A Las Vegas native who grew up in the Northeast Area Command. A child of blue-collar, working-class parents. A veteran who served in the United States Marine Corps, including postings as a military police officer, completing deployments in Iraq and Kuwait — who also served in the prestigious HMX1, the Marine Corps helicopter squadron responsible for the transportation of the president and vice president of the United States, heads of state and other government officials. A college graduate who received a Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice and criminal justice administration, and is currently in the process of attaining a master’s degree in criminal justice.
If the words “hire this guy” came to mind, we are on the same frequency. And he was hired by Las Vegas Metro in July 2017. That guy is Vidal Contreras. Vidal is a great example of the Department hiring someone who reflects our community: a young man raised by hardworking parents in a modest neighborhood who did everything they could to ensure Vidal and his siblings had every opportunity to become educated and succeed in life.
Vidal graduated from the police academy, worked in the Spring Valley Area Command, Downtown Area Command and Northwest Area Command, and was finally assigned to the Northeast Area Command. It was not dumb luck that he found himself in Northeast. It was his home. It was where he grew up. It was where he wanted to make a difference, a place where he could make a positive impact on a person’s life who may have been on the fence. In short, Vidal asked to be assigned to an area command that is without question one of the most active and challenging areas to be a street cop.
Undeniably, Vidal made a positive impact on one person’s life. He and his partner saved the life of a 2-year-old who had drowned in a backyard pool. Vidal and his partner literally breathed life back into a dying human being as they were the first to arrive on that nightmare of a call for service.
Vidal was described by one of his supervisors as someone who was always willing to learn, who was a great officer and had no discipline.
So where is Vidal today? He is no longer a police officer. He is no longer a member of Las Vegas Metro. He was kicked out of the “Metro family.”
On March 1, 2021, Vidal was in an officer-involved shooting. Vidal shot a suicidal man who was armed with an edged weapon and advancing on his position. The events that transpired within those six seconds were life-changing. Vidal participated in a contentious CIRT interview. He attended the mandatory Tactical Review Board and the Use of Force Review Board.
For those unfamiliar with the process, the Use of Force Review Board consists of seven voting members: three commissioned officers and four civilians. The board will listen to the presentation by the CIRT case agent, and each member will vote. Their options are:
- Administrative Approval: Objectively reasonable force was used under the circumstances based on the information available to the officer at the time. This finding acknowledges that the use of force was justified and within Department policy.
- Tactics/Decision-Making: This finding considers, under the circumstances, objectively reasonable force was used based on the information available to the Department member at the time. However, it acknowledges even though the use of deadly force was within policy, the actions of the Department member worked to limit alternatives that may have otherwise been available to them. A different approach or overall response by a Department member may have lessened the need for them to employ deadly force and potentially changed the outcome of the incident.
- Policy/Training Failure: A deadly force was undesirable but did not stem from a violation of policy or failure to follow current training protocols. A Department policy and/or specific training protocol is inadequate, ineffective or deficient; the Department member followed existing policy and/or training; or there is no existing policy and/or training protocol that addresses the action taken or performance demonstrated (e.g., global policy or training deficiencies).
- Administrative Disapproval: The UFRB concludes through this finding that the force used was a violation of Department policy. This outcome is reserved for the most serious failures in adherence to policy, decision-making and performance (i.e., a violation of the use-of-force policy).
In this case, four of the seven members voted for Administrative Disapproval. Of the four members who cast this vote, three were civilians and one was a deputy chief. The remaining three members of the board voted for Tactics/Decision-Making. That three-person voting bloc consisted of a police captain, a police officer and one civilian.
An assistant sheriff recommended termination based on Disciplinary Decision Guide Category G. The assistant sheriff recommended that the presumptive discipline of a major suspension be aggravated to termination. What is Category G, you ask? It is “Conduct unbecoming an employee,” defined as: “Any act or omission of such an egregious nature that the employee is rendered ineffective in his position and/or the act or omission would tend to bring the Department into public discredit.”
The purpose of this article is not to debate the Department’s position versus the Association’s position. Those positions are clear and have been since Vidal’s participation in this process. The purpose of this article is to enlighten the men and women who are pushing a black-and-white every day, the ones who hang their asses on the line from the time they roll out of the station at the beginning of their shift until the time they pull back in the gate at the end of the morning, day or night. And to remind the members of Executive Staff that they have not done your job in many years.
