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John Bisnar
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Las Vegas police to pay record $1.48 million to settle lawsuit

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Police covering for their own.

Las Vegas Police have agreed to pay a record $1.48 million to settle a federal lawsuit that accused officers of giving special treatment to an officer’s wife after she was involved in a fatal bicycle accident 13 years ago, according to an Associated Press news report published in the Las Vegas Review Journal.

The driver, Janet Wagner, wife of Police Officer David Wagner, had been drinking alcohol before the crash but was never charged, according to court documents. Erin DeLew, 29, was killed while riding her bike home from a Summerlin supermarket.

The settlement, the largest in Las Vegas police history, will go to DeLew’s husband, Michael DeLew, and her parents, Roy and Vickie Mayberry. The family in 1999 also accepted $100,000 to settle a wrongful death lawsuit against Janet Wagner, according to the article.

Police department lawyers said they agreed to settle because losing at trial might have cost millions more dollars, Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie said. He said police administrators worried about the public’s perception of the police department giving preferential treatment to its own, should a jury find the officers guilty of such partiality.

The $1.48 million settlement will be paid from the department self-insurance trust fund, which is supported by the department budget. Las Vegas police are funded by Las Vegas and Clark County taxpayers.

DeLew died Sept. 27, 1994. The federal civil rights lawsuit contended that David Wagner, a traffic officer who lived nearby, and other officers knew Janet Wagner, 26, had been drinking before the collision, but delayed calling the Nevada Highway Patrol, which eventually took over the investigation. The lawsuit alleged that Las Vegas officers failed to administer field-sobriety tests and let David Wagner take his wife home. It was almost two hours before the Highway Patrol was contacted.

A blood sample taken three hours after the crash put Janet Wagner’s blood-alcohol level at 0.05 percent, half of the legal limit at the time. Here’s the sad part — the NHP found DeLew responsible for the crash – saying she was riding her bike without lights and changed lanes into the path of the Wagner’s vehicle.

An internal Las Vegas police investigation cleared department officers of any policy violations. Nine of the officers named in the lawsuit have retired. Five, including David Wagner, remain on the force.

I have a lot of problems with this story. In my opinion the cops should have been charged criminally for their dereliction of duty and possible false reporting.

Although we put a lot of weight in “traffic collision reports” prepared by a police agency when we are assessing a case, the report is never the final word. Officers pressed for time do not always get the facts straight. Sometimes witness are just wrong about what they think they saw. Sometimes involved parties give self serving statements. And sometimes the investigators have their own agenda or a party to the accident that they want to protect, and the report is biased, slanted or fabricated. We consider all possibilities.

Unless there is a comprehensive video corroborat traffic collision reports, there is a chance that they are not accurate. This case is particularly disturbing because the department that should have called in an outside agency to investigate the fatality bicycle vs car accident when one of their own was involved, choose to protect an officer’s wife rather than get to the truth and disclose it. The Chief himself says they settled because they did not want to create the appearance of wrongdoing. Come on Chief, there was wrongdoing, we just don’t know how much.

Pedestrians and bicyclists have rights, no matter where they are in the street.