Transparency an item for sale by Metro PD’s officers union?

By Daniel Honchariw

Transparency is a ripe issue these days. This is especially true for law enforcement.

So when Las Vegas Metro P.D. boasted of the collective bargaining agreement it recently brokered with its associated union, the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, the deal was immediately branded as a win for transparency.

The occasion was the announcement of the newest, 3-year CBA, approved on September 26 by Metro’s Committee on Fiscal Affairs. The agreement includes a provision requiring all officers to be equipped with body cameras.

A move in the direction of transparency, no doubt. But as the saying goes, the devil is in the details.

A thorough review of the newly-approved CBA reveals that the LVPPA did not embrace the provision to equip all officers with body cameras with open arms. To the contrary, the police union refused to budge on the issue until Metro conceded to the union’s demands for additional salary increases.

This quid pro quo was expressly incorporated into the agreement.

Under Article 25.6,

The Parties agree that regularly assigned uniformed members of the Department will be required to wear a BWC, while on duty at all times.

The parties recognize that .25% of the salary increase in July 2016, .5% of the salary increase in July of 2017, and .25% of the salary increase in July of 2018 are a result of the Parties agreeing to the conditions identified above in Article 25.6.

Thus, it seems local law enforcement — the frequent target of anti-transparency allegations in recent years — is on board with more sunlight on police operations, but only conditionally and when the price is right.

Clark County residents will recall the controversy over a series of dubious officer shootings in recent years, many of which lingered prominently in the news media.

Responding to this worrisome trend, then-sheriff Douglas Gillespie — as has current Sheriff Joe Lombardo since — asserted the department’s willingness and intent to become more transparent in its operations, including through increased use of body cams on Metro’s officers.

So, why then does this transparency — which was promised independent of additional public money — come at a price to taxpayers?

The fact that body cameras are now a negotiable item during union bargaining demonstrates the extent to which transparency has become hostage to Southern Nevada union power.

Moreover, this isn’t the only recent occasion when the LVPPA has effectively opposed public transparency in government and broader notions of professionalism in policing.

In 2013, six members of Metro’s Use of Force Board resigned abruptly following then-sheriff Gillespie’s refusal to accept their recommendation that an officer accused of misconduct, Jacquar Roston, be fired.

Following Gillespie’s decision to impose a milder suspension in lieu of termination, many criticized the LVPPA for its aggressive opposition to the board’s recommendation, so as to protect one of its own — notwithstanding the review board’s findings that Roston had flagrantly violated departmental policies and procedures.

The LVPPA, thus, lent credence to a frequent criticism against public unions — that they put their members’ interests above police obligations of professional integrity.

In a July 2013 letter, Robert Martinez — civilian co-chairman of that review board — notified Metro of his intent to resign based on Gillespie’s refusal to honor the board’s recommendation.

Martinez wrote, in part:

I am saddened by what I feel is your inability to maintain the integrity and credibility of the Critical Incident Review Process. I can no longer support the department’s consistent effort to minimize openness and transparency.

Ironically, the Roston shooting incident itself was briefly referenced during the same September 26 Fiscal Affairs Committee meeting when the new CBA was announced. The reference immediately preceded the FAC’s approval for a $400,000 settlement of a federal civil-rights lawsuit the victim in that unjustified-shooting case had filed against Metro.

Significantly, the pay-for-wear agreement between Metro and its union does not, by itself, guarantee more transparency for LVMPD police conduct.

As events nationally make clear, exactly when cameras are turned on and operating is a critical element in whether police transparency is real.

Evidence is provided by a growing number of police-involved shootings where — contrary to departmental policy in each instance — an officer’s body-worn camera did not record the event in question because the officer present never activated his or her camera.

Contextually, a department’s commitment to transparency is only as solid as its commitment to abiding by its own policies governing body-worn camera use.

When it’s learned that cameras were not activated per departmental policy prior to any incident being reviewed — as reported from both Baton Rouge and Charlotte this past month — the general public, often in conjunction with local media, develops its own interpretation of the agency’s purported failure to adhere to its own policies.

Unfortunately, in the case of Metro PD, its policy governing body-worn camera use is not well-known, likely because it is not conspicuously available on the department’s website.

Metro’s willingness to make greater transparency a bargaining issue with its union guarantees only that body cameras will, in some form or fashion, be an ongoing political issue for years to come.

Thus, that Metro and its union have agreed to wider use of body cams is only a modest first step toward more transparency in Nevada law enforcement. Serious additional steps remain to be completed.

Rather than leave police transparency hostage to Metro’s collective bargaining process, body-worn cameras should be codified into state and county law.

Nevadans need only look to the 2015 Nevada legislative session to see how easily this can be done — as when Senate Bill No. 111 was passed into law.

Introduced by State Sens. Aaron Ford and Kelvin Atkinson, SB-111 requires any Nevada Highway Patrol officer “who routinely interacts with the public to wear a portable event recording device while on duty.”

It further requires NHP officials to “adopt policies and procedures governing the use of portable event recording devices[1] after which the state Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice must then review those policies and procedures.

This NHP precedent illustrates the ease with which similar valuable rules could be implemented in Clark County.

Although political opposition may arise from the LVPPA, which has an interest in keeping body cams within the collective bargaining process, the price tag for transparency needn’t be that high.

Daniel Honchariw, MPA, is a public policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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