene in her own ice-cream truck with two of the couple’s three children beside her, 7 and 11 years old. It was about 3 p.m., some 20 minutes after the phone call, and Zyber had already signed the ticket.
Deshira Selimaj—42 years old, 5 feet, 6 inches and less than 150 pounds—soon found herself, gesticulate and commotional, facing three to four Henderson police officers, with several more in the periphery or converging on the scene. Her husband was in handcuffs, detained by officers several yards away. Her children, too, were a safe distance from the crescent wall of officers surrounding Deshira.
They tased her. Then an officer shot her. And then Deshira died.
According to the police’s account of the tragic event, Deshira possessed a knife, made suicidal statements and feinted killing her own child, and threatened the life of a police officer when she lunged toward one after absorbing the Taser shock. This all contradicts the accounts of Zyber Selimaj, his two boys and nine nearby witnesses, who say they did not see Deshira holding a knife, that she was at all times trying to protect her children and that the police shot her while she was on the ground, having been incapacitated by the Taser. A 10th witness agrees with all of this save for the knife, which the witness says might or might not have existed.
Irrespective of whose account is most accurate in this case—which is in reality unknown to the public as of now, but which will be decided in a public forum during a coroner’s inquest on April 10 and 11—the fatal incident was shocking. But not entirely surprising. And that’s because citizens, advocates and attorneys have been, for at least half a dozen years now, casting suspicion on the way HPD trains, supervises and disciplines its officers. Many of whom wonder if the department might have fostered a culture that not only permits but even encourages excessive force.
“I’ve been thinking about this long and hard for many years,” says Flangas: “The fundamental problem is that they’re allowing these things to happen. There is no accountability.”
Such is the claim of Brad Hare, a federal officer for an undisclosed agency who filed a lawsuit in federal court last month against HPD and three unnamed officers for an incident that occurred after midnight on August 13, last year.
A Monday. Hare was playing pool at the Gold Mine tavern on South Water Street in downtown Henderson when, according to his attorney Potter, a patron with whom Hare was engaged in an argument claimed that he had connections, that he could have Hare arrested, that all he needed to do was to make a simple phone call.
At 1:36 a.m., according to the HPD, Officers Johnny Flewellen, Kevin Grant and Jon Morrow entered the bar. And without a word to even the bartender, Potter says, they “just grabbed Hare and slammed him on the pool table and hustled him outside and slammed him against their SUV and then confiscated his wallet and ID.”
That’s when they realized his client was a federal officer, and that they had done wrong, says Potter.
“Then, suddenly, they took off.”
Keith Paul, a spokesperson for HPD, says it was in actuality the bartender who summoned the police, because Hare had been causing a disturbance and refused to leave.
According to the communications report, the three officers, upon entering the bar, found a white male adult in his 20s who was intoxicated and threatening other people in the bar.
Perkins says this was Hare. “He was being a jerk,” says Perkins.
He adds that the officers were there for “only a few minutes,” and that one of them was so unconcerned about the subject that he left the bar soon after entering to investigate the sound of screeching tires he heard outside. “Does that look like someone being roughed up?” says Perkins.
Potter says, as pursuant to the policy of his client’s agency, Hare immediately reported his encounter with HPD to his superiors, and underwent proper scrutiny.
“In my view, [the lawsuit] is his way of covering his backside,” says Perkins. “Because he had to go tell his folks, ‘Oh, I had contact with the cops in Henderson.’”
The ACLU joined Hare’s suit against HPD for this reason, as explained by Peck: “When we went to Internal Affairs to lodge a complaint, our client felt he was blown off—simply blown off. There was no serious effort to investigate the complaint.”
Regardless of the facts, the ACLU is interested in fair and transparent government, says Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the ACLU.
“Internal Affairs looks at cases very strenuously,” says Perkins. “We don’t condone excessive use of force. If a member of this department is found guilty of such a charge, then we take it very seriously and follow it to its end.”
Perkins says he does not know if the Hare case is currently being investigated by Internal Affairs (nor, for that matter, how many cases in general are currently pending investigation) because investigations aren’t made known to him until they are completed, so that he can judge them with objective eyes.
