Tracking traffic stop data, ‘bias indicators’ for officers lauded by criminal justice reform groups, but questioned by law enforcement unions

In 2003, Nevada lawmakers headed into session with their hands on a troubling new data analysis — Black and Hispanic drivers in Nevada were statistically more likely to be pulled over for traffic stops than white motorists.

The report — which analyzed nearly 400,000 traffic stops statewide — resulted in legislation from then-state Sen. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas) to require police to attend racial sensitivity training and continue collecting data on traffic stops as an attempt to stem any ongoing racial bias issue in traffic stops. 

That legislation was opposed by police groups and ultimately failed to advance out of committee. But nearly two decades later, the issue hasn’t gone away.

Many of the same arguments from 2003 reappeared on Wednesday during a Senate Judiciary committee hearing on SB236, a bill introduced by Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) that would re-start data collection and analysis on traffic stops, and require police departments to implement a system of tracking “bias indicators” for individual officers.

Harris referenced the 2003 study in her testimony on the bill, saying it was important for lawmakers to follow up on the now-decades old report and take action if racial disparities in traffic stops still exist.

“It's imperative that the Legislature take another look at this in an aggregate sense and get some statistical analysis done on whether these biases exist in traffic stops or not, so that we can actually address if there's a problem, and if there is, figure out the best way to solve it,” she said.

SB236 has two primary functions. The first would require every law enforcement agency in the state to establish an early warning system for finding police officers who display “bias indicators” — including having a large number of citizen complaints, being involved in a large number of use of force incidents, making a large number of arrests for resisting an officer or arrests that don’t result in filed charges or having a “negative attitude” toward programs aimed at boosting community and police relations, according to the bill text.

If an officer is tagged for displaying bias indicators, SB236 would require the police agency to increase supervision of the officer and offer additional training or counseling. If that officer is “repeatedly identified” by the system, the agency “shall consider the consequences that should be imposed,” including transfers or discipline.

Harris compared the system to a Doppler weather radar, saying that like the weather forecast, bias indicators may not be an exact prediction, but can prepare law enforcement for the potential of a “catastrophic event.”

“We want to help leaders identify potential problems and to intervene so that these problems do not become catastrophic,” she said.

The second part of the bill would require the state’s Department of Public Safety to begin developing a standardized method for use by all police agencies in the state as to how to record traffic stop information, including the race, age, and gender of the person stopped and any police action taken — such as a warning, citation or search.

It would require that information be transmitted annually to the state starting in 2023, and “to the extent that money is available,” contract with a third party to conduct a statistical analysis of the data for the purpose of “identifying patterns or practices of profiling.” 

The original version of the bill would have required police officers to have at least an associate’s degree or two years of military service, and would have placed limits on qualified immunity — a legal provision protecting law enforcement from civil lawsuits unless officials “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Both of those provisions were removed under a conceptual amendment submitted by Harris ahead of the hearing.

Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) questioned how the bias indicator tracking system envisioned in the bill would work, saying that most examples of illegal driving came from young males regardless of racial background.

“When cops are pulling people over, and we're seeing that disproportionality among races and in gender, did anyone ever consider that it might be the fact that those people are the ones that are committing a disproportionate share of the crimes?” he said.

Harris pointed back to the 2001 survey, saying that the disparity between Black drivers and traffic stops had a strong statistical basis.

“Yes, we've considered it, and I do not believe there is any evidence that African Americans are more likely to speed in the same manner that there is evidence that males are more likely to speed, hence the higher insurance rate for males,” she said.

The bill was supported by a wide range of criminal justice reform advocates, from the ACLU of Nevada to libertarian-leaning Americans for Prosperity. Many shared stories of past examples of police violence; the niece of Byron Williams, a Black man killed in police custody in Las Vegas after saying “I can’t breathe” two dozen times, testified in favor of the bill.

“There's nothing radical nor unreasonable in this bill,” Mass Liberation Project lead organizer Leslie Turner said. “This is actually the bare minimum, data collection and transparency.”

The bill even attracted support from some police unions.

