What’s ‘the deal’ with the Nation of Islam panhandlers?

Eighteen-year Las Vegas police officer Laurie Bisch keeps running for sheriff against her boss, Doug Gillespie. She says her independent attitude sometimes makes her feel “like a woman without a country” when she goes to work — though other officers have been known to approach her in private and thank her for raising issues others fear to confront.

Officer Bisch was recently assigned to the Bolden Area Command, which is headquartered on a side street just southwest of what used to be known as Drive-By Corners: the intersection of Lake Mead and Martin Luther King boulevards.

One day, a few weeks ago, she got a call from dispatch. A driver had complained some men were out in the street at the corner of Rancho Drive and Charleston Boulevard, aggressively soliciting funds from motorists, and blocking traffic when the light changed.

She drove there, asked the three men whether they had a permit to be in the street aggressively selling their Nation of Islam newspapers to motorists stopped at the red light, determined they had no permit and wrote them citations for violating NRS 484B.297.

The law specifies: “A person shall not stand in a highway to solicit … any business from the driver or any occupant of a vehicle. A person shall not, without a permit … solicit any contribution from the driver or any occupant of a vehicle.”

But local firefighters do the same thing when they collect funds for MDA in their annual boot drive, I pointed out.

A county spokesman says their firefighters now limit their drives to private parking lots. If city firefighters work the intersections they get a permit, Bisch explains — a permit which is good for only three days a year. Firefighters still have to be careful to be out of the street when the light turns green, or they’d still be in violation.

While Bisch was writing her citations, the three men did not seem chagrined, she reports. They were laughing. Indeed, while she was there, her cell phone rang. It was an officer from her station house, informing her “there’s a deal” under which members of the Nation of Islam are not cited for selling their newspapers, nor for soliciting and collecting funds from vehicles stopped in the streets at red lights.

She wrote the tickets, anyway.

When she arrived back at the station, she says she was again told there was “a deal” under which members of the Nation of Islam — and only members of the Nation of Islam — are not cited.

“I was told ‘This is political; we don’t mess with them.’ At the following morning’s briefing, she says she was told, “When it comes to the Nation of Islam guys, we have a hands-off policy, short of having a citizen come back and fill out a crime report and do a voluntary statement.”

“Now I’ll have to give these tickets to the captain to take care of,” Officer Bisch says she was told.

When there are crimes on the West Side, members of the Nation of Islam step in and help police solve them, Bisch says she was told by one of her superiors.

“Can you tell me a single case where there’s been a crime on the ‘Side,’ and someone from the Nation of Islam has gone in there and located the perpetrator and turned him over to us, or gotten him to turn himself in?” she says she asked.

Officer Bisch says her superior could not name such a case.

Bisch says she was told there was no sense issuing the tickets to members of the Nation of Islam, because Las Vegas City Attorney Brad Jerbic wouldn’t prosecute them.

She called that office, identified herself, and asked if it’s true the city attorney’s office won’t prosecute tickets issued for violations of statute 484B.297. She says Assistant City Attorney Ben Little came on the phone and said, “I understand you’re calling about the Nation of Islam?”

She pointed out she hadn’t mentioned the Nation of Islam. Bisch says Little told her if she were the only officer ticketing these aggressive panhandlers, who appear to all be black men, her actions might be interpreted as racist.

Bisch says she responded that she has written hundreds of citations under this statute over the years, “and you can pull them up and check; the majority were to white adults.”

‘A RELIGIOUS EXPRESSION RIGHT’

Officer Bisch says she was told both by her superiors and by Ben Little that in order to prosecute such an offense, she would have to locate a witness who was willing to return with her to the station, write out a voluntary statement that they’d witnessed the offenses, and file a criminal complaint. Even then she would need a sergeant’s permission to proceed, she says.

That’s completely at variance with the way officers normally write tickets for misdemeanors, when it’s considered enough for the officer to have seen the offense with her own eyes, Officer Bisch points out.

“Vin, I asked the dispatcher how many of these calls we got in the month of February, and it was dozens, especially from women, who say they’re frightened by these guys, they feel intimidated, so they call in a complaint. And the dispatchers are so frustrated because the officers are told not to respond to these calls,” Officer Bisch says.

The calls are handled with a “broadcast and clear” command, she says. That is, no officer is instructed to respond. The calls are logged as “cleared by sergeant,” meaning no further action was authorized.

The Nation of Islam, led nationally by Louis Farrakhan, is believed to have 20,000 to 50,000 members nationwide. Farrakhan preaches that white people are sub-human devils who “are potential humans. … They haven’t evolved yet.”

