Officials from regional governmental agencies met virtually on Monday for a town hall on policing. It was organized by Washoe County School District Board of Trustees Vice President Angie Taylor and Reno City Councilmember Oscar Delgado—a follow-up to conversations the pair said they started in 2016.
Police killings of civilians across the country spurred the conversation, leading to a study of all three of the region’s law enforcement agencies—the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office (WSCO), the Sparks Police Department (SPD) and the Reno Police Department (RPD)–conducted by the third-party, nonpartisan Guinn Center for Policy Priorities.
The Guinn Center study was based on recommendations from former President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and contained more than 40 recommendations for the three agencies based on five categories: public accountability and transparency, hiring and recruitment, training, internal policy development, and human capital and officer wellness.
The Guinn Center completed the study in 2018. On Monday, representatives from RPD, SPD and WCSO convened with Nancy Brune, executive director of the Guinn Center, and representatives from both Sparks and Reno to discuss how many of the Center’s recommendations have been adopted two years on.
“It is not easy to let an outside agency come in and look at what you do,” Taylor said. “They did it with wholehearted support and honest communication.”
Delgado said that while it didn’t mean they’d been doing a bad job, the Guinn Center report revealed “opportunities for improvement with some of our local law enforcement agencies.”
As to why it’s two years on and adoption of the Guinn Center Policy recommendations is just now being discussed, Delgado said he believes there were several reasons—including waning media attention to the issue.
He said he hopes to keep the momentum going this time around.
The town hall began with introductions of and remarks by participants, including Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve, Sparks City Councilmember Charlene Bybee and Washoe County Commission Chair Bob Lucey.
Schieve said she believes “[the Reno] community is really at a time where this is our moment.”
She added that she believes the community is unaware of many of the policy changes the RPD has made and remarked on the large number of officers who’ve reached out wanting to be a part of the conversation about local policing.
Bybee said, “Sparks is at the table, and we’re committed. We’ve been committed to community policing. It’s a priority for the City of Sparks.
She said she knew “the study was looking at building upon law enforcement efforts toward” building transparency and trust with the community and mentioned community barbecues SPD has hosted.
Bybee also mentioned that Sparks Police, RPD and the WCSO had all implemented Mobile Outreach Safety Team programs through which clinicians ride along with law enforcement officers on calls where mental health services and information on access to resources may be necessary.
Commenters following the town hall on Facebook were complaining in comments that their questions were not being answered.
One Sparks commenter, Cristi Chadwick, said, “Here in Sparks Ward 1 it seems that the police presence is more about protecting the Nugget’s revenue for events as opposed to protecting the citizens.
Bob Lucey, Chair of the Washoe County Commission, said credit for the commission’s support of the effort goes to Commissioner Kitty Jung, whom he said was unable to attend the event.
“The County Commission has worked diligently and closely with all of the police forces in the region, ” Lucey said, adding that public accountability and transparency are key priorities to them.
By the time of Lucey’s statement, commenters were flooding the Facebook feed with questions, some about things like fines and policies—but the majority were asking for the release of police body camera footage of the death of 18-year-old Sparks man Miciah Lee in January. Watchers on Facebook had left 890 comments by the time the nearly three-hour event wrapped up. The livestream drew more than 8,000 views.
About 30 minutes into the town hall, Delgado introduced the Guinn Center’s Brune.
Brune came prepared to recap conclusions made by the Guinn Center concerning each agency’s performance in the report’s five metrics and recommendations made based on its conclusions, and to ask follow-up questions of each department’s heads concerning implementation.
Noting that she had a brief and allotted time to do this for each agency, Brune said she’d be as concise as possible and not reference every finding and recommendation in the Center’s 90-page report.
Reno Police Department
As to public accountability and transparency, Brune said the Center’s report recommended RPD prioritize the publication of data—including summons and arrests and general policy information.
She commended the RPD for having two community advisory boards but noted that the report recommended RPD maximize community input in the revision and designing of policies and work more collaboratively with its boards’ members to create their board meeting agendas.
A lot of the recommendations you made to us, we’ve put into place.”
Brune also revisited the Center’s recommendations related specifically to the Latinx community.
“At the time that this report was issued, there was some concern around the state—including up in Northern Nevada—about some of the rhetoric coming from Washington D.C. and some of the policies that felt very hostile toward immigrants,” she said. “As many of you know we have one of the highest percentages of undocumented immigrants as a part of the population.”
Brune said at the time the Center’s report was compiled that the Latinx community—especially undocumented individuals—reported fear when interacting with law enforcement and that the Center had recommended building communication and information sharing in Spanish to assuage this.
As to training, Brune noted that at the time of the report Reno had gaps. She also said that at the time of the report “use of force” incidents had increased in Reno, whereas they’d decreased for both SPD and WCSO. A recommendation from the Center was to develop a “de-escalation first” policy. Brune asked about the ratio of training in lethal techniques versus de-escalation techniques.
