LAS VEGAS (AP) — Police in this tourist-driven city with a history of racially charged incidents were hit again Thursday with questions about bias, profiling and use of force after a black NFL player reported being held at gunpoint and handcuffed by officers who were searching for an active shooter at a Las Vegas Strip casino.
Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett’s claim Wednesday that police used excessive force to detain him before releasing him without charges early Aug. 27 drew a demand for accountability from the local American Civil Liberties Union and new criticism from the head of the local chapter of the nation’s largest civil rights organization.
NAACP Las Vegas President Roxann McCoy compared Bennett’s brief detention on Las Vegas Boulevard with the death last May of Tashii Brown, an unarmed man who was choked to death by a police officer after a foot chase through another Strip casino. That officer has been suspended without pay and faces a manslaughter charge.
“The difference between them is that Michael Bennett is an NFL player with the celebrity to be able to shine a light on the injustices that happen every day to African-American people,” McCoy told The Associated Press. “Thank God that Michael Bennett didn’t get killed. We still have a lot of racial profiling going on.”
Las Vegas police deny race played a role in either case.
Bennett, a 6-foot-4 defensive end, has been outspoken about race relations and has been a leader of national anthem protests at NFL games. Those protests were started by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Bennett said he was singled out by police from among several hundred people running from the casino.
In a statement Thursday, the police department pointed to efforts over the last five years to become a national model for “reducing use of force, promoting de-escalation and training officers not to be biased.”
Still, the department has come under scrutiny for its use of force.
Las Vegas police reported using a neck hold to restrain suspects 274 times from 2012 to 2016 — an average of more than once a week, while records show Los Angeles police officers reported using the hold just seven times over that period. Civil rights groups have urged the Las Vegas department to end use of the holds, also sometimes known as chokeholds.
Thursday’s Las Vegas police department statement cited policy changes enacted following an informal review and suggestions made in 2012 by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services.
That probe came after intense criticism of the fatal shooting in December 2011 of Stanley Gibson, an unarmed Gulf War veteran who was shot with an assault-style rifle after refusing for more than two hours to get out of a vehicle pinned between police cruisers in an apartment complex. The officer who fired the fatal shots in that case was fired.
Body cameras are now worn by more than half the department’s more than 2,600 sworn police officers, who cover a metropolitan area of 2 million residents that receives more than 40 million tourists a year.
The department released dramatic video Wednesday from a camera on the collar of a sergeant who was supervising a tactical team of officers entering and running with guns drawn through the Cromwell casino. They were searching for a gunman and ordering patrons who cowered near craps tables and slot machines to run for the exits.
Police and casino officials later attributed the report of gunfire to the sharp sound of velvet rope stands being knocked to a tile floor.
The video didn’t show Bennett’s chase. Clark County Undersheriff Kevin McMahill said the officer who chased and handcuffed Bennett didn’t have his camera activated but that the department has hundreds of other videos to review while investigating Bennett’s complaint.
That raised suspicions for McCoy, who says she receives two or three complaints a week from people who believe they were wrongly detained or arrested by police because they’re black.
“We fought for a long time to get body cameras,” she said. “If they’re not activated it’s a moot point. Where’s the transparency?”
McMahill said officers reported that after most other casino patrons had evacuated, Bennett emerged from behind a gambling machine, ran out an exit, and failed to stop for officers chasing him.
Bennett’s complaint that he was detained “for no other reason than … my skin color is somehow a threat” sounded familiar to Ronnie Dunn, a Cleveland State University professor who authored an article last year calling police profiling a persistent civil rights challenge.
“The African-American male represents the symbolic assailant in the American psyche,” Dunn said, adding that the officers who confronted Bennett may not have been acting on intentional or conscious biases.
McMahill said the two officers are Hispanic. Neither has been identified. Both are still on the job.
“Michael is a big African-American male who was running,” Dunn said. “Even if others were running as well, that stuck out.”