My former co-blogger at Confederate Yankee, Bob Owens linked to a Las Vegas Review Journal article on Thomas Mendiola, one of the three officers that shot Erik Scott, in this post:

02-02-11: Cop in Scott Case Gave Felon a Gun

Thomas Mendiola was one of the cops that gunned down Erik Scott and avoided jail time thanks to what appears to be a cover-up by Las Vegas Police.

It doesn’t look like he’s getting out of this one.

In this follow up post four days later, I explored the Mendiola developments—the fact that he flunked at least part of his basic training course and his arrest for providing a gun to a felon–in greater depth and reported on several new developments.  Among them was another shooting done by a Metro Sgt., for apparently no reason.  Another was the bizarre case of two Metro officers who, while on duty, decided to take a trip into Arizona in their marked patrol car.

Some readers wondered why I was writing about incidents not directly related to the Scott case.  I summed up this Update thus:

It is, of course, impossible to know with certainly which of the primary possibilities is in play in this situation. As with the Scott case, it suggests a lack of discipline and supervision and invokes an appearance of corruption that should horrify the civilian overseers of Metro, but which apparently, to any meaningful degree, does not. Those citizens of Las Vegas who fear for their lives at the hands of their own police force would appear to have good and sufficient cause.

Most people don’t understand police work and police officers.  What happened to Erik Scot—and the aftermath- is possible only in an organization shot through with corruption.  The other incidents I have written about in the months following Erik Scott’s death provide clear evidence of the severe and deadly problems in the leadership and ranks of Metro.

As always, those interested in reading the comments that accompanied each original article should visit the Confederate Yankee Erik Scott Archive.

02-06-11: The Erik Scott Case: Update 10: The First Cracks Appear?

You don’t want to commit a crime in Las Vegas–at least not on TV. On the tube, you’ll be relentlessly pursued by a group of young, beautiful, highly educated and competent crime scene investigators who work in gleaming glass and steel labs surrounded by state of the art equipment that would make MIT green with envy. So ethical and competent are they–and the police force they serve–that if a molecule of evidence exists in the known universe, they’ll find it and brilliantly use it against a suspect to talk them into a tearful confession. Readers who have been following the Scott case updates (this update is linked to all of our other posts relating to the case), know that the reality of Las Vegas is very different, even greater than the usual disparity between TV and reality.

Before we get into the most recent developments in the case, here are links to articles that readers will find interesting:

(1) An article on Metro Police Training, available here.

(2) An article on the arrest of Officer Thomas Mendiola, available here.

(3) An article on the arrest of Mendiola with a PDF link to the criminal complaint, available here.

(4) An article on another Metro shooting, available here.

(5) An article on Metro officers stopped for speeding while on duty–in Arizona–is available here.

DISCLAIMER: As with all of the updates in this series, I am hampered by a substantial lack of confirmed information. I base my analysis and theories on my police experience, knowledge of human nature–particularly of the psychology of police officers, and professional police procedure–and on logic and common sense. In so doing, I may be wrong in ways small and large, and as faithful readers have discovered, am more than willing to prominently correct any inadvertent errors of fact. I continue to invite contact and comment from members of Metro or others who might have information bearing on this case that the public may be informed as accurately and fairly as possible. I’ll keep your confidence. Over many months, I have become more and more convinced that Metro is indeed engaging in a cover-up and is, in many ways, acting contrary to law, common sense, professional police practice and morality. I remain open to being persuaded, by valid evidence, otherwise.

WHAT’S NEW:

(1) On December 23, 2010, local Las Vegas media, in an article about police basic training, noted in passing that Officer Mendiola had washed out of his first basic training academy, but apparently passed on the second attempt.

(2) On January 10, 2011, Scott family attorney Ross Goodman of Las Vegas announced that Costco and its employees, most notably security officer Shai Lierley, were being dropped from the federal lawsuit filed by the family. Goodman noted that the suit against Costco could be reinstated at any time within the two year statute of limitations.