For internal policy development, one of the Guinn Center’s recommendations was to invite community input on the development of policies concerning the use of technology like body cameras. A second recommendation was the establishment of a formal serious incident review board.
The last metric Brune discussed from the report was hiring and recruitment.
“The data shows that the Reno Police Department—the demographics of the officers–does not reflect the greater Reno community,” she said.
The department doesn’t publish information regarding the demographics of its officers. It should, the Guinn Center report said. Brune also mentioned that there seems to be higher attrition among minority officers joining the RPD. The center recommended the RPD track attrition and retention data for both recruits and officers.
The Center also recommended that Reno get rid of the grip-strength test and let applicants retake the physical exam, if necessary. Brune said, “a biodata questionnaire” was also of concern.
Afterward, Reno Police Chief Jason Soto was given an opportunity to address Brune’s questions and speak to the changes his department has made.
Soto said in 2017 the department repealed what he called an “outdated policy on immigration”—changing it so officers were now told not to stop people merely on suspicion they were in the country illegally or make inquiries into people’s legal status when they seek police assistance.
He also said the RPD receives an average of 250 public records requests per week and has made public records requests available online at the Guinn Center’s recommendation. The department has also created a call-in phone line for citizens to get information since the report came out, he noted.
Soto touted the RPD’s training of its officers and a regional citizens’ academy—a five-week program that teaches community members about police tactics and equipment.
“We have conducted at the Reno Police Department race symposiums every single year since I’ve been chief,” Soto added.
The RPD also has a peer-support program for its officers and an embedded resource officer whose job it is to direct officers to resources ranging from mental health to marriage counseling.
According to Soto, in 2018, the RPD began bringing in community members—including representatives from the NAACP and the Latinx community—to sit on its hiring board. He also noted that the RPD has taken the Guinn Center’s recommendation to remove the grip-strength test for applicants. He said the first police academy class after the requirement was removed had a 50 percent female enrollment.
“It’s a lot. A lot of the recommendations you made to us, we’ve put into place,” he said. “And there are a lot more.”
Soto said “no offense to the Guinn report,” but that his department had identified even more issues than it contained and was well-equipped to address them.
Community policing is something the RPD has been doing since the 1970s, Soto said, “before it was even a key phrase.”
It’s worth noting that it was in the late ’70s when RPD and other local law enforcement officials helped interrogate and prosecute paranoid schizophrenic Cathy Woods for the murder of Michelle Mitchell—a crime for which she spent more than three decades behind bars before being exonerated.
Sparks Police Department
Before reviewing recommendations for the SPD and asking about their implementation, Brune took the time to address commenters on the Facebook livestream who were, by this point, sending out a firestorm of messages. She told them she wanted to clarify that the Guinn Center is an independent, nonpartisan foundation and has not been responsible for the implementation of policies or reforms at the region’s agencies.
As with Reno, Brune reviewed recommendations for SPD concerning the collection, use and publication of data. She said SPD has been the clear leader in the region when it comes to making data available online.
“When we did this report a couple of years ago, the one point of contention I heard from several community members…was that Sparks did not have a community advisory board,” Brune noted, asking if the department does now.
She also asked if SPD had developed any immigrant specific policies and noted that, at the time of the report, Latinx people accounted for one-third of use of force incidents by SPD.
Brune said she also wanted to know if SPD had closed any gaps noted in the Guinn Center report concerning training in less lethal policing tactics like de-escalation and implicit bias training.
At this point—about an hour into the live stream—Genevieve Parker chimed in, writing, “The community’s concerns should be setting the agenda for this ‘town hall!’ Are y’all going to AT ALL directly address the murder of Miciah Lee by Sparks PD or answer any of the questions you asked folks to submit by email?”
Brune pressed on, asking about recruitment, hiring and training before allowing SPD Chief Peter Krall time to answer.
According to Krall, the SPD is aware that its website is antiquated. He said it needs some “tweaking,” updates and “love.” However, he noted that it does contain information concerning SPD’s policies on things ranging from racial profiling to use of force and policies on body cameras as well as reports on the demographics of both the city and the officers within the department.
Krall said, “We do not have a community advisory board, but we are looking to change that. That is the number one thing on my list of things related to the Guinn report.”
Krall said the Guinn Center report is also on SPD’s website—because he takes it so seriously—and said he’d be updating people on the department’s efforts to put more of the report’s recommendations into place over the coming weeks.
Krall said organizing a community advisory board will help the department with the review and implementation of policies.
As to recruitment of new officers, Krall said SPD has yet to make it so candidates can retake the physical test. He said Sparks civil service rules allow for only one physical test per year, but that he was working to get this policy changed. He noted that the department had put out a series of short social media videos demonstrating how each test is performed in an effort to take some of the mystery out of the process.
After Krall finished answering Brune’s questions, Councilmember Delgado again assured Facebook commenters that their questions would be addressed before turning things back over to Brune for her review of the WCSO.