Although I don’t set much store by the judgment of the Southern Poverty Law Center, myself, that group has tagged the Nation of Islam as a “hate group.”

Much of the group’s recruiting is done in prisons. If these men are on a path to better lives through good works, more power to them. Still, it would be interesting to see the prior arrest and conviction records of those aggressive “newspaper salesmen” cited by Bisch for sticking their hands in drivers’ windows, attempting to “shake hands” — except that those tickets were “taken care of,” of course.

Phone messages left last week at the Muhammad Mosque 75 on D Street were not returned.

Sheriff Doug Gillespie says “Back in the ’90s … the city attorney wouldn’t prosecute on those tickets. So if we can’t write tickets, we can’t ignore it. So rather than write citations, what we do is we meet from time with the Nation of Islam” to discuss what activities are permitted.

Capt. Larry Burns has been in command of Metro’s Bolden Area substation since January. I asked him if his officers are routinely advised not to roll on complaints about aggressive fund-raising in the streets by the Nation of Islam “newspaper salesmen,” or complaints that they’re blocking traffic.

“No no no, we roll on those calls,” he said in our March 11 phone conversation. “The officers are certainly not given an order to not ticket. What we typically do, if we receive a call, if there’s an individual that makes a call to police, if they feel they’re in danger in any way shape or form, we make every attempt to meet that individual and get a voluntary statement from them. And that hasn’t happened in a very long time. …

“This issue of individuals who are proselytizing and offering things for sale has been going on as long as I’ve been a police officer, for 25 years,” Capt. Burns said. “As a matter of practice, going back in my recollection to when Cliff Davis was a deputy chief here for Metro, and through discussions with particularly the city attorney, the ACLU, you name it over the years, those citations that have been written over the course of the last two decades, those things are routinely dismissed at some level, and they’re not prosecuted. … None of them has ever been struck by a motor vehicle. … And we’re getting into a religious expression right.”

What happens to the tickets, I asked.

“There’s no automatic procedure for that. … It’s dependent on the totality of circumstance. I’ve taken tickets before that have been written, and I have not allowed them to process through the system, they have stopped here, it’s within my authority to do that.

“The bottom line is that this is a relationship issue. There is a lot that’s involved with something that’s seemingly very simple. … We’re talking about organizations that have leaders who can be contacted, who I assume dispatch them. … Those relationships are key to policing. The way that we have always been successful in law enforcement is through our community relationships. … For the good of the community these are things that are constantly balanced.”

The captain confirmed he “took care of” the three tickets issued by Officer Bisch, though he did not use her name.

“I have done that on one single event with three individuals, stopped the tickets before they went forward into the system,” Capt. Burns said. He told his subordinates to “Let me have them and let me do some review and do some reaching out to make sure that we don’t have issues. I asked them to give me two weeks. I asked if we had a statement from someone, was there something else to go with the citation other than the citation itself, and that was at Rancho and Charleston. It is not a turn your head, don’t worry about it, they’re suddenly exempt from the law.”

And the bigger picture is hoping that the Nation of Islam can help Metro with crime on the West Side?

“When you create those relationships, you are so much further ahead,” Capt. Burns said. “Valley-wide we solve 85 percent of homicides, here in Bolden area it’s 20 percent.”

‘THEY COULD STRING TOGETHER THE PERMITS’

“Everything you say is correct,” City Attorney Brad Jerbic told me Monday. “You cannot commercially solicit, you can’t sell newspapers from medians, the Nation has been told that; they can ask for contributions only. If there are any strong-arm tactics, we’ve told them you will be ticketed, we’ve told them if you remain in the intersection when the light turns green, they will be ticketed. We process (those tickets) and we’ve taken them to trial. …

“I participated in a meeting with Metro the Nation of Islam and the ACLU, it could be more than a decade ago,” Mr. Jerbic recalled.

“The state Legislature has created a scheme where an individual can come in and get a permit to solicit from the median for as long as three-days at a time. With an organization as large as the Nation of Islam, they could string together the permits, one after another, so they could put someone on a median every day of the year.

“So in the context of first amendment speech, the conclusion was that people wouldn’t be arrested or cited simply for not having the permit, but rather for the action itself. Are you engaging in coercive soliciting, are you on the median or in traffic? I have seen tickets issued. The Nation is not exempted, they don’t have a ‘pass.’”