(3) On January 31, 2011, local media reported that Mendiola had been suspended without pay after being arrested and charged with a felony for allegedly giving a firearm to a convicted felon.

ANALYSIS OF LEGAL TACTICS:

One might be initially alarmed by the fact that Goodman dropped Costco from the case, but this is only mildly remarkable. While I have no direct pipeline into the decision-making processes of the Goodman Law Firm, there are a variety of rational tactical reasons for this. Goodman may have concluded, considering the federal venue, that it would streamline the overall case, making it easier to deal with discovery issues and reducing side issues that might only serve to confuse a jury. The case is apparently still in the early motions phase, so depositions of witnesses have yet to be done.

There are a variety of other potential reasons, but it will serve no useful purpose to speculate further. Keep in mind that this does not prevent Goodman from re-filing the case against Costco and its employees so long as it is done within the two-year statute of limitations. It also does not prevent Goodman from compelling Lierley or any other Costco witness to testify, at a deposition or at trial. Therefore, while Goodman obviously believes that there are advantages in what he has done, there are no immediately obvious downsides.

For those not familiar with the civil process, depositions can be very important. In essence, a deposition is an opportunity for attorneys representing both sides in a civil suit to question witnesses, under oath and with a transcript, prior to putting them on the witness stand in court. This provides the opportunity to ask the kind of questions and to obtain the kind of in-depth information that Metro and those testifying on its behalf so carefully avoided at the Inquest. It also provides the opportunity to question witnesses such as Steve Grodin of the Public Administrator’s Office who assisted Metro in an illegal search of Scott’s condominium after his death. It also gives attorneys the opportunity to assess the believability and attractiveness of witnesses and to plan effectively. There is little doubt that Metro would prefer to avoid having any of its officers provide depositions in this case.

ANALYSIS OF MENDIOLA TRAINING REVELATION:

The revelation that Officer Mendiola failed to pass his first basic academy class is interesting for that fact alone. What would be more potentially interesting is knowing why. It would also be interesting to know how long Mendiola was out of the academy after his second try and how long he was out of field training prior to July 10 2010. It’s possible that he had been on his own on the street only a short time before shooting Scott.

If Mendiola failed due to a lack of judgment in shoot/don’t shoot training, it is a far more serious matter than if he could not keep straight specific elements of statutes. Officers can always look up statutes as necessary, but they cannot look up common sense or tactical awareness. As regards the Scott case, it would be far more telling if Mendiola is on record as lacking essential judgment in tactics, situational awareness, or the use of force than for any lack of scholastic aptitude. Generally speaking, recruits who fail a basic academy are fired and not given a second chance, though some agencies do offer a second chance. As the facts are eventually known, the wisdom–or lack thereof–of Metro’s decision to allow Mendiola a second chance will be easier to evaluate. Negligent hiring and/or retention is always a factor in civil cases.

ANALYSIS OF THE MENDIOLA ARREST:

However, Mendiola’s arrest certainly tips the scales against the wisdom of a second chance in his case. The facts are relatively simple. Mendiola apparently had a relationship with one Robert Justice (there’s irony), 45, a convicted felon. Mendiola apparently knew that Justice was a convicted felon, yet engaged him to work on his car. Mendiola allegedly gave Justice a .22 caliber Ruger handgun for his work on the vehicle and admitted that he knew that Justice shouldn’t have firearms, even apparently admitting having had a conversation with Justice about it.

Interestingly, Justice is also involved in a case involving an alleged attempt by his co-defendant Ronald Webb to kill Webb’s live-in girlfriend, Las Vegas attorney Nancy Quon. Quon is also reportedly the target of an FBI investigation into allegations of massive fraud involving Las Vegas Valley homeowner’s associations.