Washoe County Sheriff’s Office
In addressing the Guinn Center’s recommendations for the WCSO, Brune noted that when the report came out, the WCSO was not publishing policies or data about stops and arrests and asked if that had changed.
She also asked if there was anyone from Immigration and Customs Enforcement stationed inside the county jail.
Brune had praise for the sheriff’s office recruitment and hiring policies and noted that it was the first in the region to move to year-round applications and to allow retaking of the physical test. She noted that the report had found gaps in de-escalation, implicit bias and suicide prevention training.
Washoe County Sheriff Darin Balaam addressed Brune’s questions.
He said the sheriff’s office now publishes its policies and data concerning law enforcement activities on its website. He said he was not making excuses, but wanted to note that all of the agencies in the region had recently undergone training for a new shared records management system and had to relearn how to pull that data.
Balaam said quarterly and annual use of force reporting will include information like the race and age of the person force that was used on and the race and age of the officer who used it. He said information will also be published concerning how often officers’ actions are self-initiated versus actions taken after responding to a call.
Balaam said a Sheriff’s Community Engagement Committee was established in mid-2019, his first year in office—and that it has been instrumental in reviewing some of the WCSO’s policies.
Balaam said his agency has a complete immigrant policing policy in place and that the WSCO does still have an ICE officer within the jail, along with space for officers with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
Balaam also noted that the WCSO has, in the past, had a formal serious incident review board and will be bringing it back to review all major incidents, including use of force.
Questions from the community
Nearly two hours into the town hall, participants began addressing community questions. They started with the questions they’d received the most: those surrounding the death of Miciah Lee.
If that was my family member, we’d be turning over tables and stuff.”
“The community has a strong desire for you to work to build better trust,” Taylor said, asking Krall to address the issue and answer questions concerning when body camera footage of Lee’s death will be released.
Krall said “there is a regional officer-involved shooting protocol” that has two purposes—an investigation by another law enforcement agency and the production of a report. The report—which he said will be 1,000 or more pages—will then go to the District Attorney for review and the dissemination of findings.
“I don’t know when the findings will come out,” Krall said.
Taylor noted the frustration of family members waiting for such investigations to wrap up—specifically mentioning the recent release of body camera footage from an officer-involved shooting that happened in 2018.
“If that was my family member, we’d be turning over tables and stuff,” Taylor said. “Oh, we’d be on the news.”
She asked Soto to address the lengthy wait time for investigation findings and asked him how long it should take for information to be made publicly available.
“It depends on the case,” Soto said. “It depends on how many witnesses we have. It depends on how many different interviews we have to do. Keep in mind when we do one of these investigations, they’re criminal investigations.”
Two years, however, is too long, Soto agreed. He said he thought the amount of time the investigation into Lee’s death has taken is reasonable but said he’d like to get to a point where at least some information would be available publicly sooner.
Asked if he thought a law enforcement agency from outside of the region needed to investigate officer-involved deaths, Balaam said he thought the area’s three agencies did a good job. He said he’d like to get to the point where at least some information—and any available body camera footage—would be made public within a few weeks.
Delgado then asked the participants what they thought defunding the police means.
Soto said, “That’s really tricky.” He said RPD needs to have more funding to address its work with the area’s homeless population and with those in need of mental health services. Soto argued that city revenues “always grow” and that some of that growth should be funneled toward the RPD for those purposes.
Facebook commenter Jamila Bush-Carter objected to Soto’s claim that the police department is underfunded.
“If police has time to harass me and be nosey about where I’m going and where I’m coming from, THEY’RE NOT UNDERSTAFFED, THEY’RE BULLSHITTING WITH MY TAX MONEY!” wrote Bush-Carter.
Delgado asked Balaam to clarify questions concerning his agency’s relationship with ICE and asked if the WCSO could or had ever asked ICE to move out. He also asked Balaam to address a reader’s comment claiming that undocumented immigrants held in detention are not allowed visitors.
In regards to the ICE officer inside the jail, Balaam said, “Again, we allow them a computer down in our detention facility. It is not tied into our database. It’s tied into the federal database…We don’t work with ICE. We don’t go do sweeps. A 10-78, we would help,” he said, referring to the 1078 police code officers can use if they’re in need of immediate assistance.
As to visitation rights for undocumented immigrants, Balaam said, “They have the same rights.” He noted, however, an in-transit individual—one who is there only overnight—cannot make a call. The policy is in place to “avoid compromising the security of the transit,” he said.
Balaam said ICE detainees actually have more rights than the standard inmate, including more time out of their cells and greater access to law materials.
More than two-and-a-half hours into the town hall, Delgado said he did not want the steam to get cut off—as it was also being broadcast on KTVN—and said it was time to move on to closing remarks. He thanked the participants and the people watching from home.
Taylor told the participants and everyone watching that the town hall was a first step, not a last step.
Commenters on Facebook were still sending in a steady stream of remarks.
One of the final remarks came from Matthew Jay Wilkie.
“You fail the community,” he wrote.
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.