The Killing of Charles Bush by Las Vegas Police

Black Lives Matter protestor holding hands up, Las Vegas, Nevada, May 30, 2020 (Shutterstock)

In the early morning of July 31, 1990, Terri Siddoway left her apartment and journeyed toward a nearby convenience store to purchase a pack of cigarettes. Around 12:30 a.m., her feet began to blister and she accepted a ride from an undercover vice officer, who then arrested her for prostitution and claimed she propositioned him for sex. Siddoway denied the accusation, but having once been legally employed in sex work in rural Nevada, she was an easy target for vice officers that aggressively harassed populations who held little voice or political representation. 

After she was detained, three plainclothes officers from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) obtained a key to her apartment to conduct an “inquisitory investigation,” a strategy used in “prostitution-related” cases to conduct warrantless “no knock” searches upon suspicion that the resident was committing illegal activity. Since prostitution was illegal within the limits of Clark County, anyone who resided with someone engaged in illegal sex work could be arrested and detained. The officers asserted that she released her key and granted them permission, but she denied this claim. 

They entered Siddoway’s apartment around 1 a.m. and found Charles Bush, a Black man who worked as a floor supervisor at a local casino, sleeping on a bed. The details of the confrontation between the men are the subject of debate, since the posthumous descriptions come exclusively from officer testimonies. We simply know that Bush awoke to see unfamiliar men in his apartment and a struggle ensued. The officers joined forces and one of them applied a chokehold to subdue him. After Bush was overpowered, one of them left to retrieve handcuffs from their vehicle. Bush remained in the chokehold throughout the duration of the roundtrip journey. After he was handcuffed and placed face down on a bed they noticed he was not breathing. By the time medical assistance arrived Bush was already dead. Shortly thereafter, the medical examiner noted that he died by strangulation via chokehold, which prompted a “coroner’s inquest” hearing to determine if the slaying was “justifiable.”

Coroner’s inquests were established in Clark County in the 1970s. They functioned as quasi-judicial trials to determine if a citizen jury believed police-involved killings were “justifiable,” or if the officers should face formal prosecution from the District Attorney’s (DA) office. Though they followed the formalities of an official court, these trials did not level convictions but served an advisory role for the DA on whether or not they needed to pursue legal action. If the jury ruled the killing was justified, the DA dropped the case and the officers avoided legal scrutiny from the county. Though this process was promoted as a model of systemic transparency, they rarely convicted police of wrongdoing. By the time Bush was killed, the coroner’s juries historically favored the police, ruling in 44 out of 45 police killings since 1976 that police were “justified.” Many Black Las Vegans feared the Bush case would reach the same conclusion. 

Though the details of July 31st still remain elusive, contemporary sources do unveil how law enforcement officers relied upon state power to exonerate them from blame, and how the broader Las Vegas community began to detect the extent of police corruption. The testimonies from the inquest hearings and the subsequent commentaries offered by activists and legal experts are particularly useful for understanding a few key aspects of this event. First, the officers’ testimonies are the only sources that describe Bush’s killing, and though they are biased, their claims reveal how the coroner’s inquest was specifically set up to guide the jury toward a “justifiable” verdict. Second, the officers’ statements reveal how the LVMPD preyed upon marginalized populations by relying upon the protection of the DA who, according to the NAACP’s Las Vegas chapter, “always presents the case to the jury in a way that will ensure the exoneration of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.” But the officers’ exoneration actually placed the LVMPD on the defensive, as it now faced a city that, at best, became suspicious of their tactics, or, at worst, no longer trusted them. 

The officers’ collective testimonies are notable for how they exposed the problems surrounding the LVMPD’s policies on no-knock warrants and the use-of-force. Bush and Siddoway resided at The Paradise Resort Inn, an “off-strip” property located on 4350 Paradise Road, a few blocks east from the tourist-rich Las Vegas Blvd. In the era preceding smartphone recordings and body-camera footage, the police were known to run roughshod against these most vulnerable communities, enforcing laws designed to contain, rather than liberate, those who already lived on society’s margins. Perhaps the officers assumed Bush would submit to their questioning without argument, as so many in the area had done before through fear and intimidation.