For, within the police department, the chief is the final arbiter: It is he who decides whether and how officers should be disciplined.
So then, has Perkins ever, in his reign as chief (since 2006), had the occasion to discipline an officer for the use of excessive force?
“I honestly don’t remember one,” he says.
Moreover, who holds the police accountable?
The FBI will look into a case of police misconduct on the referral of a police chief, says FBI Chief Division Counsel Dave Staretz. That’s how they came to investigate the notorious Charles Walker incident in 2002, when the HPD chief then, Michael Mayberry, called for a third-party examination. Perkins says he’s never had occasion to request one.
“We’ll get involved if there appears to be a trend of problems or institutional epidemic,” says Staretz. “But we have plenty of confidence in the District Attorney and Internal Affairs to deal with isolated incidents.”
Peck doesn’t share his confidence. “There’s a long-standing breakdown in checks and balances in this region,” he says, citing multiple cases in the past when questionable actions by law enforcement were not, in his judgment, properly questioned.
Perkins says, “Gary Peck is in the business of saying inflammatory things in the media, but he never offers any proof. Like any advocacy group, the ACLU will make charges without any evidence.”
Lichtenstein says if that were the case, the lawsuits to which the ACLU attaches their name would be deemed frivolous by the courts. But that has never occurred. Peck says the chief’s statements are troubling because they evince an attitude that HPD does not tolerate criticism, denouncing any form that comes their way as reckless and non-credible.
The world is becoming much more complex and violent, says Perkins. We’re giving our officers more tools and training, and at the same time we’re teaching a culture of respect, and a culture of using only the force necessary.
Complaints of excessive force are delivered in the way of stories. In 2007, HPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau received 13 of them—10 more than the comparable North Las Vegas police department—and none resulted in officer discipline. “The ACLU has received numerous complaints,” says Peck, who later clarified that number to be six or seven. “People tell of being victimized by officers who are acting belligerent, acting rude, acting aggressive in an unnecessary way.” Flangas says his office receives 10 times more complaints about Henderson than Metro, even though the department and jurisdiction of the former are less than half the size of Metro’s. And, besides that: “Small stuff happens all the time—it’s like things happen every day,” says Flangas. “Officers are doing it, but no one takes particular notice because it’s small stuff.”
Stories do indeed go unreported. Such as that of Don Tunick, a former Henderson resident who has maintained a clean record but whose life was, in a moment and without warning, altered by an encounter with the Henderson police on October 27, 2006. It occurred as he hit the third step from the bottom of the staircase in his Anthem Highlands home, on his way downstairs carrying a can of Coke in one hand and the sports page in the other, when outside the unadorned window on the side of his house he saw no fewer than four Henderson police officers, their guns drawn, staring right back at him, he says.
“‘Don’t move or we’ll shoot,’” Tunick recalls them saying.
He dropped both his Coke and the sports page.
He thought he was dreaming. It was 1:30 in the afternoon, and he had just brought lunch back home, where he lived and was going to eat alone, because his wife of two years had left him earlier that summer. He had never had an encounter with HPD before.
The officers, Tunick says, motioned him to the front door. He opened it: “I was looking down the barrel of a gun,” he says.
Tunick says that the cops slammed him to the ground, dragged him down the steps of his front porch, and kept a gun pointed at his head while they handcuffed him.
According to HPD spokesperson Keith Paul, police responded to Tunick’s home after his wife called them, stating that Tunick had threatened to shoot himself if she didn’t come home in 15 minutes.
“This is Anthem,” Tunick says. “Nothing like that happens here.”
And so more than the physical pain, Tunick says the acute embarrassment of seeing his neighbors see him in that abject and detained state brought him so much anguish that he beseeched the officers.
“‘You have the wrong guy,’ I told them,” Tunick says, recounting the event. “But one of the officers proceeds to tell me that they had received a call saying there were drugs and a gun inside the house.”
Neither of which turned out to be true after the “six, seven, eight, nine officers,” according to Tunick, went up his driveway, into his car, into his garage and into his house, all without a warrant.
