Dueling motions propel former police chief's lawsuit against City of Henderson

Henderson Police Department employees made ‘discriminatory’ comments toward former Black chief, records say

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LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Employees of the Henderson Police Department regularly made “intentional, discriminatory” comments aimed at one of its former black chiefs, documents obtained by the 8 News Now Investigators reveal.

In affidavits filed in federal court Friday, one current and one former HPD officer claims they heard racist, derogatory remarks made at and in the presence of LaTesha Watson, the department’s chief from 2017 until she was fired in April 2019. Watson is suing the city, the department, and a handful of individuals claiming, among other things, racial discrimination and a hostile work environment.

“During Chief Watson’s tenure, I heard a number of officers and patrolmen make disparaging comments not only regarding African American’s [sic] generally, but as to [Watson] specifically,” Hector Villa, an HPD officer since 2009, said in sworn and notarized affidavit. Recently, Villa has filed a separate discrimination claim against the city and says the department has retaliated against him as a result.

Villa’s affidavit also alleges comments about Watson’s appearance, saying officers remarked about the length of her nails and “her hair being ‘nappy.’” Some officers also referred to her as “‘Laquisha’ in a derogatory manner,” instead of her given name, Latesha, Villa said in his affidavit. Other, he said, referred to “her hair being ‘nappy,’” and characterized her as “ghetto.”

The other affidavit, by an officer at the department from July 2021 through November 2022, says he “observed both subtle and overt discriminatory conduct.”

“This conduct included use of the ‘N-ER’ word while [police worn] body cams were off,” Xavier Johnson, the officer, said in his affidavit. “This word was used to describe African Americans, even in my presence as an African American fellow officer.”

Johnson said officers do not generally make such complaints for fear of retaliation from within the department, and that if officers could be immunized against such reprisal, “there would be a large number of officers going forward outlining the discrimination they observed over the years in this department.”

Watson’s attorney, who filed these affidavits in the federal case, says the documents and Watson’s case as a whole shine a light on systemic racism inside the HPD.

“This isn’t even subtle,” Marc Cook, Watson’s lawyer, told the 8 News Now Investigators. “This is overt discrimination.”

Villa, in his affidavit, mentions one of the many defendants in Watson’s case, saying that “on certain occasions where I heard disparaging remarks made about Chief Watson, they were made by and in front of” police sergeant Kevin Abernathy. The lawsuit says Abernathy, a detective at the time, was involved in the mistreatment of Watson while she was HPD’s chief.

But the head of the police supervisors union of which Abernathy is a member, calls those allegations “bogus,” saying that Villa is not a credible source of information because of his ongoing complaint against the department.

“There is no truthfulness to anything that he said,” Andrew Regenbaum, executive director of the Henderson Police Supervisors Association.  Regenbaum said Villa has been interviewed by numerous people within the department on prior occasions and never mentioned these specific allegations, which do not include specific times or dates and do not tie Abernathy to any particular comment.

Abernathy was involved in a police shooting in 2019 and was honored by the city a year later with 2020’s “Law Enforcement Public Service Award.” Abernathy’s attorney did not return a request for comment.

HPD, through a spokesman, referred the 8 News Now Investigators to its longstanding policy of not commenting on ongoing litigation. A lawyer for the city, meanwhile, responded by email and said the following:

“The City does not usually comment on pending litigation.  I will note, however, that the City has moved for summary judgment on all of [Watson’s] claims on the basis that there is no admissible evidence to support those claims.  We would invite you to review that filing, which is a matter of public record.  This will give you a more complete picture of the claims, which we firmly believe have no merit.”

A federal court judge is still taking under advisement that summary judgment motion and another filed by Cook on behalf of Watson in February.

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