Friday, Sept. 18, 2020 | 2 a.m.
Sgt. Paul Gambini has seen plenty of pain and suffering working in the Metro Police Abuse-Neglect Unit.
He easily recalls the day when he responded to a scene where a man accidentally smothered his infant while they both lay napping. And he’ll never forget the screams of a wailing mother who just lost her baby to a very-preventable death.
“Twenty-four-year-old Paul was not ready to do this kind of work,” the Metro sergeant, 47, conceded. “I was more comfortable chasing after a gangster than doing this work at that age.”
Nearly a year ago, more than 22 years into his law enforcement career, Gambini transferred into the neglect unit as a supervisor. His team probes serious child injuries and deaths, both accidental and criminal. They also investigate crimes against the elderly.
Infants in a crib should lie face up and with no sheets, blankets or toys surrounding them. While adults might get cold, children are often warm with just their onesies. While napping with a baby on one’s chest might be a cute parent moment, it’s not safe. Neither is sleeping with a baby in the same bed, as a parent can accidentally roll over or the child’s head can become stuck in the bed.
As of early September, the two squads responsible for child abuse and neglect — each with one sergeant and five detectives — have responded to 24 accidental deaths, 13 homicides and six child suicides in 2020. About 88 children have died from natural causes.
Metro has probed 10 “unsafe sleeping” deaths in 2020, which is 14 fewer than were reported all last year, and two drownings, compared with seven in 2019.
“We are almost out of swimming season and entering the cooler months (when) some unsafe sleeping deaths could occur,” Metro Officer Larry Hadfield said.
Gambini said his team’s work is as much about investigating serious incidents as it is about preventing them. That can mean raising awareness about safe sleeping and swimming, or stopping abuse before it reaches a lethal conclusion.
“These are true victims,” Gambini said about abused children. “No truer of a victim than a young child that’s completely innocent, doesn’t have any say-so in their situation.”
“Somebody has to fight for them,” he added.
Gambini reminds parents that the best defense is constant supervision of children by adults. He discourages parents leaving children in the care of juvenile siblings, and encourages a system in which a child is being watched at all times. Older siblings can be tasked with teaching the younger siblings safety techniques. There’s technology, like a device that can alert a home alarm when there’s disturbance in a pool, or a bracelet that informs an app when it gets wet. However, Gambini said they shouldn’t be considered the only precaution.
There are flexible criteria on how the unit identifies cases. It’s often a referral from Clark County Child Protective Services or patrol officers. A report of a single slap likely wouldn’t require the unit to respond. But they will be there if a pattern of abuse is discovered.
“We don’t want one of those to slip through and that kid to suffer unnecessarily because we weren’t on the case from the start,” Gambini said.
Injuries from burns and accidental shootings due to unattended guns are also probed. It’s also important to exonerate people who are wrongfully accused, he added.
Before joining the unit, Gambini said he wasn’t aware of the frequency of child deaths in the valley. Although he hadn’t responded to one in his career, he responded to eight in his first month in the unit, he noted. One of them was at a hospital, where from the outside he could hear the painful screams of a mother whose baby had died in a sleeping accident.
Later, he remembers, he arrived at a home where a father had fallen asleep on a couch with his baby lying on his chest. A mother entered the room to discover that the infant had been smothered by the man’s chest and arm. It’s a tragedy that could happen to any parent, though preventable, Gambini said.
The unit responded Aug. 31 to a house in the west valley, where a woman allegedly killed her 3-month-old baby by dropping the boy from the second floor of the home to the tile below.
Not every child death is the same, said Gambini, who spent six years in Metro’s robbery unit. “Every robbery, every gang shooting can be very clear from the start.”
Finding out what happened requires an immediate and thorough investigation, in which detectives sometimes must think sadistically, as to not misidentify a homicide as an accident, Gambini said. Sometimes, the investigators, who can be on-call 24/7, might respond to multiple incidents in a row, he added.
Solving a series of robberies might elicit officers to high-five and rejoice, while the work Gambini does now can be “sad, depressing and stressful.” Sometimes he wonders how those in the medical profession who see even more carnage can deal with it. In his year at the unit, Gambini, a father of five children — ages 6 to 20 — has found himself kissing his kids when he gets home.
He’s not sure what kind of parent he might have been had he been in the unit as a rookie: perhaps a paranoid one, he assumes.
Now as a veteran, Gambini is sure that he’s the right person for the job. His “maturity and life experiences” contribute to that.
And his unit’s work is personal: “When you live it, it’s like having it happen to your family almost, only you’re having it happen every day.”