The house was cleared, according to the police’s non-criminal incident report. Paul says that is typical procedure for a “Legal 2000,” which, in essence, is a suicide threat. Moreover, he says, there were only three officers at Tunick’s house that day and none of them acted recklessly, having placed a call into Tunick’s residence prior to approaching it.
“Then they stick me in the back of an SUV,” says Tunick, “and they proceed to tell me, ‘This is what we do in these situations.’”
Paul says that detaining the subject is indeed part of the typical procedure for suicide threats—for officer safety, as well as the subject’s—and that through every step of the procedure, because it’s a psychiatric call, police officers must act with extreme caution.
Tunick was escorted by ambulance to Spring Valley Hospital’s psychiatric ward for examination, which he says he passed with the doctor’s summary judgment: “‘What the heck are you doing here?’”
Currently, Tunick is disputing the $8,200 in ambulance and hospital bills with which the false incident left him.
“When I finally got home that night I cried my eyes out,” says Tunick. “I’m still shaken. It’s been, utterly, a nightmare.”
According to Paul, the police are “damned if they do, damned if they don’t in that type of situation.”
He says: “His wife was on the phone with us the whole time, saying he was going to shoot himself: The threat of a gun being used calls for us to take all due precautions.”
Yet, the situation elicits a concern among Tunick’s neighbors:
Do anecdotal cases such as Tunick’s suggest that some Henderson officers are overzealous or unrestrained with their implementation of the use-of-force policy?
“People can cry foul if they want,” says Darrell Wade, a veteran of the police force and president of the Henderson Police Officers’ Association. “Anecdotal stories are not a case of a few bad apples spoiling the pot. We have a fine bunch of men and women that work for HPD.”
Perkins says that he is confident that HPD practices more restraint than any other agency in the region. He points to the numbers: In 2007, HPD received 255,000 calls for service, and arrested 10,205 people. “And we only had 13 complaints of use of force,” he says. “That’s the evidence I’d point to, to show the public that we’re not heavy-handed.”
Leo Flangas says that he receives many valid complaints against the police for which he can do nothing, because the damages are not great enough to make pursuing the case worthwhile for attorneys. And so, Potter adds, there is an informal “fracture rule”—meaning that, by and large, a bone needs to be broken for a lawyer to carry out the complaint in civil court.
Because neither Internal Affairs nor the Clark County District Attorney’s office has any history of delivering up police officers for criminal prosecution, says Potter, civil court is the claimant’s only recourse.
Are there going to be lawsuits filed against police officers? Perkins says. There always are. We live in a litigious society. These particular lawyers—that’s their lottery. They’re looking to hit the lottery. They’re $600-an-hour attorneys for a reason. I think it is unethical and unmoral for attorneys to try their cases in the media. But they do so to put pressure on us to settle to make a quick buck. Good attorneys don’t do that. But that’s not who we’re dealing with.
Since 2002, the city of Henderson has been hit with eight lawsuits alleging excessive force on part of HPD officers, according to data retrieved from a city risk-management report. One was dismissed. The other seven were settled before they went to court, costing Henderson taxpayers a total of $1.5 million.
Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson did not return a message seeking comment on this.
Perkins says he does not make decisions on settlements—that he is asked for his input, but, in the end, settlements are handled by the city’s legal department.
Shauna Hughes, the city attorney for Henderson, says a few of the settlements were an admission of guilt, but most were made for reasons of cost effectiveness.
If the police department were faultless, though, wouldn’t it resist settling with claimants, on principle alone?
“Lots of times I’d like to go to my grave to argue over principle,” says Perkins. “But at the end of the day, the legal department looks at what it’s going to cost to defend ourselves.”
Hughes says: “Even times when we felt strongly there was no wrongdoing, we had to settle. Trials are risky, and we have to be cautious with tax dollars.”
