A Las Vegas police officer has been charged in the death of an unarmed man he shocked with a stun gun, punched in the face and put in an unauthorized chokehold while attempting to arrest him last month at a luxury hotel and casino.
Officer Kenneth Lopera of the Metropolitan Police Department was charged with one count each of manslaughter and oppression under the color of office after a coroner found that the victim, Tashii Brown, had been choked to death, officials said Monday.
The coroner ruled that Brown, 40, who also went by the name Tashii Farmer, died of “asphyxiation related to police restraint” during an encounter outside the Venetian Hotel in the early hours of May 14, Sheriff Joseph Lombardo said at a news conference. Brown suffered from an enlarged heart and was high on methamphetamines during the incident, which contributed to his death, according to the sheriff.
“The charges are the result of the coroner’s findings, along with evidence gathered from video surveillance, body-worn cameras and witness statements,” Lombardo said.
Lopera, 31, faces a maximum of four years in state prison on each charge. He has been placed on unpaid leave pending the outcome of his case and a separate administrative investigation by the police department, officials said.
Shortly after he was arrested and booked in the Clark County Detention Center on Monday, Lopera was released on $6,000 bail by the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The union’s president, Steve Grammas, defended Lopera’s actions.
“We will be representing the officer to the fullest extent that we can,” Grammas told the newspaper. “We will stand by him through this process.”
An attorney representing Brown’s family, Andre Lagomarsino, said they had hoped for a murder charge.
“There will be a time for justice,” Lagomarsino told the Associated Press. “That time is coming soon.”
At about 1 a.m. on May 14, Brown, who was black, approached Lopera, who is white, and another officer at a coffee shop in the Venetian, which is located in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip. Brown was “acting erratic,” according to police, and told the officers that people were chasing him. When one of the officers tried talking to him, he abruptly ran through a set of open doors to an employee-only area.
Lopera gave chase, catching up to him on a roadway outside the hotel, where he saw Brown trying to unlatch the tailgate of an occupied pickup truck, police said. Believing Brown was trying to carjack the vehicle, Lopera fired his Taser at him. The driver would later tell investigators that he did not think he was being carjacked, according to police.
Lopera shocked Brown seven times with the Taser after he refused the officer’s commands to roll onto his stomach, police said. Body camera video from the incident showed Brown writhing on his back with his hands in the air as Lopera stood over him. At one point in the footage, Brown could be seen trying to pull the Taser probe out of his skin.
During the struggle, Lopera hit Brown with a closed fist several times in the head and face, police said. He then put Brown in a chokehold to subdue him, holding him by the neck for more than a minute, according to police. Lopera released Brown when other officers arrived to help handcuff him.
Brown was pronounced dead at the Sun Trauma Center at 1:39 a.m.
Investigators concluded that no charges would have been filed against Brown had he survived the encounter, Undersheriff Kevin McMahill said in a news conference last month.
Initially, police described the maneuver Lopera used on Brown as a “lateral vascular neck restraint,” designed to restrict blood flow to a person’s brain by compressing neck arteries rather than cutting off the airway. The technique is used by police departments around the country, including the Las Vegas police department, which does not consider it deadly force.
But investigators later found that Lopera had used a “rear naked choke” to control Brown. The technique, based in martial arts, is not authorized by Las Vegas police.
Grammas, Lopera’s attorney, told the Associated Press that the rear naked choke was “identical” to the hold approved by the department.
“Both are a carotid blood choke that cuts off blood flow to the brain,” he said. “It’s not a windpipe choke that cuts off the air.”
The lateral vascular neck restraint and other chokehold-like practices have come under intense criticism since Eric Garner, an unarmed black man from Staten Island, died in 2014 after a police officer wrapped an arm around his neck and wrestled him to the ground. The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada has called on the police department to stop using such techniques.
The case against Lopera marks the first time in 27 years a Las Vegas police officer has been charged in a fatal shooting or an in-custody death.
In 1990, three Las Vegas vice officers were indicted on involuntary manslaughter and misconduct charges stemming from the death of Charles Bush, a casino floor supervisor. Bush, who was unarmed, was choked to death by one of the officers after they entered his apartment without a warrant and tried to arrest him in connection with a prostitution investigation, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. A jury deadlocked and the charges against the officers were dismissed.
More from Morning Mix