LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — In the wake of calls for an investigation from the Nevada governor and attorney general, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department sheriff is speaking out about officers arresting legal observers during recent protests.
13 Investigates has the sheriff's explanation for the escalation of tensions and also heard from legal observers who say they were improperly and unfairly arrested by heavy-handed officers.
Tuesday, the LVMPD said those observers were doing far more than looking on.
The observers wore bright red shirts amid the protesters on June 13 to identify them as legal observers -- people who work with the National Lawyers Guild and other civil rights groups.
They can be seen at demonstrations and protests to observe police behavior in order to keep officers accountable.
"A guide generated by the ACLU states that it is the job of a legal observer to be neutral and impartial and observe and witness the events,” Sheriff Joe Lombardo said Tuesday in a press conference. But Lombardo says that did not happen on Saturday after officers ordered protesters to disperse due to safety concerns.
“One of the legal observers shoved her cell phone camera up to an officer's face in a confrontational manner,” Lombardo said. “Another legal observer left the median divider and approached a police vehicle and leans into the window, seemingly leading the crowd of aggressive protesters.”
Protesters also flooded an intersection on the Strip.
“I would like to add that the Las Vegas Strip is open and there are people who are trying to access businesses,” Lombardo said. "For a driver that finds themselves caught in the middle of a protest, this can be very alarming. There is a real danger here, and particularly on Saturday night when it appeared that the protesters were trying to access I-15 to occupy the freeway.”
Lombardo says most of the legal observers were just observing, and the few who were arrested and given misdemeanor citations crossed the line participating and engaging.
“These people were antagonizing and obstructing our officers,” Lombardo said
Authorities said they are still investigating to help state leaders and the public better understand what took place and to hopefully avoid the same actions in the future.
Lombardo says they're combing through hundreds of hours of body cam and internet video with hopes to have it wrapped up in the next 30 days.
In the meantime, Sheriff Lombardo continues to defend his officers, playing video for the media on Tuesday, which he says is evidence of observers seeming to taunt officers.
The arrests of legal observers added to a growing tally of concerns from peaceful protesters who say they were targeted by heavy-handed police.
The Las Vegas police department is in the midst of 17 internal affairs investigations. So far, they haven't found any officers to be in the wrong.
“When you say peaceful protesters are being used, being afforded heavy-handed tactics, I have to push back on that a little bit,” Lombardo said. “And granted, every investigation takes a little time. You got to get both sides of the story.”
Vegas officers have responded to 87 protests over the last few weeks.
“Our officers have shown tremendous constraint, poise, and composure in the face of a lot of emotion; hate and rage directed at them,” Lombardo said. “We had 42 officers hurt as a result of these protests so far.”
The arrests on June 13 generated outcry after several legal observers were arrested.
“The officers gave them a verbal warning, ‘You need to leave. Need to leave.’ They didn't leave,” said Lombardo. “They had been given that warning earlier. Okay, they still were in proximity. Granted, they were on the sidewalk, but the decision to take them into custody was made prior to that.”
Lombardo cited public safety concerns after protesters flooded an intersection on the Strip. He says this and other events have been complicated by out of town instigators.
“So, as I respond to the criticism of the tactics that LVMPD utilized, I'm concerned about the dangerous rhetoric that has been displayed online. Clearly, this is a lot of emotion, often intermixed with facts, without facts, that continues to amplify tensions in our community.
But as 13 Investigates has been exposing, LVMPD's actions may have contributed to the escalating tension. Like in a previous case, where a man was tackled to the ground as he crossed the street in a crosswalk.
Lombardo says the department will quickly and thoroughly investigate all complaints. He calls his officers well-trained, progressive, and one of the nation's best.