The Las Vegas police officer who shot an unarmed Trevon Cole during a June drug raid over small-time marijuana sales was justified, a coroner’s inquest found Saturday night. The ruling came late in the evening after an inquest that was supposed to end Friday dragged through the day and into the night Saturday. (See our recent coverage of the casehere and of a looming lawsuit over the killing here.)
Of about 200 Clark County coroner’s inquests in officer-involved killings since 1976, only one has resulted in a finding of criminal negligence. Whether that near-perfect percentage of acquittals results from exceptionally good police work in Las Vegas, or an inadequate process and institution, depends on who one asks.
Cole, 21, and his pregnant fiancé, Sequoia Pearce, were at the apartment they shared when police serving a search warrant burst through their door. Cole was shot in the bathroom by Det. Bryan Yant, who, in testimony today, said he kicked in the bathroom door and saw Cole squatting by the toilet, apparently flushing marijuana. He said Cole rose to his feet while moving his hands in a shooting motion and that he saw something silvery or metallic in Cole’s hand. He then fired once, killing Cole.
“Unfortunately, he made an aggressive act toward me,” said Yant under questioning from Assistant District Attorney Chris Owens. “He made me do my job.”
Owens questioned Yant sharply at times, suggesting that Yant’s weapon had accidentally discharged as he came through the door. Owens cited the position of Cole’s body on the floor and the downward trajectory of the bullet as it entered his cheek before lodging in his neck, which suggested that Cole was still kneeling when shot.
No gun or other silvery or metallic objects were found in the bathroom. But clutched in one of Cole’s hands was a yellow tube of lip balm.
The inquest also heard testimony about errors in the search warrant application Det. Yant made, in which he misidentified Cole as another Trevon Cole — from a different city, with a different date of birth, different middle initial, and a dramatically different physical description. Yant also mischaracterized the other Trevon Cole’s police record as including drug trafficking offenses, when all that came up was some possession misdemeanors.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Christopher Laurent asked Sgt. John Harney, who led the team conducting the raid, if he agreed that Yant’s work on the affidavit was “sloppy,” but Harney said, “No, it was a mistake.”
Immediately after the verdict was announced, Clark County Sheriff Douglas Gillespie issued a statement saying that the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s internal investigation continues and that until it is completed, the department’s SWAT team, “which trains regularly and is well-suited for high-risk operations,” will be handling all forced entry search warrants.
“The Department will examine the narcotics investigation; supervision that led to the identification of Mr. Cole as a suspected narcotics dealer; all related policies and procedures pertaining to the writing and serving of the search warrant; and the decisions made by officers assigned to this incident,” the statement said. “The results of Metro’s internal investigation, and any recommended policy changes, will be made public.”
In the meantime, the family of Trevon Cole is preparing a lawsuit alleging wrongful death, civil rights violations, and possibly a RICO claim. Talk is cheap; paying for questionable police killings is not.