The “fracture rule” was in play with Potter’s client Joe Gaudreau, a Henderson resident who sued HPD in August of 2003. His teeth had been sheared off, and he sustained jaw and skull fractures after police came to his house on a domestic abuse call, he claimed. His case alleged that the “Henderson Police Department has failed to train, supervise and discipline its officers in the fundamental law of search, arrest, detention and use of force,” and it was settled by the city for $60,000 before it ever went to trial. The rule also applied to Jody Higgins, a client of Arthur Flangas (cousin to Leo Flangas) who settled with the city for $224,000 in 2004 for injuries she sustained during an incident that was captured on videotape. “I wish I could’ve shown that tape [to a jury],” says Flangas. “But the city settled that one right away.”
The “fracture rule” had also been present in two lawsuits waged against HPD and certain individual officers acting under the color of the law for incidents, savage and high profile, that took place in 2002. And, moreover, that lead to some irrepressible questions.
Like the Selimaj case, Michael Nicholas’ had begun with a traffic stop. In possession of marijuana, Nicholas pushed Henderson police officer Rand Allison out of his way and made a break for his apartment, only a stone’s throw away. Allison caught up with Nicholas and hit him three times with his baton.
Twice on the leg and once on the arm, according to Allison’s arrest report. Yet, two nearby witnesses, independent of each other, said without equivocation that Allison struck Nicholas on the head. “So hard you could hear bone break,” one said, according to the case file of Nicholas’ attorney, Cal Potter.
Nicholas’ injuries that day—January 14—would include a broken arm and a fractured skull that required seven staples. Allison would later state in a deposition that Nicholas had fallen on the stairs going up to his apartment during their tussle, and might have cracked his head then.
In any case, Nicholas did make it back to his apartment, where Allison and five backup patrolmen took Nicholas to the ground and subdued him. No weapons were found in his home or car, or on his person. Marijuana and methamphetamine, however, were.
“I couldn’t see absolutely any reason why [Officer Allison] did it,” judged one of the witnesses. “He wasn’t even resisting.”
According to Potter, the Internal Affairs Bureau at HPD shrugged off Nicholas’ complaint alleging excessive force.
As with Hare, the ACLU joined in the suit against HPD.
The city of Henderson settled with Nicholas in 2005 for $11,000. It was the second settlement the city had to make on account of an excessive force complaint against Allison. Nine months after the Nicholas incident, a woman claimed Allison battered her. HPD’s Internal Affairs dismissed that claim as well.
According to HPD’s use-of-force policy, compliance techniques—including the use of pepper spray, a baton or firepower—are authorized for and limited to “purposes of self-protection, the protection of others, to prevent the escape of a dangerous offender, actions taken to compel or constrain resistant/combative subjects, or to take an offender into custody.”
In his recounting of the Nicholas event, Allison, with efficacy and great precision, reconciled his actions with the department’s use-of-force policy. In his arrest report, Allison wrote: “The baton strikes were an effort to compel Michael, a combative subject, to obey my orders and prevent his escape. I was also very concerned Michael could possibly have a weapon.”
Henderson’s use-of-force policy stresses the crucial importance of articulation. “It is critical that you properly document the reason for your actions,” states the policy. “In the incident, crime, or arrest report, officer involved must articulate completely the reason for use of technique(s).”
And because reasonable force is defined by “the amount of force that was deemed necessary by the officer to overcome resistance, effect a lawful arrest or any other lawful objective,” which is a very subjective thing, proper articulation can be the difference between justified and unjustified actions.
Thus, says Arthur Flangas, “the real thing to look at is the review process: The [use-of-force] review board always sides with the police. It’s like they can do no wrong.”
That attitude of invincibility is troubling, says Peck. And it raises another pressing question:
Is there a means by which HPD reviews and assesses its use-of-force policy—as well as its officers’ practices of it—whenever there is an incident that involves use of force?
“Yes, we constantly review, on many different levels,” says Perkins. “There is a system in place, that every time an officer puts his hands on someone, we generate an internal report. Not only to assess our policies and procedures—to see if we’re doing it in an appropriate way—but also to make sure we don’t have a rogue officer.”
Are those reports available to the public?
“No, says Perkins. “Internal records are a quality-control measure.”
