Blame plantation psychology for killing police review board

Expanded from the 4-21-2002 Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune

After 30 years of demands from those on the receiving end, Reno's one attempt to establish a citizen police review board has apparently ended in failure.

The committee established to review the need recently voted 8-4 against going forward. Local minority groups have expressed outrage. Civil rights leaders said the panel was stacked with opponents from the start. They may have a point.

Las Vegas established such a panel several years ago. "During its first year, the Citizen Review Board sided with Metro Police and its officers in most cases it looked at, but the board also uncovered a poorly done investigation that ended with a sergeant being suspended," the Las Vegas Sun reported on July 6, 2001.

"In its first report, the board noted it received 71 complaints between Aug. 13 and June 30. Three cases went to a formal hearing.

A screening board reviewed 59, and 46 of those were dismissed or the board agreed with Metro's internal investigation," the paper stated.

Clark County Metro Sheriff Jerry Keller retains the final say over any officer discipline, no matter what the advisory panel decides. Keller did exactly that last Thursday when he rejected a board finding against an officer accused of racism.

Experts have said it's too early to judge the effectiveness of the body, but it seems to be patiently performing a needed function. Clark County Metro has killed too many innocent citizens over the past decade or so. Which brings me to the case of the late John Paiva, Jr.

Paiva, 37 at the time of his execution, was a Reno truckdriver. He got into an altercation with one Michael Pistone after Pistone set off another neighbor's car alarm. Pistone broke a beer bottle over Paiva's head. Somebody called the cops.

Reno officers knocked on Paiva's door. He denied being hit with the beer bottle and refused to let officers inside. Officer Gary Quam put a foot in the door to keep Paiva from closing it. When Paiva asked Quam to remove said bodily part, Officer Brian Chittendon put his foot in the door.

Quam then drew his weapon and fired at Paiva who closed the door, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal's Sept. 8, 1996, report. The paper cited U.S. District Judge Edward C. Reed's scathing opinion in which he turned down the city's request to dismiss a lawsuit by Paiva's family. (Paiva v. City of Reno, CV-94-0021-ECR, entered Aug. 30, 1996.)

Officers Quam, Chittendon and Chris Alexander "proceeded to empty the magazines of their weapons into Mr. Paiva's front door and the windows on either side of the door, reload and keep firing," Judge Reed wrote. (Ibid., page 4.)

Paiva's bullet-riddled body was found inside. Undrawn guns he allegedly carried had not been fired. A Reno Police Department internal investigation found the officers guilty of no wrongdoing. It was deemed a good shoot.

"The most troubling aspect of this case is the signal absence of independent evidence on the critical issue of whether the defendant police officers fired their service weapons on John Paiva out of a reasonable fear for their own safety, or for some other reason," Judge Reed wrote. (Ibid at 12.)

He noted that prior evaluations of Officers Quam and Alexander raised serious questions as to their temperament and suitability for police work.

"Quam's evaluation noted that 'the biggest goal Officer Quam can shoot for is to refrain from acting solely on impulse...Gary has the tendency to escalate matters to the next level perhaps alittle [sic] quicker than some officers.'

"Officer Chris Alexander's RPD performance evaluation rated his judgment at 'minus,' the lowest of the three ranges...'[his] work overall reflects the lower end of acceptable judgment and in fact can show very poor judgment...Chris reflects an attitude of I know it all and have done it all...'" (Here, Judge Reed has quoted from an evaluation. Ibid at 12.)

"The court can no more overlook the natural inferences to be drawn from the various facts than it could an elephant in the living room," Reed grimly opined. (Ibid. at 17.)

"There is in the record significant circumstantial evidence which casts doubt upon the defendant officers' version of events: There is the unfathomable logic of John Paiva's drawing a gun on three armed policement at point-blank range. There are the rather less than stellar evaluations of Officers Quam and Alexander; there is the improper transportation of all three officers in a single patrol car following the incident; there is the peculiar absence of evidence that the dead man had on his person any firearm accessible to his dominant left hand; there is the destruction by the RPD of pivotal forensic of evidence." (Ibid at 18.)

Paiva's family settled with the city for $250,000. John Paiva may have guilty of little more than pissing off a police officer.

Judge Reed stated that Paiva was within his Constitutional rights to refuse police entrance to his home. Page 16 of Reed's decision is as chilling as it is damning.