To the street cops: You undoubtedly have the hardest job on this Department. Over the last couple of years, you have been maligned and reimagined. You have been told you are the problem. I would argue the men and women who work in the capacity of a street cop are scrutinized more than any other professional in today’s workforce. You are expected to have rational conversations with irrational people. You are expected to de-escalate a person who is mentally unstable, homicidal, suicidal or all of the above at the same time. You are expected to interact with citizens who are altered by alcohol and/or drugs and do so without hurting anyone’s feelings or appearing too aggressive. You are expected to do all those things while a camera strapped to your body records every second of your interaction.
Unfortunately, some of the split-second decisions street cops make in the heat of the moment are no longer judged or evaluated by a reasonable officer standard; they are judged by optics. Police administrators now have the luxury of being able to sit at a desk in a sterile environment and watch how you handled a dynamic incident. They can do so while enjoying a cup of coffee, with no fear of being injured or killed. They can sit in an office with their peers and discuss where you stood, what you said, how you said it, what you did, what you didn’t do, what you should have done, how you sounded and the list goes on and on. They have the ability to click a button on a mouse and replay it over and over until it’s clear in their minds. They can hit the pause button, refill the coffee cup, maybe use the restroom and replay it all over again. If they don’t like it or are not sure how they feel about it, they can turn it off, walk away and watch it again later.
It’s a luxury you do not have. The safe space of their office is devoid of the personal angst you feel when you believe you are about to be seriously injured or killed. It does not measure how the brain’s central nervous system responds to stress, fear, anger, increased heart rate, cardio output and increased blood pressure. The camera does not capture the tunnel vision or the auditory exclusion a cop experiences at that critical moment. The camera can never quantify the internal clock in your brain ticking away, screaming at you, telling you that lag time is working against you.
Optics: How will this look to the public? It seems to me the optics of what you do play a greater role in how your incident will be judged than ever before. It is armchair quarterbacking at the highest level. And the stakes are high. The stakes are your career. Your good name. Your ability to ever work in this profession again, and most likely your ability to ever get a decent job again after your resume reads that you have been fired as a police officer.
In Vidal’s case, he responded to this call Code 3. He was the only person in the black-and-white and, according to the Department, violated the driving policy. During his response to the call, Vidal yelled at other cars to get out of the way and at one point yelled out or called another driver a “dumbass.” Keep in mind, there was no one else inside his patrol car, and there was no possible way anyone could hear his commentary outside the patrol car. Certainly, the driver who failed to yield to the emergency vehicle did not hear him.
During his CIRT interview, Vidal was specifically questioned about his driving and asked to account for the perceived policy violations. He was also questioned about the comments he made while he was driving. During the Pre-Termination Board, the assistant sheriff concluded that Vidal demonstrated poor emotional control and decision-making, beginning with his Code 3 response all the way through his contact with the suspect. During Vidal’s arbitration process, the arbitrator opined, “The March 1 incident ended tragically, yet it also began poorly. While driving to the scene, Officer Contreras was yelling at other cars to get out of the way and called one of the drivers a ‘dumbass.’ He went through one red light without stopping or slowing down, and at one point crossed over two lanes of oncoming traffic before making a left turn. He admitted at the Pretermination Hearing and during the arbitration hearing that he was amped up. At the arbitration hearing he said he was having an adrenaline rush. Although his driving was in violation of Department policy, the more important point is that he was not operating from a professionally cool point of departure. It is highly likely that his emotions were impaired and that this had a negative effect on the decisions he made. Being amped up is not a good way to begin a contact with a suicidal person armed with a knife.”
First off, please, never enter an intersection on a red traffic signal and fail to clear it properly. Having said that, show me an officer who has rolled code on a priority zero call for service and has not yelled at a car to get out of the way. Please introduce me to the officer who has rolled code and has never been “amped up” or had an “adrenaline rush.” I’ll wait. I don’t expect an arbitrator to understand this — he is not a cop and probably has no idea how to even turn the lights and sirens on — but I absolutely expect the administration to get it.
So please remember, the next time you hear your partner yell for help on the radio or catch that priority zero call for service, before you flip the switch activating your lights and sirens, don’t forget to turn on a Tony Robbins podcast or maybe even stream some Bob Ross while he creates beautiful artwork; that way, you will be operating from a “professionally cool point of departure.” Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But remember this: What you say on an activated body-worn camera while you are driving code to a dynamic event will be used against you if there is not a desired outcome. Even if you are in a patrol car alone and in an environment where no one else can hear you, the Department will label you as being out of control.