“People are going to say things about the police,” says Wade. “HPD’s reputation speaks for itself.” That reputation, however, took a thunderous hit when the repercussive images of Charles Walker—an 84-year-old man who suffered five fractured ribs, a fractured hip and bruises and abrasions across his face, head and shoulders during an altercation with a Henderson police officer—spread through the Valley and across the nation.
According to Walker’s attorney Leo Flangas, what had started as a minor traffic stop on July 21, 2002, escalated to actions that amounted to excessive force. Walker had been pepper-sprayed and manhandled by a young officer named David Tomlinson.
“Rolling Charlie over and seeing one side of his face was real bloody, I went ahead and stood him up,” the third officer on the scene testified before HPD’s Internal Affairs, according to court documents. “As soon as I seen that, I knew it was probably going to be a bad incident.”
Prior to settling Walker’s lawsuit against HPD and Tomlinson for $350,000 in December of 2004, the police, in court documents, stated that the frail and unarmed Walker was violent, uncooperative and a threat to the safety of the officers and the public. Besides articulating in his arrest report his fear that Walker might flee or retrieve a weapon, Tomlinson wrote, “I was afraid he might be trying to attack me.”
Regarding the Walker case, Wade says: “People didn’t get the full story.”
The city stipulated no admission of guilt in the settlement with Walker, and did not concede to any wrongdoing. A spokesperson for HPD says that Tomlinson, who has since left HPD for another agency, was not merely exonerated by HPD’s Internal Affairs’ investigation, but also by a third-party investigation conducted by the FBI. A Freedom of Information Act request submitted to the FBI’s Las Vegas field office was not returned in time to confirm this.
“The department fights tooth and nail, regardless of the claim,” says Flangas. “I thought my case with Charles Walker would have corrected things.”
The Walker case tainted HPD’s image because, from a bird’s-eye view, the interested public was left to wonder how an elderly, unarmed and feeble man could pose such a threat to a trained officer that the beating of Walker was justified. The department managed to reconcile Tomlinson’s actions with the use-of-force training, and so the question emerged:
Does common sense ever supersede the edicts of the training manual?
Potter says that, from what he’s observed over the years, the older and more experienced officers are more apt to show discretion and prudence, and that, conversely, the younger and less experienced officers tend to be involved in the controversial incidents of force. Tomlinson, 25, had less than two years experience. In the Selimaj case, the officer who shot Deshira, Luke Morrison, was in his second year on the force and just 23 years old.
HPD’s use-of-force policy states that “when compliance techniques are needed, department members should, if at all possible, assess an incident to determine, based on training and experience, which options in the continuum will best de-escalate the situation and bring it under control in a safe and prudent manner.”
So what happens when an officer has the training but not the experience?
For this reason, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department initiated a Crisis Intervention Team in 2003. It is a group of officers, dispersed throughout the various sectors of Metro’s force, who, according to its leader, Sgt. David Toney, have received more than 45 additional hours of specialized training in the safe, prudent ways to assess and de-escalate heated situations.
Does HPD have a crisis intervention team, or specialized training similar to Metro’s?
Perkins says all officers are trained to approach every situation as one with the potential to escalate into a crisis. “It’s a standard approach,” says Perkins. “We follow the standards of CALEA (Commission for Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies).”
“We have a use-of-force policy,” he says. “It addresses any encounter an officer might have with the public.”
Peck asserts that this question of specialized training—like the other questions—became paramount during the Selimaj incident this past February 12.
We get paid to keep people safe, says Perkins. In that course we put ourselves in danger’s way on a regular basis. There are violent criminals out there. We try to insulate people from those violent criminals. And I think we do a pretty good job of it.
There are things I wish I could tell you about the Selimaj case. But for the actions of this lady, she’d still be alive today. She’s the one that escalated this situation. She’s the one that escalated the use of force.
One witness says: “About three o’clock, I see the woman had one arm around one kid, while the other kid was holding onto his mother as any kid would. There were at least three officers around.
“This is Pecos Ridge and Sunridge Heights. I was catty-corner—15 yards away, tops. I had a clear view.”