Though this vice squad knew the residence was likely occupied, and they assumed (though never proved) Bush was tied to illegal sex work, it is noteworthy that none of them possessed handcuffs at the time of entry. Neglecting to procure handcuffs, the primary tool of any arrest, raised alarms for those following the story. Why did they not follow basic procedure when entering an apartment where they expected to find evidence of illegal activity? Two of the officers even provided a bizarre defense about their use-of-force by citing their lacking physicality compared to Bush, a 6’6” former collegiate basketball standout at the University of Nevada, Reno, who was, according to the medical examiner, in good physical condition at the time of the confrontation. One of the officers excused his own actions on the basis that he was “57 years old, overweight and suffered from high blood pressure,” while another testified his endurance was low due to smoking “two packs a day.” These remarkable statements caused one journalist to ask the question, “how often does the poor condition of police officers result in the quicker use of excessive force?” It was a fair point. The officers’ claims should have worried any objective observer, as they implied that if police felt threatened by an unarmed man who was in superior condition than themselves, they were justified in using lethal force.

And their defense worked. The coroner’s citizen jury determined the killing was “justifiable” based upon their testimony, though neither the officers nor the jurors ever expounded upon the ruling or offered further comment. Subsequently, journalists, activists, legal experts, and ordinary citizens throughout the Las Vegas valley condemned the verdict and organized to pressure the LVMPD to revise their procedures and policies surrounding the use-of-force and demand more citizen input in police-involved killings. Activists eventually succeeded in pushing for revisions limiting the use of chokeholds and implementing civilian review boards that were tasked with overseeing cases of police brutality and tracking the overall progress of community-police relations. Consequently, Bush’s death became the highest-profile police killing in Las Vegas’ history and mobilized activists to push for reforms as they acquired broader community support.

Public outrage was based upon a legitimate perception that corrupt police officers enjoyed systemic protection from the DA’s office, and residents’ opinions surrounding the verdict became a watershed moment in fracturing the relations between the community, police, and municipal authorities in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Review Journal (RJ) revealed that 91% of their 225 respondents declared that the coroner’s jury did not make the correct decision in the Bush case. Las Vegas residents wrote to the newspaper and condemned the decision, with one noting, “The non-verdict in the Charles Bush trial was a slap in the face to this community . . . but even more so to the black community.” One journalist argued the LVMPD acted as a “monarchal agency answerable only to the sheriff,” while maintaining a “shroud of secrecy over its operations.” If real changes were not made, Las Vegas police were simply an “occupying army” that intimidated marginalized people with impunity. The Bush inquest became a flashpoint for community-police relations and instituted the initial stage of a multi-decade period of reforms and federal investigations that produced changes to the nature of policing throughout Clark County, Nevada. 

Public pressure eventually caused the officers to face criminal charges, though this conclusion was equally unsatisfactory. None of them went to prison, having been either fired or demoted from their positions. And despite the many reforms enacted by the LVMPD throughout the three decades since Bush died, residents still wonder if they are enough when one considers that LVMPD officers recently killed two Black men, Tashii Brown (2017) and Byron Williams (2019), by blocking their ability to breathe. As discussions of police reform, abolition, and defunding continue after the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020-2021, Las Vegas residents must understand that such discussions are not far removed from their own city’s past and its present. The Charles Bush case remains as relevant today as it was in the early 1990s for analyzing how forms of police power can be unjustly used against marginalized populations, and how communities can mobilize to challenge the status quo.

Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.


Tyler D. Parry

Tyler D. Parry is an Assistant Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He received a Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina. He serves in a number of capacities within the profession, including as an editor for H-Afro-Am and as Book Review Editor for Black Perspectives. His research examines slavery in the Americas, the African diaspora, and the historical memory of slavery in the United States. His first book, tentatively titled, Jumping the Broom: A Multicultural History (under contract with the University of North Carolina Press) is the first definitive examination of the “broomstick wedding,” a popular marital tradition usually associated with Black Americans. Additionally, he is co-authoring a book with historian Charlton W. Yingling that examines how Europeans and Euro-Americans used canines to attack and subordinate Black people who resisted slavery and oppression.