To the Executive Staff: You are out of touch with street cops. This is not meant as an insult, so indulge me. It is unlikely you have ever worked as a street cop wearing a body-worn camera. It is unlikely anyone has ever scrutinized your policing abilities from the comfort of that office I described earlier. It is unlikely the critical incidents you were involved in, if any, were ever memorialized on body-worn camera. It is unlikely you have ever responded to a STAR Protocol event. It is unlikely you can power on the MCT, let alone operate it. It is unlikely you have ever participated in reality-based training scenarios.
Some time ago, I observed a trend where supervisors labeled themselves as “leaders.” Every email, briefing line and conversation included the word “leadership.” You changed how you view or identify yourselves, but you did not change how you are viewed or identified by your troops. When was the last time you removed the rank from your collar and jumped in a car with a random officer for a shift? When was the last time you tried to operate an MCT, trying to read a dynamic event as the page keeps resetting every time a call-taker or dispatcher updates it, making it damn near impossible to understand what is happening? When was the last time you dealt with a “No” person who you had to put your hands on while on body-worn camera? When was the last time you walked into a briefing room and sat down with the troops?
My point is, being a street cop is a perishable skill. It’s not enough to say, “I’ve done it before, so I know how it should be done now.” The reality is that if you were to strap on a body-worn camera, find someone to log you on to the MCT and roll out the gates, you would probably be marginal at best. In full disclosure, so would I. I believe the men and women who are out there right now shagging calls are doing a job that neither you nor I know how to do. I spent the majority of my career in uniform. Having said that, the last time I logged on and answered calls for service was in 2016. When was the last time you did? The job has changed tenfold since then.
Lastly, in fairness, I have tried to view Vidal’s six seconds from every aspect possible. Today, with 18 years on, I would probably have done a few things differently on that event. Obviously, knowing how the event ended makes it much easier to say that. That goes back to the armchair quarterbacking I talked about earlier. I think back to how I operated as a street cop with three or four years on, and I can honestly tell you that I could have been Vidal more times than I can count. Those six seconds could have easily been my six seconds.
Vidal’s scenario can go either way, and at the end of the day the suspect has a say in the matter — they always do. I wonder now, if you were to ask the suspect in this event, if he ever imagined this scenario playing out this way: him being suicidal and wanting a cop to kill him, then being shot and surviving, only to have the cop who responded be terminated. The irony in this is incredible.
I remember being told hundreds of times throughout my patrol career to “make a decision.” Make your decision and stick to it. And if you are operating with a good heart and doing the best you can, it will turn out OK in the end. We (the Department) will help you get through it. I’m afraid that no longer applies.
What I see now is untenable. During Vidal’s arbitration, I watched his peers and supervisors stand up to defend his character. To a man, they described him as a good street cop who cares about his community. Vidal made a decision on March 1, 2021, and he did so without malice in his heart. And, in the end, it did not turn out OK for him. Vidal was eviscerated by the process. Our Department did not believe he was worthy of wearing a badge or continuing to serve our community.
Is this the standard now? I know that throughout my career I have seen more than a few employees remain on this Department who without question had brought the Department into public discredit by actions they knew to be morally and criminally wrong while they were doing it. If they were capable of being re-assimilated back into this Department, Vidal sure as hell was.
I do not know what the next chapter holds for Vidal Contreras. I do know that I am disgusted by the way this process played out for him. It’s embarrassing. Vidal earned the respect of his peers and supervisors, who had the guts to stand up and defend him when it wasn’t very popular to do so. Vidal made an incredible impact on one family when he breathed life into their dead kid. It may not matter to the Department, but I promise you, it matters to them.
Finally, to the street cops out there, please stay safe. Watch out for one another. Come home safe at the end of your shift. If you know Vidal, reach out to him. If by chance you ever see a member of Executive Staff in your briefing, ask them to take the rank off their collar and jump in your sled. Show them what it is you deal with on a day-to-day basis. To the Executive Staff, get out of your office and meet your troops. Talk to them face to face. Show them you are more than a picture on an organizational chart. Listen to them. Leadership is more than a catchphrase or a self-imposed title.