The witness, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that Deshira Selimaj insisted her kids get away, despite their reluctance to leave her side. The witness says Selimaj was panicked because the police had their guns drawn.
“She was yelling, frantically, waving her arms,” the witness says. “I saw no weapon in her hand.”
Another witness says: “When the police took the boys, they frisked one of them. I was appalled by it—I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
“There were four officers with guns drawn. She was upset—very upset—very loud—waving her arms as if to motion their guns down.”
And another on-the-scene witness: “I could only see a lot of hands and worry. There was a lot of commotion; I could hear cops on the radio. Then I heard the tase.
“She was facing the desert. She fell back against her truck and then fell forward. I saw the cop’s gun pointing downward. She’s shot: I could hear the gunshot.”
And yet another witness:
“She was done. She wasn’t moving at all. A bunch of cops converged to the scene, like eight or nine cops around her. But I could see that she still had the Taser in her and the cop was trying to whip the leads out.
“Then two cops picked her up by her armpits and sat her like a rag doll on the curb. There was blood all down her side. She had a flannel and a white shirt underneath and there was blood all down her side. They just sat her butt on the curb like she was a rag doll.
“The ambulance arrived, and it looked like the paramedics were yelling at the cops to lay her down. Then they put her on the gurney and into the ambulance and took off.”
All of the witnesses spoken to for this story say they wish to go nameless out of fear of the Henderson police. “You don’t know what reaction you’ll get from them,” says one witness. Many of the witnesses, however, have already spoken to HPD detectives, and all of them say they are willing to speak their testimonies in court.
Perkins says, “Once we’re able to put the context before them, during the coroner’s inquest on April 10 and 11, I have full confidence they’ll be fine.”
He reproaches the media for what he deems have been one-sided stories on the Selimaj case so far. “Like Chinese water torture,” he says, “with one bad witness here, another there.”
But the police have not yet disclosed any witnesses who corroborate their side of the story on whom the media can report.
“Look, here’s what I think,” says Perkins. “Your story should wait for April 10 and 11. Then you’ll get every witness.”
Lichtenstein says that it is offensive to the letter and spirit of the First Amendment to ask for a total embargo of media stories until the police find it convenient.
Moreover, he suggests, it is symptomatic of a much larger problem that afflicts the department:
“They choose to shroud even the most basic information in secrecy,” in the words of Peck.
As proof, he proffers the following unfulfilled questions regarding Deshira Selimaj:
“Where is the knife?” and “Where is the police report?”
Moreover, Peck says:
“We’re pro-police—we’re pro-good and accountable police. In a democratic society, we give officers profound authority and power, with the caveat that they do their work transparently. There can be legitimate reasons to withhold information—sure. But it gives the impression there is something to hide. Without transparency there can be no accountability. Without accountability, the public’s trust will erode. And that is unfair to the fine officers of the department.”
Perkins says that some of the witnesses who corroborate the police’s account of the Selimaj case have made themselves known to Jim Jimmerson, the attorney representing the Selimaj family. “I know this because they’ve told us,” says Perkins. “But [Jimmerson’s team] doesn’t present the witnesses that they know exist. That’s not how they play the game.”
Jimmerson’s office says this is not true. Hal de Becker III, an investigator hired by the Selimaj family through Jimmerson, says not only have they found no witnesses who corroborate the police’s side, or say anything that is inconsistent with their 10 witnesses, but also that when they requested that the police disclose their witnesses in a motion filed in Henderson Municipal Court regarding the arrest of Zyber Selimaj for traffic violations and obstructing an officer during the February 12 event, the department turned over only two police officers.
“We gave them all of ours,” says de Becker. “From the beginning, we’ve encouraged all our witnesses to speak to the police.”
According to de Becker, at least seven already have.
“Right now I don’t know which witness accounts are most accurate,” says Peck. “I just want a fair and open process of finding out.”
Peck does not anticipate he will receive that with the corner’s inquest, the process by which police officers in Clark County are investigated after killing someone, when it plays host to the Selimaj case on April 10 and 11.
