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Las Vegas sheriff defends arrests of protest observers

by Associated Press
| June 16, 2020 5:03 PM

LAS VEGAS (AP) — The Las Vegas police chief said Tuesday that legal observers who were arrested at a weekend protest on the Las Vegas Strip were not neutral witnesses but were “antagonizing” and obstructing officers.

Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, who heads the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, defended his officers at a news conference but acknowledged an ongoing investigation into police actions over the weekend and in more than 80 protests in Las Vegas over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis after a white officer pressed his knee into his neck for several minutes.

Lombardo's news conference came a day after Gov. Steve Sisolak called for an investigation into the arrest of at least six attorneys and law students who were documenting the protest.

Sisolak said Monday night that he was troubled by reports of the arrests of legal observers, who wore red shirts identifying themselves as such. The Democratic governor urged Las Vegas police to investigate the incident and publish findings quickly.

The sheriff on Tuesday showed several clips from a police body camera video and some footage from cameras on the Las Vegas Strip looking down on the protests Saturday that showed what appeared to be legal observers in red shirts standing near the front line of protesters.

Lombardo said the clips were only snippets" from the “early throes of the investigation.” He said the department had a number of online videos and police body camera footage to review from Saturday's protest.

In one clip, the observers appeared to be holding up their cellphones and filming the officers. Another clip showed several of the red-shirted observers filming a police car and moving closer to the car to film inside the back seat. A third video began showing an already-in-progress arrest of a female legal observer.

Lombardo said the videos showed observers walking in the middle of the street with protesters “as officers attempted to get them out of harm’s way and back onto the sidewalk.” He said one of the legal observers “shoved her cell phone camera up to an officer's face in a confrontational manner.” He said another one left a road median and leaned into a police vehicle “seemingly leading the crowd of aggressive protesters.”

When the sheriff was asked about the circumstances surrounding the third clip, showing the in-progress arrest of a female observer, he said, "That's a great question. Because if you look at it at face value, you're like, ‘They weren’t doing anything, right?'”

The sheriff said before the arrest, the officers had given a verbal warning telling the demonstrators and observers they needed to leave.

“They had been given that warning earlier, OK? They still were in proximity. Granted, they were on the sidewalk, right? But the decision to take them into custody was made prior to that,” Lombardo said.

Attorney and lead observer John Piro said earlier that he and Belinda Harris, a Clark County chief deputy public defender, were “snatched” from a sidewalk, handcuffed with zip ties and arrested for what he said was no reason.

Lombardo said the department was in the early stage of investigating 17 complaints that have been made against his officers so far regarding their actions in more than 80 protest and demonstrations since Floyd's killing.

He said thus far, no officers have been found to violate any policy but he invited the public to make a complaint for the department to investigate if they have any concern.

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Associated Press writer Sam Metz contributed to this report.