Q&A with Kevin McMahill

A cop's toughest call: if and when to use force to apprehend a suspect

The following was excerpted from a webinar the Badger Institute sponsored on use-of-force and policecommunity relations. Badger Institute President Mike Nichols spoke to Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Undersheriff Kevin McMahill about de-escalation, training police officers to quickly process ways to reduce the need to use force in making arrests without compromising public safety and enforcement of the law. McMahill addresses so-called sanctity of life policies, which spell out a department’s commitment to protecting human life in the daily course of policing. A full recording of the webinar with Nichols, McMahill and Jon Ponder, founder of Hope for Prisoners, is available here.

Nichols: Can you talk a little bit about whether police can do a better job of de-escalating and whether it’s a training issue or not?

McMahill: Yeah, so listen. Not every instance can be deescalated. That just has to be said from the very beginning. But that being said, I’ll tell you that in 2010, metro, we had shot 25 people, and two of those were very high-profile incidents that, quite frankly, they did not need to be shot. And so, we underwent a comprehensive reform process with the Department of Justice COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) office.

Prior to 2010, we didn’t have some very key things when it comes to training. Things like a sanctity of life statement in your use of force. If you’re not, from the very get-go, teaching that life matters the most to your people that have the ability to take life, then where are you really at?

Then, secondly, we didn’t have a de-escalation policy. What’s really interesting about de-escalation is that what you really need to be focused on is, how do you de-escalate from the sense that you’re taking into account things like time and distance, numbers of officers, education, training and then, realistically, if you’re not getting to this point is, what is the humanity of it?

We all know that there are shootings all over the country that they describe as lawful but awful, right? Those are the ones that seem to cause a lot of challenge for people.

Our experience here is that, after 72 hours, the sheriff and I receive a video with all the body-worn cameras. The day that the shooting occurs from the scene, one of our captains puts out a YouTube video about what they know. Seventy-two hours later, we play all of that video: good, bad and ugly. The community at least has a sense of what happens.

What I can tell you after doing that for 10 years now, I don’t even really think they care if we provide any commentary whatsoever anymore. It seems like what the community reacts to is, we press play and they make a determination. Did that individual need to be shot or did the police screw it up?

Then what’s really important about this throughout that entire process is, we see things that are horrific from a training and tactics, leadership and supervision perspective that people don’t necessarily look at when you’re a civilian watching a body-worn camera (video) when a shooting occurs. But we have this robust review process on every single use of force incident that goes to a panel — the civilians outnumber the commissioned people.

The reason that I’m bringing that up into de-escalation for you is that you can’t have an honest conversation about deescalation until you have an honest conversation about the failures in a use of force. When you look at it criminally, it’s easy to say there’s not a failure. When you look at it administratively, you can always find areas to improve it.

The last piece I’ve got to tell you, we also take what we learn from each one of those reviews, take it back to our reality-based training, and do those exact same scenarios for the entirety of the agency, but have them arrive at an ultimate different outcome than the use of deadly force by employing the time, the distance, the training, the education and the humanity. We also provided a lot more tools in the past than what we had that allows them to have options from further distances than only using the handgun.

Nichols: It seems like a lot of what you’re talking about is basic transparency.

McMahill: That’s a big part of it.

Nichols: You touched on it with body cameras. You touched on it with making video available pretty quickly. More often than not, I think what I’m hearing and have always assumed is that that benefits police officers. Most of the time they’re doing their job the right way. Having some video and being transparent about it is a good thing for law enforcement.

McMahill: The reality of it is that, in today’s world — and this is what I would just say to those in law enforcement that are listening that are hesitant to release this video: If a citizen records it, it’s going out, right? You had no control there in Kenosha of that guy putting out his cell phone video.

Every incident around the country that video comes out, there’s somebody on the prosecution side. There’s somebody in administration. Some lawyer that says you can’t put that out. It’s going to harm the future prosecution of the case.

It’s never harmed the future prosecution of a case since we released this video. It’s just not true. But what happens is, the community thinks that you’re hiding something, that you’re taking time to do something. What I know about policing is there are no secrets in policing. They always come to light sooner or later, and so why not put it out there, put out the information, let people see it, and they make judgments on it.

Subsequent to these riots, I believe we’ve had six officer-involved shootings. They all go out. You can find them all on lvmpd. com. You can go in and watch each and every one of those. They’re all sent through the community, and we have a really good response. Today, we hover around 80% approval rating from our community in our latest polls.

Kevin McMahill is the undersheriff of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. Mike Nichols is the president of the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.

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