Mendiola’s association with Justice is troubling on many levels. It is one thing if Justice was merely an employee of a car dealership where Mendiola had his vehicle repaired, but it seems that Mendiola’s relationship, and his intimate knowledge of Justice’s background, went beyond that. While any officer has professional relationships with criminals, professionals know that they must absolutely keep criminals out of their personal lives. The idea of owing money or favors to criminals is something every officer should, from mere common sense, avoid like the plague. Criminals are often adept at manipulating others. They drag everyone with whom they are involved into their chaotic lives and crimes and disappoint and betray those who are close to them. Police officers should understand this and act accordingly. Mendiola’s mere association with Justice may be indicative of a significant and dangerous lack of judgment, which, considering what is know of his involvement in the Scott case and his failure in his first academy class, may be something of an understatement. His allegedly knowingly giving a convicted felon a firearm might be reasonably thought to remove all doubt.

The mere fact that Mendiola has been charged with a crime–any crime–is surprising. If, as all the known evidence suggests, the Scott shooting was unjustifiable and was followed by a massive and remarkably clumsy cover-up, it would certainly be in the best interests of Metro to immunize Mendiola from wrongdoing, to ensure that he maintains a low profile, keep him within the fold, particularly as the Scott family’s civil suit proceeds. As long as Mendiola keeps his mouth shut, doesn’t do anything stupid, and is willing to hold to the party line on the Scott case, he should be absolutely protected. If he is not, others with potentially damaging knowledge have to wonder if they’ll be abandoned too. This starts a desperate chain of doubt and suspicion that corrupt organizations, organizations with many secrets to hide, fear and usually avoid.

If the theory of the case I’ve developed is correct, the civil suit poses great danger to Metro, not only to the three officers involved, but to other agencies complicit in the cover-up, and to high ranking metro officers, up to and possibly including Sheriff Doug Gillespie. As I’ve suggested, all it will take is one crack in the wall, one person to experience a crisis of conscience, to tell the truth, and the Tower may come crashing down. Metro is, of course, more than aware of this.

Did Metro come to believe that Mendiola was having such a crisis of conscience? Did they think he might crack, and if so, was his arrest a way of gaining absolute control over Mendiola? Mendiola’s alleged crime came to Metro’s attention during an unrelated undercover operation. If Metro chose, it need never have come to light. There is credible evidence to indicate that this kind of wrongdoing by officers and friends of Metro, and worse, is routinely ignored. Why charge this particular officer at this particularly sensitive time unless the gains outweigh the potential risks, unless it furthers Metro’s greater interests?

Thomas Mendiola, at only 24 years of age, is in a very bad place of his own making. If Metro proceeds with the charge, he would–in any professional agency–certainly be dismissed from law enforcement, be unemployable in his chosen career, and would likely end up with a felony record. One might be tempted to believe that since Metro has charged and suspended Mendiola and gone public, it could not possibly fail to press the charge through a trial, but Metro seems to care nothing for public opinion or relations, and the entire Las Vegas area seems to be an enormous memory hole. What’s one more memory?

Another possibility that Officer Mendiola may wish to carefully consider is the time honored and often practiced matter of people simply disappearing, never to be seen again. There is a great deal of desert around Las Vegas and periodically, human bones turn up here and there. Considering the stakes, this is a possibility that Mendiola would be most unwise to discount. This is particularly true if any federal agencies are actively investigating the Scott case–not because Mendiola need fear them, but because Metro may. Following their usual policy, the Feds do not comment on whether they are or are not investigating any criminal matter and the public is notified only when arrests have been made. That said, police officers often have sources of information about such things denied the general public. If Metro does not have such sources, it would be foolish for them to assume that the Feds were not, at least, looking into the case and that their interests would coincide with those of Metro. Mendiola’s best option might well be immediately developing close and personal relationships with various federal agencies that have the power to offer him certain guarantees and protections. Failing that, he could become difficult to locate when the time comes for depositions in the Scott case–and thereafter.

