Clark County schools release bodycam footage of district police detaining Durango students
The Clark County School District released body camera footage from last February late Thursday evening showing school police officers using force against Black students and detaining them near Durango High School during an alleged search for a reported firearm, after a recent court order compelled its release.
The district received backlash after a viral cellphone video from last February showed Lt. Jason Elfberg pushing a Black student to the ground, placing his knee on the student’s back to hold him down and detaining two other students. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Nevada is representing two of the students, who were 14 at the time. One student was cited for resisting a public officer, though the ACLU said the citation wasn’t pursued by law enforcement.
The school district has said in court that Elfberg wasn’t disciplined for the altercation.
Last year, the ACLU of Nevada took the school district to court to compel it to release body camera footage and other records related to the altercation. Under Nevada law, police who interact with the public, including school police officers, are required to wear body cameras and the footage is generally considered a public record, but is kept confidential during ongoing investigations.
In a Thursday statement, the organization said it was shameful that it took the school district nearly a year to hand over the footage.
“It's now crystal clear from the footage that the narrative that the school district has been peddling, that its officers stopped these teenagers as part of some kind of firearm investigation, has always been an attempt to spin the events and avoid accountability for attacking school children,” said ACLU of Nevada Legal Director Chris Peterson.
The school district said in a Friday statement that “the release of the court-ordered video shows that the rights of citizens were honored and laws were followed despite the challenges of that day’s events near Durango High School.”
The six videos released by the district total about 130 minutes and blur the faces of all individuals featured including school police. One of the videos shows a group of students walking on a sidewalk near the school. Some are walking on the street going around school police cars.
Elfberg stated in a crime report that he approached the three students because they were wearing blue medical rubber gloves. He wrote that another officer who was in the area investigating a reported firearm thought he spotted a weapon in one of the student’s pockets. The report states officers searched one of the students but didn’t find anything.
The video shows Elfberg yelling at students to walk away as they tell him a detained student has done nothing wrong. He then follows a student in a blue hoodie as the student was walking away, and places handcuffs on the student. Another student in a tan hoodie and red pants is shown recording the interaction from the sidewalk. Elfberg yells at the student to walk away. As the student is backing up with his arms behind his back, Elfberg grabs the student and pushes him into the ground. He uses expletives in telling other students watching from the sidewalk to back up multiple times. The video doesn’t show the gloves reportedly worn by the students.
During a Thursday press conference hosted by the ACLU, Peterson said his preliminary review of the video indicates that the school police violated the students’ First and Fourth amendments rights related to freedom of speech and unreasonable searches and seizures. He said students have the right to film school police and to criticize them.
“Questioning the police is not escalation. Demanding answers is not escalation,” he said, adding that the footage undercut the district’s claim that the students were detained as part of a firearms search. ACLU of Nevada Executive Director Athar Haseebullah added that their clients were not armed.
In the video, Elfberg tells one of the detained students that he was stopped for refusing to leave, and states “I can come and stop anybody I want.” Later, he tells a student he has to be heavy-handed because he has to protect his “guys” and protect other students.
Peterson said any danger was “manufactured” by Elfberg himself.
Police Officers Association of the Clark County School District General Counsel Adam Levine said in a Wednesday statement the footage shows Elfberg defusing what could have been “a very volatile and dangerous situation for both officers and the involved students.”
“This case highlights the dangers of jumping to a wrong conclusion based upon snippets of video viewed out of context,” Levine wrote. “That is exactly what persons and entities, [who] have interests other than the safety of our students, have done in connection with this incident.”
Peterson added that the ACLU is continuing litigation to obtain emails related to the altercation (a hearing on emails is set for March) and is working on an additional lawsuit.
“The question is not if we will be filing a lawsuit, the question is when, and the question is who will be the defendants,” he said.
Issues with accessibility of body camera footage
In 2017, the Nevada Legislature passed a bill, SB176, requiring all police officers in the state who deal with the public to wear body cameras.
Even though those recordings are generally considered public records, Peterson said his organization has seen problems with accessibility to body camera footage across the state, citing attempts to raise fees to obtain the footage and lobbying from unions that represent law enforcement.
“We have seen that in the context of escalating fees … that makes body camera footage so prohibitively expensive that your average person can't afford it,” he said. “We've seen that in the context of efforts by organizations like police unions to pull down footage claiming somehow it violates officer privacy even though they are engaging in public service.”
The school district has previously called the ACLU’s records request “broad and overly burdensome.” An attorney for the school district previously argued that the records shouldn’t be released because Elfberg wasn’t disciplined, reprimanded or sanctioned over the incident.
As such, the district’s attorney argued the report on the investigation is entirely confidential and that state law precludes even Elfberg himself from being able to review it because no punitive action was taken or recommended in the case.