“It will require further dialogue with the law enforcement agencies to develop those policies,” Executive Director of the Nevada Association of Public Safety Officers Rick McCann said. “You know, dialogue is not a bad thing. We need more of it, quite frankly. Statistical analysis is not a bad thing.”

But the Las Vegas Police Protective Association — the union representing Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department rank and file officers and the largest police union in the state — testified in opposition to the bill, saying many of the measure’s supporters were from anti-police groups that supported the abolition of police unions.

LVPPA representative John Abel said the union hadn’t been in contact with Harris about the bill, and could potentially be in support of the legislation if it was shown that officers did not have any “newly added paperwork or documentation” for the measure. He suggested that other support from other police unions, such as NAPSO, wasn’t reflective of how most police in the state felt about the issue.

“These two groups should denounce this legislation as I know their members probably aren't supportive of their union,” he said.

Metro police lobbyist Chuck Callaway said the agency was opposed to the bill, but was working with Harris on amendments that move the state’s largest police force to the neutral position. Metro filed a fiscal note estimating an annual $22 million cost to implement the bill, but Harris said the agency would be able to use existing data collection systems and not require them to find new software.

Still, Callaway bristled at some of the comments made by bill supporters.

“In regards to some of the testimony that was made during the hearing, I kind of take a bit of offense to the term ‘police violence,’” he said. “Police officers are out doing a very difficult job on a daily basis, and they react to the actions of suspects and people that they encounter on calls and on stops during the course of their duties.”

Sen. Melanie Schieble (D-Las Vegas) said she understood why law enforcement may have an emotional response to suggestions of implicit bias — saying that she had in the past been accused of “pretty much racism” in online and real-world spheres, an experience she called “emotional and jarring.”

But she said the purpose of SB236 was not punitive, and in fact represented one of the lightest approaches possible to deal with implicit bias.

“You're not calling people out on Twitter, you're not putting them on the record in a court of law, you're not posting a list in their front lobby,” Scheible said. “You are privately talking to one officer with actual data to say ‘Hey, we noticed that over the last six months, these 10 things happened...and you might not know this, but that's not normal. I can't think of a lighter touch for an officer than that one on one conversation.”

Police union launches campaign attacking Cannizzaro over alleged lack of support for law enforcement

State Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro on Friday, July 31, 2020, during the first day of the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City.

The Las Vegas Police Protective Association is going on the offensive against Democratic state Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, kicking off an independent expenditure campaign against the Democrat’s re-election campaign after lawmakers rolled back a bill granting additional protections to officers accused of misconduct.

The LVPPA, which represents active and retired members of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, has created a political action committee and launched a website, social media ads and two videos attacking Cannizzaro for allegedly siding with “criminals over law enforcement”. Cannizzaro is locked in a re-election race against Republican April Becker, who has been endorsed by the LVPPA. 

It’s the latest development in an acrimonious political divorce between state Democrats and the LVPPA, which broke from the ranks of most organized labor organizations to endorse President Donald Trump and a mix of other Republicans on the 2020 ballot, including congressional and state Senate Republican hopefuls.

In a statement, Senate Democratic Caucus Executive Director Cheryl Bruce said the attack was disappointing given that Cannizzaro is employed as a prosecutor with the Clark County district attorney’s office, working in the office’s gang unit.

“At the same time LVPPA is sending out blatantly false information about her record on public safety, Senator Cannizzaro is prosecuting a double homicide case, among other violent criminal cases,” she said in an email. “Attacking a prosecutor who is risking her own safety to keep our streets and families safe is the worst kind of lie.”

Though the union endorsed Cannizzaro and all other state Senate Democratic candidates in the 2016 election cycle, it soured on the Democratic Senate leader after lawmakers in a late summer special session approved a bill rolling back parts of a 2019 bill that granted several powers and protections to officers accused of misconduct. 

Criminal justice advocates pushed hard for that legislation, SB2, amid a nationwide reckoning and renewed focus on police violence and misconduct stemming from the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But it was opposed by several police unions, including the LVPPA, as an unnecessary reaction removing protections for accused officers.

The LVPPA did not return an email request for comment.