RELATED CASES:

Since the Scott shooting eight months ago, there have been a variety of cases of Metro misbehavior known to the public, and doubtless, more that remain unknown. All reflect poorly on the quality of training, supervision and leadership of Metro. All reflect a culture of corruption and absolute disdain for the public and the law so evident in the Scott case. Two of the most recent, and disturbing, cases follow.

THE COP WHO DIDN’T (THANK GOD) SHOOT STRAIGHT: On January 12, 2011, Metro Sgt. Darrin Densley, a 22-year veteran of the force, fired a single shot at 22 year old Leonard Greer. Fortunately, he missed Greer–by no more than two inches–and his bullet struck and penetrated the outer car door behind which Greer sat, coming to rest in the lower portion of the door without penetrating further.

According to Greer, he was walking from his apartment to his car with his girlfriend and her two cousins. On the way, he passed four uniformed officers standing in a nearby courtyard. Greer was talking on his cell phone and did not hear one of the officers yell “hey” at him as he was entering his car, though his girlfriend did.

Before he could insert his key in the ignition, Sgt. Densley–there is no indication that Greer and Densley had ever met–appeared near his windshield and pointed his handgun at Greer. This is where the story becomes very interesting. Densley ordered Greer and the others out of the car, but Greer–in a remarkable display or either courage or stupidity–refused, telling Densley that he had done nothing wrong and that he lived there.

Densley demanded proof. Greer told Densely that he had a rent receipt in his pocket and would produce it. He kept his left hand on the steering wheel, and retrieving the receipt with his right, replaced his right hand, holding the receipt, on the steering wheel. That was when Densley fired.

Witnesses saw Greer and his girlfriend not only making no threatening moves, but holding their hands up in plain sight. The officers searched Greer’s car and apartment, apparently finding nothing. Greer believes that officers thought that his girlfriend or he had a gun, though they never told him why they believed that. They issued him a misdemeanor summons for obstructing a police officer. Metro later took the door apart and removed the expended bullet and has offered to pay for repairs. Greer plans to hire a lawyer. Good idea.

ANALYSIS: There are many parallels between this case and the Scott case. It’s not known why the officers were there. The sheer number present, and their apparent determination to find a gun would suggest that it was either a bad neighborhood, they were given some reason to believe that something involving a gun happened, or both. But standing around in a group in the open courtyard of an apartment complex where a gun that might present a clear and present danger might be nearby is not exactly a brilliant tactic.

That Densley approached Greer with his gun drawn would seem to indicate, if Densely was a competent, rational officer, that he had good reason to believe that Greer represented an imminent danger to him or others such that it would have been foolish to approach him in any other way. Yet everything that Densley reportedly did from that moment on would seem to indicate exactly the opposite.

There is nothing in the known facts to indicate that Greer or those with him were doing anything other than walking, in an unremarkable fashion, from Greer’s apartment to his parked car. If Greer’s account is accurate, Densely did not follow the kind of procedure any competent officer would follow if they truly believed the occupants of the vehicle were a deadly threat. In such cases, officers would take covered positions that would allow a clear view of all occupants and would, slowly and clearly, step by step, order the occupants to put their hands where they could be seen at all times. To avoid potentially deadly confusion, a single officer would do all the talking. They would order the driver to throw the keys from the vehicle, and would then order, step by step and very specifically, each occupant in turn to get out of vehicle and to walk, backwards, into the arms of waiting officers–there were sufficient officers present to do this properly–who would handcuff, search and secure them until everyone had been removed from the vehicle. Only then would officers approach with the greatest care in case anyone was hiding in the vehicle ready to ambush them, and only then would they search the vehicle–if a search was justified.

Instead of following proper, safe procedure, when Densely was told that Greer lived there, he asked for proof, which Greer, before being met with gunfire, tried to provide. This alone suggests that Densley did not think himself in imminent danger. The sole photo available indicates that Densely fired from close range, to the side and slightly forward of the center of the driver’s door behind which Greer was sitting. The round struck only two inches below the top sill of the door where the glass begins. Greer is a very fortunate man.