They can repeal all the “permit” laws they like, as far as I care. But I believe that’s the first time I’ve ever had a city official tell me they’re not going to enforce a statute requiring a permit, because if they did so the darned culprits could ruin everything by just going out and applying for a bunch of permits.

Mr. Jerbic then admitted it’s been “a few years” since he saw such a ticket come through. Surely that’s evidence that Metro has effectively exempted the Nation of Islam from having to obey this statute, isn’t it?

“The question goes back to Metro. If they’ve got people knocking on windows, that’s not contact that’s protected. I invite you to call Ben Little, who spoke to me last week, and verified that we have prosecuted those tickets … It’s not skin color, it’s not religion, it’s conduct,. If you’re blocking traffic, if you’re commercially selling products from the median, I’ve never sent any memo to Metro that says that’s legal. …

“I remember one ticket, going back to the Nation with Metro and with the ACLU, they said, ‘We had a deal that we could be on the medians.’ We said ‘No, no, no, we’re not going to be looking so much on whether you have the permit, but he was blocking traffic and he was prosecuted and he was convicted.”

‘THE QUINTESSENTIAL PUBLIC FORUM’

Allen Lichtenstein, local lead attorney for the ACLU, remembers that meeting of about a decade ago.

“It was agreed as long as they’re not blocking traffic or interfering or harassing anyone then they have a First Amendment right. It was agreed by all the parties that the streets as well as the sidewalk are the quintessential public forum …

“My understanding is they’re not selling their papers, if asked they’ll give them away,” attorney Lichtenstein said. “If people feel intimidated, that’s a bit of a concern as a basis for issuing tickets, because the fact that they are the Nation of Islam may make people feel intimidated. I’m not aware of anything in the code that makes being a large black man illegal, or that puts restrictions on someone’s activities because someone is a large black man. …”

Officer Bisch drove through the same intersection, off duty and out of uniform, the day after she issued her three tickets. The Nation of Islam guys were at it again. They actually knocked on her window.

“Are you kidding me?” she asked. “I just wrote you a citation for this yesterday.”
She says the solicitors laughed and shouted to one another, “‘Hey, it’s Miss Bush,’ they call me Miss Bush.”

“The citation is supposed to put them on notice to end the behavior,” Officer Bisch points out. “If an officer issues repeat citations and the behavior doesn’t change, the next step is normally that we take the offender to jail.”

“I live in the Rancho and Charleston area,” says District Court Judge Donald Mosley. “They’re out there all the time, and oftentimes they’re blocking traffic, talking to people, blocking traffic and people are waiting for them to get out of the way.

“It just gets me a little aggravated that we can’t seem to control, as a city, people collecting alms this way. They’re out there all the time. If they’re getting cited it’s not having any effect.

“I was told some years ago they don’t want to do anything because they don’t want to stop the firemen from doing the boot drive. Well, the answer is a permit system. …

“I’ve had ’em peck on my window if the window is rolled up,” says the judge, who used to preside at Las Vegas Municipal Court, but now occupies a bench that doesn’t deal with such offenses. “The panhandlers won’t get a permit, and these Islam guys who seems to make a career out of it, if you restrict it to three days a year that’ll put ’em out of business.”

I asked the judge if he thought the “special deal” under which the Nation of Islam gets to ignore this particular law was put in place to “buy peace” on the West Side?

“That’s what a Taser is for, to buy peace,” the judge responded.

3 Comments to “What’s ‘the deal’ with the Nation of Islam panhandlers?”

  1. Eric Oppen Says:

    This sounds kind of like how the Westboro Baptist “Church” has the city of Topeka buffaloed…nobody’s willing to cross swords with them since they’ll go miles out of their way to make the life of anybody who does a misery. Between endless picketing, blizzards of lawsuits and mysterious scattering of roofing nails in driveways, the Westboros have Topeka up a gum tree.

    Personally, I’d ship Farrakhan and all his followers to Saudi Arabia. Real Muslims consider the “Nation of Islam” a heretical fraud, and they’d take care of the problem right quick.

  2. liberranter Says:

    I’ve always been awestruck by how fast the spines of those with political power melt to liquid when the “right” demographic groups make loud, threatening noises that enable them to project an air of power in a manner that exaggerates their actual numbers or strength. Now if only the law-abiding, Constitution-respecting citizens of this land would adopt the same tactic. Maybe then such creatures as the DEA, DHS, IRS, FBI, CIA, etc., not to mention state and local government parasitic organizations of similar nature, would roll over and play dead.

  3. Lava Says:

    WTF?!! A Taser is to buy peace?! **!

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