The campaign so far includes a 15-second video stating Cannizzaro is “on the wrong side of the law” after passing a bill that “lowered sentences for drug traffickers and burglers (sic).” Similar language is used in a Facebook ad that began running on Wednesday, stating “our families aren’t safe with Nicole Cannizzaro.”

It’s an extremely simplified reference to a 157-page bill passed in the 2019 Legislature, AB236, a sweeping criminal justice reform measure that originated from a Department of Justice study and recommendations as to how to cut costs and reduce the state’s prison population. Among its many changes included lowering the state’s “strict” rules on drug possession and sales, and changes to state laws on burglary 

The bill was initially opposed by police departments and prosecutors, but was amended in the Senate by Cannizzaro to address some of those concerns raised by district attorneys and other law enforcement agencies. The final version of the bill passed on a 19-2 vote in the Senate.

Per legislative minutes, the LVPPA did not testify on the bill during any of the three public hearings held on the measure.

That social media ad redirects to a website — “Corrupt Cannizzaro” — that outlines a barrage of attacks against her, including supporting bills that her lobbyist husband’s clients supported, attempting to raise her salary (through supporting a change to annual legislative sessions), raising taxes and holding “closed-door” special sessions over the summer.

Democrats currently enjoy a 13-8 seat advantage in the 21-member state Senate, but are playing defense in two suburban Las Vegas districts (Cannizzaro and termed-out Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse) while backing candidates against Republican Sens. Scott Hammond and Heidi Gansert.

Cannizzaro, who took over the Senate majority leader position in 2019 after the resignation of former Sen. Kelvin Atkinson, who pled guilty to federal charges of misappropriation of campaign funds for personal use. She won a narrow victory over former Assemblywoman Victoria Seaman in the 2016 general election, prevailing by slightly more than 1,000 votes out of more than 56,000 cast.

Cannizzaro has been endorsed by the Nevada Association of Public Safety Officers (NAPSO), a separate organization representing more than two dozen law enforcement organizations. That organization is separate from the “Public Safety Alliance of Nevada,” which includes the LVPPA.

“She has a strong record on public safety, and that’s why as Nevada’s largest law enforcement Coalition, we continue to proudly endorse her re-election campaign,” NAPSO Executive Director Rick McCann said in an email. “We know Nicole, and we trust her.”

Longtime labor union goal of collective bargaining for state workers draws emotional testimony

Union members rally on the Las Vegas Strip

A longstanding goal of Nevada labor organizations to allow an estimated 20,000 state government employees to collectively bargain came before lawmakers for the first time Thursday, the initial step for a bill with its best chance at passage in three decades.

Lawmakers on the Senate Government Affairs Committee held an evening hearing on the much-anticipated SB135, which would lay out the structure and framework for nearly a dozen categories of state workers to join a union and collectively bargain with state government.

The bill is sponsored by Democratic Sen. David Parks, but was presented and strongly supported by members of the American Federal of State, County and Municipal Employees, the nation's largest labor organization for public employees. Steve Kreisberg, the union’s Director of Research and Collective Bargaining, told lawmakers that the bill would extend the same rights to join a union and collectively bargain offered to local government and private-sector workers.

“By adopting such a bill, you’re really expressing trust in your workforce, to make what they believe is the correct decision for themselves,” he said. “And you’re trusting in that workforce to exercise the rights that they believe they should exercise, as opposed to policy makers exercising that right for them.”

This bill is similar to a measure introduced in the 2017 Legislature but that died in committee, facing a likely veto by former Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval. Multiple attempts to allow state workers to collectively bargain have been introduced since the 1970s, but the only measure to make it through the legislative process was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Bob Miller in 1991.

But new Gov. Steve Sisolak — who was boosted by more than $3.7 million in spending from an AFSCME political action committee — said allowing state workers to collectively bargain was a priority both on the campaign trail and after the election.

The bill would authorize the governor to appoint an individual to negotiate benefits and other wages with employer unions and would set up a process by which disagreements first go to a voluntary mediator and then to an arbitrator. The bill exempts collective bargaining negotiations from Open Meeting Law, which Kreisberg said was necessary because it “encourages us to have frank discussions and encourages compromise.”