The available information does not indicate whether the officers asked for or received permission to search Greer’s car and apartment, but it seems certain that they did search and that they found no contraband. It should always be kept in mind that citizens do not have the information officers have. There could have been good reasons for Densley to be suspicious of Greer, perhaps even reasons sufficient to allow a search of his vehicle, but I can think of no reason suggested by the known facts that would render reasonable a search of his apartment, an apartment which had no apparent relationship in space or time to the incident.

However, I can certainly think of a reason why the officers would want to conduct both searches: As with the Scott case, the officers knew they screwed up in a big way and were desperate to conduct a fishing expedition in the desperate hope of finding something that they could pin on Greer to lessen the impact of their error. Charging him with obstructing a police officer, but letting him go with only a paper summons likewise indicates the chaotic nature of their thoughts. How could Greer have been obstructing an officer who approached him at gunpoint as he was taking a seat in his parked vehicle in anticipation of immediately leaving? They simply weren’t thinking straight. The fact that the shooter was a supervisor, a 22 year veteran of the force, suggests that the supposedly coolest and most experienced police mind present was incapacitated. Because he was involved in a shooting, Densley should have immediately called a superior officer and had no further involvement in the incident. This fundamental mistake was also made at the scene of the Scott shooting.

There are two kinds of shooters: Those who have had an accidental discharge and those who will admit to having had an accidental discharge. It’s an interesting experience. One second, you’re standing there, happy as a clam with a nice gun in your hand, and the next, your ears are ringing, there seems to be a lot of smoke about, and the only thing going through your mind is “wha? wha? wha?”

There are, however, simple safety steps one can take to minimize the risk of an AD, and to mitigate its effects if one does occur. One should never point a weapon at something they are not willing to shoot. However, even police officers can hold their weapons at ready, pointing downward, which will tend to lessen the damage in case of an AD. Even better, they can keep their trigger fingers “in register,” pointed straight and in contact with the frame of their handgun, absolutely off the trigger until a millisecond before it becomes necessary to fire.

There are two primary possibilities: Densley actually intended to shoot Greer. He believed–apparently without the slightest justification–that he had sufficient cause to fire and did, but either jerked the trigger causing the round to strike low, or was at a sort of ready position when he hastily fired, just missing Greer. The second alternative is that he had his finger actually on the trigger when he didn’t intend to fire, and for some reason–muscle spasm, he tripped, he was nervous, or a variety of other causes–he fired. In either case, it was Greer’s, and Densley’s, lucky day. In either case, in a professional police agency, a fork would be immediately stuck in Densley because he would be done. In professional agencies, officers who make that kind of mistake, who come within two inches of killing an innocent, don’t get a second chance to repeat the mistake.

Imagine Densley’s frame of mind: Rather than doing the right thing, the officers may have tried to frame Greer, or at least, tried to muddy the water as much as possible. That they settled for a misdemeanor citation on a charge that the known facts clearly indicate they could not possibly sustain, indicates that everything they did had no foundation and they were desperate to charge Greer with something, anything, foolishly hoping that it would somehow diminish their culpability. In effect, they came within two inches of killing a citizen for no reason and made amends by searching his car and apartment and charging him with a crime he didn’t commit. That’s not exactly serving or protecting.

What could they have done differently? Simply approached Greer’s car safely, and explaining why they were there, asked enough questions to satisfy their curiosity. But they might have thought Greer had a gun! So what? Any police officer that doesn’t think that anyone with whom they come into contact might be armed should not be on the street. Officers deal with people everyday who are, in fact, armed, and no one is in the least harmed because professional officers approach people politely–when possible–and intelligently, always. In other words, the officers here, and in the Scott case, did not deal with the situation intelligently, screwed up, and then sought to cover their mistakes. That seems to be SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) in Metro. Oh yes, and Metro did not publicly identify Densley until January 28, sixteen days after the shooting. An “oversight,” according to Metro.

