Las Vegas cop cleared after shooting unarmed man

Not just unarmed, but also the wrong man:

Patrol Officer Jason Evans shot Antoine Hodges in the abdomen after spotting him at a 7-Eleven convenience store on Oct. 21, the night after a double slaying less than two miles away, according to the district attorney’s review of the case.

“Mr. Hodges backed away from the officer, ignored his commands and reached behind his back,” District Attorney Steve Wolfson said. “Fearing for his life and the safety of others in the 7-Eleven, the officer fired a single shot.”

Hodges was taken to University Medical Center, where he underwent surgery. He survived his injury and faced no charges.

Hodges was paying for his gas when Evans pulled into the parking lot and drew his gun. Hodges retreated into the store. That seems like something an innocent person would do. If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have no reason to think the cop with his gun drawn is targeting you. Instead, you’re likely to think there’s violence going on around you, which would prompt you to want to get away from it. A guy who just killed two people I suppose might run into the store as well, but it seems more likely that he’d run away, not trap himself in a 7-Eleven. Officer Evans ordered Hodges to put his hands up. According to Hodges, he raised his hands, then lowered one hand to put his cellphone in his pocket. That’s when Evans shot him. Officer Evans has been cleared of wrongdoing.

Note here that the burden is on the citizen, not the trained law enforcement officer. The risk of any mistake, by the cop or the citizen, is borne by the citizen. Evans could have given Hodges another warning. He could have seen that Hodges was carrying a cellphone and intuited that a nervous guy with a gun pointed at him may just wanted to have put his cellphone in his pocket. But that would have required Evans to assume some additional risk. Instead, he transferred the risk back to Hodges by shooting him.

When police shoot unarmed people, the justification is often that the victim made a “furtive gesture” or “reached for his waistband.” The implication is that this isn’t something innocent, unarmed people do. But those people were innocent and unarmed. So either the police are lying about the victim’s actions (which does not seem to be the case here), or those sorts of movements are something that innocent, unarmed people may sometimes do when a gun is pointed at them, and these experiences should be accounted for and incorporated into police training. One thing seems certain: Innocent, unarmed people aren’t making furtive gestures or reaching for nonexistent guns just to trick the police into killing them.

That police are rarely punished after the incidents also reveals another unfortunate truth: Citizens must do everything right in these situations. There is no allowance for judgment altered by fear or panic. Police officers, meanwhile, are afforded a good deal of leeway in light of the perilous circumstances. (The double standard is even more glaring during forced entry drug raids, which are designed to maximize confusion and disorientation.)

This is the consequence when we put a premium on officer safety, giving it more value than the rights and safety of citizens. When I was researching my book, I talked to Neil Franklin about this. Franklin is a former Maryland state trooper, a former narcotics cop and was once in charge of curriculum at the Maryland State Police Academy. “I think there are two critical components to policing that cops today have forgotten,” Franklin told me. “Number one, you’ve signed on to a dangerous job. That means that you’ve agreed to a certain amount of risk. You don’t get to do start stepping on others’ rights to minimize that risk you agreed to take on. And number two, your first priority is not to protect yourself, it’s to protect those you’ve sworn to protect. But I don’t know how you get police officers today to value those principles again. The ‘us and everybody else’ sentiment is strong today. It’s very, very difficult to change a culture.”

In 2011, the Las Vegas Review Journal looked at 20 years of police use-of-force incidents. The paper found that officers were cleared of wrongdoing 97 percent of the time, including every one of the 114 cases in which a police officer shot and killed someone. Last year, Las Vegas paid $2 million to the family of a disabled man police killed after mistaking him for a burglar. The supervising officer at the incident was also initially demoted, but then later reinstated at his prior position by an arbitrator. None of the officers faced criminal charges.

Of course, the preferred outcome here isn’t to see a bunch of prison cells filled with cops. The preferred outcome is to give police better training and to change the culture to which Franklin is referring so there aren’t as many shootings in the first place. And here there’s some good news. That October incident notwithstanding, things do seem to be changing in Las Vegas:

Las Vegas police shootings are trending down, and Metro reforms are on the rise.

It’s looking good for Metro after the U.S. Department of Justice released its final progress report Wednesday after a wide-ranging, multi-year study of Metro’s policies related to deadly force.

“The department’s introspection and genuine desire to make significant improvements and serve as a model for other departments draws praise from the assessors. The department’s commitment has produced impressive results,” said the report, released by the federal Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS.

Metro implemented 72 of the 80 reforms the feds suggested since their initial November 2012 study was released, the report said, and five more reforms are in progress. Wednesday’s report used data and policy information current through last year.

And the number of police shootings have continued to drop. The rate of Metro shootings per month has dropped 36 percent since the Review-Journal published the series “Deadly Force,” its 2011 study on police shootings, one of several milestones leading to Metro reforms, the report said.

There were 24 shootings in 2012 and 2013 combined. In 2010, the year before the RJ series, Metro’s officers were involved in a record 25 shootings, the report said.

“The assessors are optimistic that the decline in OIS rates shown above represents a trend, rather than random fluctuations,” the report said.

Let’s hope the department does serve as a model for other police agencies, and that they not wait until enough people have died to spur a DOJ investigation before they start looking to make reforms.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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