But the decision to actually approve any spending for the bargaining units would be left up to state lawmakers, and the bill sets up bargaining contracts to last for two years and to coincide with state legislative sessions. It would also prohibit strikes.

An amended version of the bill deletes provisions changing the membership of the Local Government Employee-Management Relations Board, but changes its name and allows it to assess a fee against each agency or unit of the state government to help pay for administrative costs in overseeing union elections as well as any disputes between employees, unions and local governments.

Although the bill allows the governor and newly created bargaining units to discuss health care, Republican Sen. Ben Kieckhefer raised concerns that the bill would conflict with the state’s Public Employee Benefits Program, which manages group health-care benefits for state employees. He also raised doubts that state lawmakers would be able to effectively bargain with state employees during the already-hectic 120-day legislative session.

“Our budgeting process really started like nine months ago, as agencies start building their budgets and we do all of these sorts of things,” he said. “Making wide-scale changes to our state budget based on an agreement that might only be executed now and still getting out of here within 120 days, I find difficult as someone who’s worked on the budgeting process now for a decade.”

The bill would authorize categories of state employees to collectively bargain regardless of which agency employees them:

  • Labor, maintenance, custodial and institutional employees, including correctional institution employees who are not responsible for security at those institutions
  • Administrative and clerical employees, including legal support staff and employees whose work involves general office work, or keeping or examining records and accounts
  • Technical aides to professional employees, including, computer programmers, tax examiners, conservation employees and regulatory inspectors
  • Professional employees who do not provide health care including engineers, scientists and accountants
  • Professional employees who provide health care, including physical therapists and other employees in medical and other health-related professions
  • Employees, other than professional employees, who provide health care and personal care, including employees who provide care for children
  • Category I peace officers, which includes most police officers
  • Category II peace officers, which includes officers who work for community colleges, schools, courtrooms and some state agencies
  • Category III peace officers, which typically includes prison and correctional guards
  • Supervisory employees not otherwise included in other three bargaining units.
  • Firefighters

Exempted from collective bargaining rights include employees of the Public Employee Benefits System, who are paid out of the pension program and not the state’s general fund and thus could not be represented by the governor in collective bargaining cases. The bill also allows for some cross-agency collective bargaining negotiations, in cases where multiple bargaining units might need to negotiate with a single agency that employs members from more than one category of workers in cases of common employment issues.

On Thursday evening, dozens of green-clad AFSCME members working for the state told lawmakers their frustrations with their treatment over the last decade, starting with unpaid furloughs and pay cuts for state workers that started in 2009 and continued through Sandoval’s first term.

Amber Fryer, a senior correctional officer who works at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center, told lawmakers that the difficult conditions of her job paled in comparison to the powerlessness she and other officers felt in their relationship with the state.

“Many of these state inmates would assault me or kill me, just to be a trophy. I have responded to more assaults and bloody scenes than I care to count,” she said. “The frustration lies not in how the inmates treat us, but how the powers that be smack us in the face at the end of the day.”

Rick McCann, head of the Nevada Association of Public Safety Officers, said that allowing police officers employed by the state to collectively bargain would prevent him and others from having to wait for each legislative session and hope for enough money leftover in the budget for a pay raise.

“Collective bargaining is needed in part so we can stop coming to this body every session and begging. I sat before a committee a couple of days ago, and I said, ‘I’m begging you on behalf of our state employees in law enforcement,’” he said. “I really would like to stop begging. Let’s start bargaining.”

Appearing in opposition, Nevada Policy Research Institute President John Tsarpalas told lawmakers that his libertarian-leaning organization estimated that allowing for collective bargaining would cost the state between $325 million and $685 million per budget cycle.

“The public sector has neither owners nor profits over which to negotiate,” he said. “Elected officials making decisions regarding public worker’s compensation do not have to pay the costs themselves.”

The committee took no action on the bill, which must either be passed out of committee by next Friday or be declared exempt from legislative deadlines to remain afloat in the legislative process.