BRAD AND JAKE’S EXCELLENT ROAD TRIP: In early January, 2011, two metro officers, Brad Gallup (on the force since 2005) and Jake Grunwald (on the force since 2006), were stopped in Mojave County, Arizona for speeding approximately 20 miles over the posted speed limit. This might be unremarkable except for several interesting factors: They were driving a marked Metro patrol car, were in uniform and were supposed to be on duty in Las Vegas, approximately 80 miles away, at the time. Odd? Apparently where Metro is concerned, not all that much, though they have been suspended–with pay–pending the outcome of an investigation.

The Mojave County Deputy who stopped them without incident was not only concerned with speeding, but with the possibility that the car might have been stolen. It seems that marked Metro cars are relatively rare in those parts. Gallup and Grunwald apparently told the deputy that they were scouting locations for a K-9 photo shoot. The deputy had his dispatcher check with Metro, and learning the officers actually worked there, let them go without a citation. Metro has said only that the officers checked out for court prior to leaving the state.

Here’s how it works in non-corrupt, professional police agencies: Because police agencies are always, always understaffed, officers are assigned to specific patrol districts within their communities. All agencies have maps of these districts, drawn based on geographic size and anticipated call volume. Districts smaller in area tend to have higher call volume than larger districts. Officers are expected to remain within the boundaries of those districts so that they can respond promptly to calls. They are normally allowed to travel into adjoining districts for good, duty related reasons such as backing other officers on potentially dangerous calls, or taking calls when other officers are too busy, but are generally expected to keep to their own districts and direct their attention there. This is one of the fundamental realitiess and understandings of patrol officers everywhere.

No rational officer would even think of leaving their district without a good reason, and then, only for as long as reasonably necessary. To do otherwise is to abandon their post, to neglect their duty, a matter taken very seriously in the military and in police work. Professional officers don’t relish the idea of explaining why they couldn’t promptly answer a call for help where a citizen was harmed because they wanted to drop in on their girlfriend across town. The idea of leaving their actual city, their jurisdiction, wouldn’t occur to most officers and would be done only with the prior knowledge and permission of their supervisor. To leave the state?! Again, only with the prior knowledge and permission of their supervisor, who would give such permission to patrol officers only for such things as traveling to another jurisdiction to participate in training or something similar. Generally speaking, patrol officers patrol their districts and little else. There are good reasons for this.

There are three primary possibilities: The officers were doing this entirely on their own. They simply decided to call out for court and take a joy ride of some three or more hours into Arizona. With this possibility, there are two primary related possibilities: These officers were either so incredibly dumb that no one should allow them to handle sharp objects, let alone firearms, or they had reason to believe that their road trip would be acceptable. Perhaps they knew of others who had done the same thing, and perhaps such excursions were so common as to be essentially unremarkable, or to draw no more than a mild rebuke in Metro. Perhaps they had personal business in Arizona, business that could not wait until they were off duty, business worth the risk to their careers. But there is yet another possibility, the third of the primary possibilities with which I began this paragraph.

The officers may have been on a mission authorized by either their superiors, or by someone with sufficient influence or power to ensure that they’d take no heat if caught. Perhaps their immediate superiors knew nothing about it. Perhaps they were acting with the authorization of a higher ranking officer, doing someone a “favor” of some kind, a favor unexpectedly exposed by a competent, alert Arizona deputy. Maggie McLetchie of the Nevada ACLU opined that Metro patrol officers might need tighter supervision. No kidding.

It is, of course, impossible to know with certainly which of the primary possibilities is in play in this situation. As with the Scott case, it suggests a lack of discipline and supervision and invokes an appearance of corruption that should horrify the civilian overseers of Metro, but which apparently, to any meaningful degree, does not. Those citizens of Las Vegas who fear for their lives at the hands of their own police force would appear to have good and sufficient cause.

We’ll continue to update the case as more information becomes available.

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