'What Happened in Vegas': Film Review

What Happened in Vegas Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Journeyman Pictures
A damning portrait likely to get buried under similar reports.

Ramsey Denison's doc uses a chance eyewitness encounter as springboard for a condemnation of Sin City policing.

An avowed supporter of law-enforcement entities has an eye-opening experience in What Happened in Vegas, Ramsey Denison's portrait of scandalous Las Vegas policing. Built around controversial police killings from early in this decade, it mourns for victims less famous than Eric Garner and Michael Brown — connecting their stories in an indictment of retired Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie and the man who replaced him. Effective despite some storytelling flaws, the documentary is nonetheless unlikely to draw too much attention on the national stage, with fresher outrages never hard to come by.

Denison is a TV editor who says he spends much of his life crafting tidy true-crime films about "good cops who catch bad criminals." He has always shared that vision of policing, he says, and counts cops as friends. The same is true for his pal Rhett Nielson, who spent seven years as a videographer for a SWAT team in Las Vegas.

The two men were at the end of a long night on the town when they happened across a shocking scene: Four policemen were abusing and insulting a man who seemed to pose no threat to them. Denison called 911 to report their behavior; "next thing you know," he recalls, "I'm getting beaten, arrested and thrown in jail."

Without providing many details of the incident beyond that sentence — he'll do so later, but leave many viewers with unanswered questions — Denison pivots to other accounts of Vegas cops gone rogue. In the case of Trevon Cole, who was shot in the head while flushing pot down the toilet, Denison paints an infuriating picture of publicity-hungry overkill and shameless attempts to excuse the killing by destroying the victim's reputation.

Character assassination is an even bigger focus in Denison's next story, in which West Point graduate Erik Scott was gunned down in a Costco parking lot. Scott had spooked a store employee while carrying a concealed handgun (he had a permit to do so), and was shot in front of many witnesses who disputed police accounts of the event. In the aftermath, according to Scott's father — clearly a law-and-order type who is ill-accustomed to siding against the powers that be — cops tried to paint Scott as deranged, citing his use of prescription painkillers.

Denison has other upsetting stories to tell, and sometimes switches abruptly between them. (Perhaps, having worked so long in the rigid format of TV crime shows, he's just too eager to shake things up.) Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie emerges as a villain in these tales: Denison accuses him of assorted conflicts of interest, and says he used his authority to weasel out of an embarrassing episode of domestic violence.

But the filmmaker manages not to sour on the law entirely. The doc's second half introduces Captain Larry Burns, a promoter of more community-centric policing styles, and observes as he runs for sheriff in 2014. After Gillespie surprises everyone by refusing to run for re-election, he hand-picks Joe Lombardo as successor to carry his torch. Burns, drawing impressive support from a police officers' union, runs against Lombardo, the well-funded supporter of the status quo.

It's not much of a spoiler to report that the reformer doesn't win in the end.

Production company: Dead in a Ditch Productions
Distributor: Journeyman Pictures
Director-editor: Ramsey Denison
Producers: Douglas Blush, Ramsey Denison
Executive producer: Randy D. Wiles
Director of photography: Rhett Nielson
Composer: Jim McKeever

Rated R, 90 minutes