I want you to understand that Officer Luke Morrison is a hero, Perkins says. He went to the army out of high school. He was part of the original invasion of Iraq. Where he was highly decorated. He saved more than one colleague in Iraq. He came home with shrapnel in his arm. He started here. And then one day on Pecos Ridge he saved an officer’s life. Shame on Gary Peck, shame on Jim Jimmerson, and shame on anyone else who says otherwise. If they were honest about it, if they had the ethics and morals to wait until all the evidence was out on April 10 and 11, they’d come to the same conclusion.
The coroner’s inquest is not a trial. “Our objective is to have a full and fair vetting of the facts,” says Assistant District Attorney Christopher Lalli, who leads the coroner’s inquest investigation.
The ACLU says the inquest’s history suggests only half the facts will emerge during the proceedings—those that supports the police’s account of events.
There is a built-in conflict of interest in the coroner’s inquest, Lichtenstein says. For it calls on the DA, who typically works in conjunction with the police to prosecute criminals, to investigate the police.
Perkins says that, as far as he’s seen, the integrity of the system has been upheld:
“We’d love to sit down with the DA’s office and go over the case with them, but they won’t even talk to us because they want to remain independent.”
Each inquest is heard by a jury of seven citizens, and after hearing the facts of the case, as relayed solely by the DA, they render a judgment of the officers’ fatal action: justified, excusable or unjustified. No matter the outcome, however, the DA retains the right to pursue criminal charges against the officer if they feel it is warranted.
“The jury serves as an advisory board that offers a non-binding opinion,” says Lalli.
Since its inception 32 years ago, the inquest has played host to 169 cases. Juries have found the officers inculpable in 168 of them. (In the other case, the officer was absolved by a grand jury.)
Hal de Becker III says that he submitted a letter to the DA, informing them of the 10 percipient, or on-the-scene, witnesses who contradict the police’s account of the Selimaj event, and who are all willing to testify. He says he has confirmed that three have been subpoenaed.
Will the DA summon the testimony of all the percipient witnesses, even if their accounts contradict the police’s?
“We do try to put it all out there,” says Lalli. “All the different witnesses with different perspectives.
“But,” he adds, pointing to the issue of time, “there might be, say, 10 witnesses with the same testimony—we will call on a number of them, but perhaps not all of them.”
Peck calls it problematic that the DA can pick and choose between witnesses who will testify during the fact-finding process. Mario Lovato, a part of the Jimmerson team advocating for the Selimaj family, fears that the DA might put forth before the jury a false balance between witness testimony that supports the police and witness testimony that does not. Peck is further concerned because, the way the inquest is set up, with only the DA allowed to ask questions, “there will be no one to point out, or ask about the witnesses censored by the DA.”
Nor will there be someone to ask about this discrepancy:
HPD’s use-of-force policy defines unreasonable force as “any amount of force that is used by an officer which far exceeds what any other reasonable officer might have utilized in similar circumstances.” In the case of Deshira Selimaj, at least three officers surrounded her, and more than a half-dozen were present on the scene, and yet only one utilized his firearm. Nor, thus, will there be someone to ask:
Is it possible that Officer Luke Morrison used unreasonable force?
“He did exactly what training told him,” says Perkins, based on preliminary information he’s viewed. “He shot center of mass just like training teaches.”
And then, adjudicating the case in his own mind, the chief declares:
“If he had not taken the action he had taken, I honestly believe a fellow officer would have been harmed or killed.”
Wade says Henderson officers believe in the system in place. And furthermore, he says, they believe in one another. “There will be a time when all these things come out, and we will find that our officers are justified.”
We hire our folks from the human race and they are not perfect, says Perkins. Given the bad publicity of the first three months this year, there will probably be more complaints than normal. People see that and jump on the bandwagon. The department does not have a reputation for being heavy-handed. There’s no history of abuses. But just the opposite: We have a strong partnership with the community and a great reputation for handling violence. We get far more praise than complaints from the community. This is still the finest department in the country.
Joshua Longobardy is a Weekly staff writer. Damon Hodge and Aaron Thompson contributed to this report.