The news is reporting unrest in Sin City. The officers of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD, or just “Metro”) have, so far this year, shot 21 people. The ACLU and the NAACP both have their own investigations underway. I’m not holding my breath while wondering what the results will be. I would be surprised to learn that there has been one investigation of law enforcement by either organization that showed that the cops had acted properly and honorably, and that the people that got hurt either deserved to do so, or got that way because of their own actions.

While it”s true that cops often daydream about gunfights and other similarly exciting events, I don’t know any cop that has been in a shooting that wants to be in a second one. I speak from personal experience here. Like a lot of bad things that happen, I value the experience and it has contributed to who and what I am today, for better or worse. But I don’t want to have that experience again. In that way, it’s like having food poisoning. It definitely gets your attention, but how about we not do that a second time?

Las Vegas is not unique, but the makeup of the community is rare. The city’s economy is based on tourism and excess. Las Vegas has an “anything goes” reputation that encourages people to take risks and do things they wouldn’t have dared try back home. People like to pretend they’re rich and important, if only for a couple of days. There’s the chance (the operative word here is “chance”) of winning big money, lots of food and liquor, and people waiting on you, attending to your every need.

Those people are the ones that actually live in Las Vegas, and most of them are not especially well paid. The most prevalent jobs are those of food server, dishwasher, barback, porter, bellman, maid, and so on – all relatively unskilled labor. A quarter of the households have incomes of less than $25,000 per year, and the median cost of real estate is about 20% more than the national average. Almost half of the population is non-white. This isn’t the Las Vegas that most tourists see. Those people tend to be all but invisible.

This underclass sees all of the excess, the luxury, the conspicuous consumption of luxuries, all so close, but so out of their reach. If you live in a four-room rented house, own nothing that didn’t come from Wal-Mart or the Dollar Store, and drive a ten-year-old pickup with ripped upholstery and bald tires, you might not think of yourself as poor – so long as everyone around you is in a similar situation. This is why mainly rural states like Iowa and Montana enjoy relatively low crime rates. When you are a “have-not” in close proximity to a bunch of “haves,” you experience a situation known in criminology as “relative deprivation.” It doesn’t matter whether you are really deprived of things, as long as you believe you are deprived. Then, you get angry.

This is the environment that Metro officers have to work in. On one side, you have the tourists that expect to be protected so that they can have fun and be carefree, and on the other you have folks that are angry about everything in general, and at the police in particular, because they are viewed as the barrier between them and what they want. Oh, and add that it varies between warm and ghastly hot almost all the time.

Other cities have similar environments, but in Vegas it’s especially aggravated. How does this lead to so many police-involved shootings? Usually it happens when the cops tell people not to do things, and they do them anyway.

  • Don’t reach for that gun.
  • Don’t take your hands off of the car.
  • Don’t resist arrest.
  • Don’t run from me.

For most of us, this is pretty simple stuff. To paraphrase the old Jim Croce song, you don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit in the wind, and you don’t taunt the guy who has the immediate capacity and authority to shoot your sorry butt. Other people seem to have difficulty following instructions, especially if they have authority figure issues to begin with.

The LVMPD has a solid reputation of being one of the finest police departments in the country. Their training is top notch. They pay their officers very well, and thus can attract the best applicants. Their organizational culture is one that does not tolerate corruption or overt misconduct. And if you pose a deadly threat to a citizen in the presence of an officer, or to the officer him/herself, they will not hesitate to shoot you. Don’t want to get shot? Obey the law and do what the nice policeperson tells you. This is not complicated stuff.

It’s unfortunate that Metro officers have been in the deadly force decision loop so many times this year. I doubt that any of their cops started a shift with the intention of shooting someone before end of watch. On the other hand, most of the people that got shot started their day with the intention of ignoring the law and its enforcers, and opposing any attempt to make them do otherwise.

So, while it’s sad when any cop has to push the force continuum to its limits, it would be worse not to do that when it was called for, because then you have to put on one of those long parades of police cars that ends at the cemetery. Consider each incident separately for the unique situation that it is, render an unbiased decision on the appropriateness of the use of force, and act swiftly when a shooting is out of policy. But don’t condemn the cops for protecting the citizens and themselves. There’s a good reason why they carry those heavy, loud, dangerous things in their holsters

Article written by/or information provided by tcamos

Tim Dees

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