By Frank Rudy Cooper, Addie C. Rolnick, Stewart Chang and Dmitri Shalin
The months-long, multiracial protests against police violence and for racial equality are a demand for change, and states such as Colorado are listening. The Legislature is at risk of not heeding the call. The proposed police reform bill for the current special session does not do half of what Colorado did. If Nevada is serious about meaningful change, our Legislature must deliver police reform at least as strong as Colorado’s.
With our expertise as scholars and public policy professionals, we have evaluated the proposed bill and found it sorely lacking. The potential police reforms include only a ban on chokeholds, protections for people who record police brutality, a duty to intervene and report when another officer uses unreasonable force, and a minor tweak to the law defining reasonable use of force.
The intervention requirement is important, but the rest allows police and prosecutors to practice business as usual. Business as usual has included racial profiling, racially disparate use of force, and no prosecution of police misconduct. The bill seems to be aimed at preventing another death like George Floyd’s, but these reforms would not have made a difference to Byron Williams, who died in the custody of Las Vegas Metro police officers after a pretextual stop last year.
The Colorado bill makes important changes that are missing from its Nevada counterpart. Among the most important of the many changes Colorado has made are the following:
- Provide the attorney general with the powers both to investigate police departments to see if they have a pattern and practice of racial bias or depriving anyone of constitutional rights and to prosecute individual officers for misconduct.
- Ban retaliation against civilians filing a complaint and back that up with strong sanctions against violators.
- Prohibit use of deadly force whenever there is a minor or non-violent offense, force creates a substantial risk of injury to others, or a prior clear verbal warning of deadly force could be issued without creating a substantial risk of injury.
- Create state law civil liability for police misconduct that does not allow for a defense of qualified immunity — a defense that has made federal civil rights claims almost impossible.
Some will claim the current bill is a helpful step toward future reform, but there is reason to fear that is not the case. If legislators won’t act now in the wake of the widespread condemnation of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others, they are unlikely to do so later if public attention moves to other matters. The next Legislature might decide police reform is past business, leaving the current inadequate bill as a face-saving substitute for robust reform. A meaningless first step might thus be worse than no step at all.
To qualify as a legitimate first step, the Nevada bill must include the provisions from the Colorado bill identified above and also create a “Task Force on Policing Accountability.” The task force would review best practices developed in other jurisdictions and make recommendations to the Nevada legislature by the end of 2020. The task force’s mandate should authorize it to research and make recommendations on the following topics:
- The desirability of adopting a state policy that racial profiling and pretextual stops are rebuttably “unreasonable” under the Nevada bill of rights.
- The possibility of enhanced data collection and public transparency about stops, arrests for failure to pay fines, and related matters.
- The feasibility of police and prosecutor recruitment, hiring, and training practices that would significantly reduce the likelihood of implicit or explicit bias.
- The identification of ways to strengthen civilian oversight of police.
- The possibility of reallocating money for some tasks, such as addressing homelessness and mental health calls, from police to other agencies.
- The appropriateness of limits on the use of state money for police department acquisition of combat-related surplus military equipment, such as armored vehicles, riot gear, and explosives.
As public policy experts, we are not just grousing from the outside, but pledge our time to aid the task force’s effort.
With their police reform bill, Colorado legislators were able to proudly proclaim “we heard your cry and the people of Colorado did not look away.” Passing a gutted version of Colorado’s bill would not only be looking away, it would be running in the opposite direction. We know our legislators can accomplish at least as much as Colorado did.
Frank Rudy Cooper, Addie C. Rolnick, and Stewart Chang are professors of law at the UNLV Boyd School of Law and co-facilitators of the Program on Race, Gender & Policing. Dmitri Shalin is professor of Sociology and director of the Center for Democratic Culture at UNLV.