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New DA, whoever he is, must do the right thing

There’s really no way to tell what any of the finalists to replace former District Attorney David Roger would do when confronted with a bad police shooting, at least not until they’re in the job.

All three men say they wouldn’t hesitate to charge a police officer in the event of a criminal shooting, but Roger said the same thing. And despite some highly questionable shootings, there were never any charges.

In a 2010 shooting, Trevon Cole, a low-level marijuana dealer, was killed in his apartment by Detective Bryan Yant with an AR-15 assault rifle. Yant’s version of events was entirely inconsistent with the physical evidence and the testimony of his fellow officers. Even Roger acknowledged he didn’t believe the story Yant told a coroner’s jury — under oath.

Yant is still a police officer. And Cole’s family may get a $1.7 million settlement from Las Vegas police, which would be the highest amount ever in a shooting case.

In interviews, each of the candidates for district attorney stressed the need to repair the breach of trust between the Police Department and the community. And while the vast majority of police shootings are justifiable, the minority that are not are often galling.

Of the three final candidates — Clark County Director of Appointed Counsel Drew Christensen, Las Vegas City Councilman Steve Wolfson and private-practice attorney John Hunt — Christensen and Wolfson are the most likely choices. Both men have experience in the thing the office does most often: prosecute criminals.

Christensen is a former prosecutor, former public defender and now the attorney in charge of appointing lawyers. It was his research into death penalty cases that showed the average life-in-prison sentence is about five times cheaper than the average death penalty case. (All three finalists say they’d be more judicious than was Roger about asking for death as a punishment.)

Wolfson also served as a prosecutor, as well as an assistant U.S. attorney and a private-practice defense lawyer. He’s served on the Las Vegas City Council since 2004.

Wolfson has far more political experience as the result of his elected position, and he’s well-known by members of the Clark County Commission, who will be making the decision. And it’s undeniable the job will require facility with politics.

But the fact that Christensen is not as well-known is perhaps the least rational reason to reject his candidacy. He’s well-known inside the district attorney’s office and in county government in general. (It was county administrators who plucked him from the public defender’s office to take charge of the brand-new appointed counsel office in 2008.) And knowledge of the bureaucracy — and how to maneuver within it — is going to be a critical part of the job.

Hunt is an accomplished lawyer, but he doesn’t have experience in criminal prosecutions. And while nobody expects him to be in the courtroom, understanding that part of the job is crucial.

While Wolfson could ultimately get to know the people and the system in the district attorney’s office, Christensen would hit the ground running. And in an environment where tough issues abound — a stressed office budget; the need to reform the investigation (and possible prosecutions) of police shootings; the need to re-evaluate the application of the death penalty in too many cases; office morale — that ability might be the most valuable of all.

One thing is certain: The next DA must not shy away from acting in cases like the Cole case. While we should hope a bad shooting won’t happen again, we’re right to fear that it will. And when it does, we need a leader who will do the right thing.

 

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/SteveSebelius or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@ reviewjournal.com.

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