THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 120, May 7, 2001
Police Review Board Worthwhile ... When Cops Listen
by Vin Suprynowicz
Special to TLE
Many on the Las Vegas police force balked at the creation of the Metropolitan Police Department Citizen Review Board last year, arguing the boys in beige could do an adequate job "policing" themselves.
But as one of the first cases taken up by the board after its formation last October now plays out, it appears sponsors of the civilian oversight authority will gain some quick vindication.
The case begins last July, when off-duty police officer Richard Splinter, 30, was ejected from a baseball game at Cheyenne High School by umpire Jon Tignor. Tignor filed a complaint with Metro Internal Affairs, contending Splinter engaged in conduct unbecoming of an officer when he pulled back his shirt and showed Tignor a handgun after the umpire ejected him from the game.
Officer Splinter's supervisor, Sgt. Dan Southwell, 40, was assigned to investigate the complaint. (Undersheriff Richard Winget says that under new policies now in effect, the complaint would more likely be investigated by Internal Affairs itself, rather than being turned over to the accused officer's supervisor.) Within a month, Southwell had cleared Splinter of any wrongdoing.
Unsatisfied with that outcome, Umpire Tignor took his complaint to the new Civilian Review Board. And that's when things get interesting.
The review board found Sgt. Southwell interviewed only two witnesses: Officer Splinter himself and a mutual friend of Splinter's and Southwell's. "The investigator did not even interview two of the three witnesses named in the incident report filed by the officer (Splinter)," the review board found.
Southwell contacted Tignor by phone for an interview but "decided he was drunk and uncooperative and made no additional attempts to contact him," the review board stated in its report. (The board found Tignor did not drink but did have a speech impediment.)
Undersheriff Winget now confirms that Sgt. Southwell's initial report falsely stated a North Las Vegas police supervisor who initially responded to the incident found no misconduct had occurred. Southwell also lied about questioning a witness who was never interviewed, Winget says.
The civilian review Board urged Metro to re-open its investigation of the incident, which it did in February. (Though before we grow too ecstatic, let's note that Sheriff Keller's office has ignored similar requests in at least two other cases.)
Wednesday, Sgt. Southwell was relieved of duty for falsifying reports during an internal investigation. Southwell could be fired, Winget now reports (though I'm not holding my breath), while Officer Splinter is likely to receive a lesser sanction.
Displaying a weapon in a manner meant to intimidate would be an offense if committed by a "civilian" -- trained police officers are expected to meet an even higher standard when it comes to controlling their emotions. But Undersheriff Winget is correct -- it's the falsifying of an investigation to cover up the original offense which is an even more serious matter, and precisely the kind of corrupt "business as usual" which critics of Metro have long suspected.
"This board does have a real purpose," commented review board Executive Director Andrew Beckman this week. "But for the review board's actions, this misconduct would have gone completely ignored."
Police these days increasingly see themselves as the equivalent of an embattled military unit occupying enemy territory, where closing ranks and "protecting our guys" against outsiders is vital for unit survival. Even referring to those who wear no uniform as "civilians" furthers this unfortunate notion -- police, after all, are not in the armed forces; they are civilians.
What a peaceful nation needs are peace officers brave and competent enough to deal with the occasional outburst of real crime or violence -- not elite paramilitary units with special powers, patrolling our streets like an occupying army, viewing anyone not of their uniformed brotherhood as potential "hostiles."
It may be a long path back from the brink of the police state, a path not made any easier by rulings like the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision last week that a Texas policeman was justified in handcuffing and imprisoning a woman for failing to wear her seat belt while driving slowly along an isolated country lane -- her children with her in the vehicle -- searching of a lost toy.
In the meantime, safeguards like the Metropolitan Police Department Citizen Review Board do, as Ms. Beckman says, do "serve a real purpose."
Police officers are not angels; a few mistakes can be forgiven. But an arrogance that pretends mistakes can be swept under the rug and need never be acknowledged has been allowed to breed too long. Let's hope the force now starts to get that message.
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