Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Video footage helped bring federal charges against a former officer who beat up a woman he accused of being a prostitute.
Former Las Vegas police officer Richard Thomas Scavone was hit with civil rights violation charges by the U.S Department of Justice on January 12 for roughing up a woman he accused of being a prostitute. His upcoming trials, in both federal and local courts, will serve as a barometer of the efficacy of police body cams in bringing abusive police to justice.
Scavone’s attack on the woman was captured on a department-issued camera he was wearing. His explanation has been that he assailed the woman for resisting arrest, which was disputed by both the camera recording and his partner who was present for the attack. He was initially charged just with misdemeanor battery, and was fired last September. But if the federal charges stick, he could face 20 to 30 years in prison and as much as $250,000 in fines for excessive use of force during an arrest and obstruction of justice.
“Misdemeanor battery” doesn’t begin to account for what Scavone did to the woman, based on the Justice Department’s description of events:
According to the indictment, on Jan. 6, 2015, while acting as a police officer, Scavone allegedly assaulted “A.O.” resulting in bodily injury. The indictment alleges that Scavone grabbed the victim around the neck with his hand and threw A.O. to the ground; struck A.O. in the forehead with an open palm; twice slammed A.O.’s head onto the hood of his patrol vehicle; and slammed A.O. into the door of his patrol vehicle.
The details provided by the Las Vegas Sun are even more grueling:
When she turned away, he slammed her head twice on the patrol car, police said.
He reportedly told her not to pull away from him and reached inside her dress, pulling out a condom and a cellphone, the report said.
Scavone said in his statement he retrieved the items, which were in the area near her breast and armpit, at least partially for officer safety because they could have been weapons, police said.
The woman, who was not wearing a bra, told Scavone multiple times not to touch her breast, and Scavone pinched her right breast through her dress before removing an undisclosed item from inside the dress, police said.
Police did not find any weapons on the woman, the report said.
Scavone accused the woman of reaching for something, and he grabbed her ponytail and slammed her head on the patrol vehicle again, police said.
He pulled her ponytail as he pushed her head against the vehicle, and she screamed, the report said.
He led her to the back seat of the patrol vehicle while holding her ponytail and slammed her into the passenger window, police said.
Scavone then charged her with prostitution and resisting arrest before taking her to the Clark County Detention Center. Those charges were later dismissed.
For the latest federal indictment, Scavone is also charged with falsifying documents with the intention of obstructing an investigation into the matter. Though the video of the incident hasn’t been made public, it was instrumental in having Scavone arrested, a rarity when it comes to police abuse. Las Vegas police Undersheriff Kevin McMahill said it’s the first time his police department brought “criminal charges associated with the review of a body camera on an on-duty use of force incident.”
The U.S. Justice Department is, no doubt, hoping that a conviction will help drive through a message it’s been trying to send about the utility of body cams in holding police accountable to the public. They may not stop some cops from committing acts of violence, but they can provide vital evidence to ensure that police don’t go unpunished when there’s ample oversight of the footage, as seen in a recent New Orleans case.
That’s why the federal government has invested over $20 million to help put body cams in police departments across the nation, including in Las Vegas. The public generally supports police-worn cameras, too, so long as there’s transparency in how the footage is used, according to a recent national survey from the Center for Crime and Justice Policy at UNLV's Greenspun College of Urban Affairs.
It should be noted that the U.S. Justice Department has also been cracking down on gender-bias among police, particularly over assumptions that women are illegally engaging in sex-worker activities based on how they’re dressed. In these circumstances, it normally ends up as a cop-said/she-said situation, where the “she-said” side rarely gets the benefit of the doubt. As seen in Scavone’s case, police cams can help un-blur those lines.
"If a citizen truly believes the officer did not do his or her job properly, there's a way to challenge the issue," said William Sousa, director of UNLV’s Center for Crime and Justice Policy about the police-cam report. "It could protect citizens from misconduct and excessive force, and it could protect officers from false complaints made by citizens. It has the potential to protect officers and citizens and encourage transparency."