"The court has the officers' solemn word that they fired in self-defense. On the other hand, at least one of the defendant officers has already admitted opening fire on Mr. Paiva for reasons other than his own safety. Officer Chittendon has stated 'My main reasoning for firing through that window was probably out of anger. I was mad.'

"All three officers have testified they saw a gun, in their statements to police, at the shooting review board, in their sworn depositions. But the fact that after the shooting, in contravention of police department policy, the defendant officers together repaired to a convenience store before together returning to the police station to give their official statements to RPD detectives, does not bolster the defendants' version of events. Neither does the disappearance of key evidence from police evidence lockers," the eminent jurist wrote.

That's right. RPD destroyed all the evidence in the case, including the door through which Paiva had been executed. An underling said she was ordered to do so by her supervisor, who denied giving the order. He said. She said. See no evil. Speak no evil.

"The only eyewitness to that fatal moment, other than the men whose own judgment and actions are called in question by the lawsuit, is dead," Reed stated.

"Of even greater concern to the court is the disappearance of key forensic evidence. The videotape of the shooting is gone. The bullets are gone. The clothes John Paiva was wearing when he was killed are gone. The audio and video tape statements of Officers Pointer and Alexander, and the transcripts of those statements, are gone. The screen door which officer Chittendon 'popped' off its hinge is gone. The wooden door through which the officers loosed their hail of bullets is gone. The guns, holsters and knife sheath allegedly removed from the person of the dead man are all gone.

"That evidence would have enabled forensic experts to determine, among other things, (1) which officer or officers fired the shots which killed John Paiva, (2) how many shots were fired in all, (3) the precise positions of the officers and the dead man at the moment of the shooting, which in turn would enable the trier of fact to judge more accurately whether any of the defendant officers could have seen John Paiva wielding the gun they need to prove existed in order to escape liability for his death, see Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985)." (Ibid at 12 and 13.)

"The undisputed facts are these: An American citizen who has committed no crime is shot to death on his own doorstep by three uniformed police officers, who have already been cleared of wrongdoing by their own department. Crucial forensic evidence, the bullets, the guns, the door through which the officers emptied their magazines into John Paiva, has vanished from the custody of the Reno Police Department.

"All three officers have testified they saw a gun, and so justifiably fired in legitimate fear for their own safety, and indeed there are in evidence eight-by-ten inch color glossy photographs of a dead man with a gun in his right hand. Eventually, the court is told, three other firearms were discovered on John Paiva's body. The dead man, however, who did not discharge any firearm, was left-handed all of his life, and the photographs themselves show Mr. Paiva's wristwatch on the gun hand. They show another handgun in a 'sock' holster in the dead man's rear waistband, the butt facing his right side, inaccessible to a southpaw," Reed thundered. (Ibid at 13 and 14.)

He went on to cite another series of reprimands and poor performance evaluations the officers received, adding that the department did nothing to remedy the serious deficiencies in the officers' skills and attitudes. ((Ibid., pages 37-40.)

Matters got even worse AFTER Reed's opinion was published. On Dec. 17, 1996, on the front page of this newspaper, Tribune reporter Marlene Garcia disclosed the disappearance of even more evidence. A tape recording Officer Quam made after the shooting had mysteriously disappeared. Quam destroyed the tapes, the Tribune reported.

"Reed's statements create a damning indictment of this department," the Reno Gazette-Journal stated in an editorial on Sept. 12, 1996. Last year, the Reno paper understandably praised the potential of a citizen review panel and endorsed its creation.

Now, the board is as dead as John Paiva, Jr. Why?

The root cause lies in our company town mentality. We still have too many citizens who think that whatever the boss says goes. Police departments reflect their communities and the bosses of Reno still want a break-heads police department. (Witness police conduct during the Hot August Nights riot a few years ago. Locals, tourists and news media were terrorized.)

That's been the tradition handed down by a succession of dominant industries: mining, then the railroads, and now, gambling.

Maybe change will only come as we grow and diversify. Fortunately, that's the trend in this region.

But that's cold comfort to the Paiva family and other victims of unprofessional Reno policing.

Be well. Raise hell. | U-News | C.O.P. | Sen. Joe Neal
Guinn Watch | Deciding Factors


© 2002 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 33-year Nevadan, a member Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of and He hosts Deciding Factors on several Nevada television stations. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.)Tribune since 1988.

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