On Friday, Clark County (Nevada) Sheriff Joe Lombardo announced that three officers from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) acted properly in detaining Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett. Bennett was detained shortly after attending the Saturday, Aug. 26 fight between Floyd Mayweather and Connor McGregor at the T-Mobile Arena.
As explained more fully in another SI article, Bennett was detained for approximately 10 minutes while officers searched for an active shooter. He was handcuffed and placed into the back of a police car. After officers realized that Bennett had nothing to do with the shooting—Bennett says after officers realized that he played in the NFL—he was released. At no point was Bennett arrested.
In a Sept. 8 tweeted statement titled “Equality”, Bennett insisted that the officers pointed guns at him “for nothing more than simply being a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time.” He also described the officers as engaging in “excessive force.” To that end, Bennett highlighted that one officer “forcefully jammed his knee” into Bennett’s back, thereby impairing Bennett’s breathing.
In measured remarks on Friday, Sheriff Lombardo acknowledged that Bennett has a “valid perspective” as an innocent person who was detained by police. Lombardo also noted that he understood why Bennett did not “feel good” about the incident. Nonetheless, Lombardo stressed that he and his staff reviewed 193 videos that shed light the incident and these videos corroborated the officers’ decision to detain Bennett on suspicion of a felony. Lombardo maintained that the officers’ goal was to “safely bring to an end the situation,” and that their interactions with Bennett were lawful, even if Bennett regarded them as degrading and humiliating.
During his press conference, Sheriff Lombardo played a two-minute video of the incident. The video shows a chaotic scene, with bystanders screaming in response to hearing a gunshot. Bennett is then shown in a crouched stance hastily moving to hide behind a slot machine at the Crowmell Hotel and Casino. One officer on the scene noticed Bennett at this point in time.
Bennett’s actions in the casino were not especially suspicious. His crouching seems explainable by the fact that he is 6-foot-4 and was worried about a live shooter in his vicinity. His decision to hide behind an object also appeared rational since he feared for his safety. For that matter, the video shows other people in the building lying down for their own safety.
Bennett then ran away from the machine and out the doors of the casino. He was not alone in running. As the video shows, other persons quickly exited the building.
An officer can then be heard yelling “one running, there’s one running!” in an apparent reference to Bennett (though, as mentioned above, other persons were running). The officer then yells, “come back” but Bennett instead climbed over a wall and then onto a street. A second officer asks, “Did he have a gun?” which prompted the first officer to say “over there, over there!” as he apparently saw Bennett. The first officer then pushes a crowd away in pursuit of Bennett and is then heard yelling “get on the ground!!”
At that point Bennett’s detention begins, though the two-minute does not show the moment when the officer encountered Bennett.
On the video, Bennett is shown pleading that he hadn’t done anything wrong. He explained that he only ran because he was told to get up and then saw other people running out of the casino. After an officer handcuffed Bennett and escorted him to the back of a police car, Bennett yelled, “let go man!” Bennett’s remark prompted the officer to scream at him to “sit down!“ The officer explained to Bennett that he and other police were “dealing with a shooter.” One officer then cursed at Bennett to get his “f---ing” feet into the car. Bennett continued to ask why he was being detained. He was generally cooperative with the officers’ requests.
Could Bennett pursue legal action against the police?
The short answer to this question is “yes” though as explained below, it is worth highlighting the difficulties of such an action. Bennett has retained noted civil rights attorney John Burris to explore the possibility of a legal action.
If Bennett decided to bring a case, it would likely consist of an excessive force claim under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. Such a claim would allow Bennett to argue that his Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches and his Fifth and 14th Amendment protections from unlawful detainment without due process were violated. Bennett would likely also sue for negligence (arguing that the officers engaged in unreasonable treatment), intentional infliction of emotional distress (arguing that the officers engaged in outrageous behavior and caused him emotional turmoil) and battery (arguing that the officers made unlawful physical contact with Bennett).
To advance his claims, Bennett would contend that the officers detained him without justifiable cause. He would highlight that other persons in the casino hid and ran and yet the officers zeroed in on Bennett, a large black man, as the suspect.
Bennett would also contend that the officers used more force than necessary to take him into custody. As noted above, Bennett claims that one officer placed his knee into Bennett’s back, thereby impairing his breathing. Further, Bennett would argue that he was detained for an unreasonable amount of time. To that end, Bennett would highlight that officers quickly realized he was not armed and yet wouldn’t release him.
Bennett would also raise questions about the two-minute video played by Sherriff Lombardo. The video contains a sequence of events that had been spliced from multiple cameras, including building surveillance cameras and officers’ body cameras. It’s possible that a different collection of video might reflect differently on the incident. This does not mean that the video is misleading, but Burris—the attorney representing Bennett—would no doubt demand to see all available video and sound (Burris recently told media that the LVMPD has promised to share those recordings). Similarly, Bennett's attorney would call into question the impact of one of the officers' body cameras not being turned on.
Likely defenses for the police
In response to a lawsuit, the LVMPD would be armed with several defenses.
For one, the LVMPD would stress that they responded to an ongoing public safety threat and that Bennett drew attention to himself by crouching, hiding and then sprinting away from the police. The LVMPD would also point that other minorities, including black persons, exited the casino at around the same time as Bennett. This would help the LVMPD argue that Bennett was not singled out for his race.
The LVMPD would also underscore that officers only needed to find “reasonable suspicion” in order to lawfully detain Bennett and determine whether or not he played a role in the shooting. Such suspicion, the LVMPD contends, was derived from Bennett’s suspicious behavior in the context of an unidentified live shooter. As to the length of Bennett’s detainment, 10 minutes complies with case precedent.
The LVMPD would further highlight that Bennett does not appear to have suffered any injuries from the incident. Bennett was clearly offended and humiliated, but in terms of potential damages, a case might not prove all that impactful.
Lastly, the LVMPD, like other police departments, can sometimes defeat lawsuits through “sovereign immunity.” Sovereign immunity refers to the concept that in certain situations, the government can only be sued if it agrees to be sued.
SI.com will keep you posted on any additional fallout of the Bennett-police dispute.
Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also an attorney and the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, and co-author with Ed O'Bannon of the forthcoming book Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA and My Life in Basketball.