CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Police reform advocates are demanding lawmakers use a special session to repeal a recently passed state law that strengthens protection for officers facing misconduct allegations.
Since Gov. Steve Sisolak said he’ll convene the Legislature for a special session to address criminal and social justice reform, the law has become a flashpoint in discussions. Its sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, D-Las Vegas, said she’s open to revisiting it.
“I fundamentally believe that people should be treated fairly in the workplace. A lot of what you saw on that bill came from that very good notion,” said Cannizzaro, who works as a Clark County prosecutor.
“That said, we also know that we have to do better and we have to do more to make sure people have faith in community that protects them and also to hold people responsible for their lack of accountability,” she added.
The law added provisions to Nevada’s Peace Officers Bill of Rights that:
—Limit the ability of plaintiffs to use testimony given by officers during department misconduct investigations in civil lawsuits.
—Require departments to allow officers accused of misconduct to review evidence and accusations against them before being questioned by department internal affairs officials – and require departments wait until an attorney and union representative can be present.
—Require departments to offer back pay to officers cleared of misconduct allegations.
Amid the national discussion that’s followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, backlash against the bill reveals discord among Democrats, who — both in Nevada and nationwide — are attempting to address police accountability issues without alienating labor groups representing law enforcement.
The measure passed with near-unanimous support through the Democrat-controlled Legislature over the objections of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada and groups representing families of people who died in officer-involved shootings.
Cannizzaro’s shift arrives more than a year after she sat alongside Officer Michael Ramirez, a Las Vegas Police Protection Association lobbyist, to testify in favor of the legislation in an Assembly committee. Ten months later, Ramirez was indicted on felony conspiracy and false document charges for allegedly helping a confidential informant having an affair with a detective pass a drug test, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.
Las Vegas Police Protection Association President Steve Grammas said the law isn’t applicable in Ramirez’s case, but could be if he’s cleared of charges and faces a departmental internal affairs investigation.
“If Mike gets through his case, he may still have to be investigated here and face discipline,” Grammas said.
He said the union would be willing to reopen discussions about the law, but suggested the special session might not be the right time.
“I actually had a meeting with Sheriff (Joe) Lombardo prior to the start of the (first) special session and he and I came to an agreement on some concessions related to the bill. We’re willing to sit down and talk,” Grammas said. “It’s worth it to say, ‘Pass this thing off to the regular session and let’s let all the stakeholders come together and talk about their sides in an attempt to get a fair resolution.’”
Lombardo is the elected head of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
Grammas said the bill protects officers who may not know their rights, including to have a union representative present during questioning.
ACLU of Nevada Policy Director Holly Wellborn wants the law repealed. Providing unique protection to officers by limiting what kind of evidence can be used in civil cases, she said, impedes victims of officer-involved shootings from seeking justice.
“It’s about is doing what we can to get rid of barriers to officer accountability,” she said. “Our public policy is law enforcement officers are awarded a higher level of protection. It shouldn’t be that way. They’re not above the law.”
Eric Sprately, a lobbyist for state sheriffs and police chiefs, spoke against the law in 2019. He said he sees it as part of a larger trend of police unions fighting to weaken accountability measures. Amid calls to repeal the law, he feels vindicated but is still saddened it passed.
Cannizzaro may have described the bill as a labor issue, but Sprately said the public doesn’t view law enforcement agencies through the labor-management lens. “They see an officer in a uniform with a badge,” he said.
“We really want 100% of our law enforcement officers to treat people well,” he said. “In order to do that, management has to hold people accountable.”
A special session is currently underway to address budget issues stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. Sisolak has said he intends to announce the agenda for the justice reform session once the first concludes.
Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/ Report for America Statehouse News Initiative.