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Home > Opinion > EDITORIAL: What’s eating those Sparks mayors?

EDITORIAL: What’s eating those Sparks mayors?

By Bob Conrad
"No Justice" was written in red paint outside Sparks City Hall in the early morning July 15. Image: Lucia Starbuck

Former Sparks Mayor Geno Martini, who used to be a decent human being, took a moment out of his retirement last week to chastise, berate and trash-talk those concerned about law enforcement.

In case you missed it, Martini conjured a get-off-my-lawn moment, directed at the kiddos, on what it means to be a cop in Sparks, Nevada. He got a touch racial in the process, too.

Critics speaking during public comment at the Sparks City Council meeting on Monday were referenced the tragic killing of Miciah Lee at the hands of Sparks Police. Lee’s death was deemed justified by Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks.

Martini, and his successor, current Mayor Ron Smith — a bigot — advocated for more cops in response to those wanting fewer people, especially those suffering from mental illness, shot by police officers.

Martini’s exact words:

“So, boys and girls, you kids that are so angry and so socially liberal, get a clue, please,” he said. “Walk a mile in a policeman’s shoes. Get off your collective butt. Go out and ride with a policeman sometime. You have no clue, really.

“Murdering people, black, brown, whatever. It’s kind of funny how they got murdered doing something that was against the law.”

What he is saying is: You’ll have negative encounters with law enforcement — like, getting “murdered” by them — only if you’re breaking the law.

This trope is both cliched and dangerously incorrect, to the surprise of nobody who has been paying attention to current events with at least one eye part way open in the past few decades.

There are plenty of examples

Last week, Las Vegas’ DeMarlo Berry was awarded $2.52 million after serving 22 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Here in Reno, Cathy Woods was imprisoned for a murder she did not commit. She’ll be receiving a gargantuan settlement for spending most of her life behind bars after getting prosecuted by then-Washoe County D.A. Cal Dunlap. Woods, who suffers from schizophrenia, confessed to the crime, but DNA evidence exonerated her.

“Both law enforcement and the prosecutor, Calvin Dunlap, focused quite a bit on what they believed was her lesbianism, in part because they had been looking for a male suspect they had been looking for three years prior to when Cathy’s name first came up. So this was part of their way to try and explain away the fact they had been looking for a man,” said Elizabeth Wang, an attorney for Woods, as reported by KOLO8.

Robert Coache poses outside the Supreme Court of Nevada Court of Appeals in downtown Las Vegas, Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. Richard Brian @vegasphotograph
Robert Coache poses outside the Supreme Court of Nevada Court of Appeals in downtown Las Vegas, Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. Richard Brian @vegasphotograph

In Clark County, a public servant spent 16 months in prison for dozens of felonies — crafted by the Clark County D.A.’s Office and Las Vegas Metropolitan Police — that ultimately were dismissed by the Nevada Supreme Court for a lack of evidence.

Martini is well aware of cases like this — where the innocent are treated like criminals despite having not committed a crime.

Under Martini’s tenure, a Sparks citizen who called Sparks Police seeking help for an armed, mentally ill relative — sound familiar? — was permanently maimed after being shot by Sparks Police officers.

Sparks woman accidentally shot by Sparks PD

Here’s what happened. 

Darcie Latham and her sister, in October of 2013, went to their mother’s house in Sparks to find their mom with a gun in her hand, pointed at her head. Their mom yelled not to get closer or she would kill herself. 

Latham called 911. Police responded to the call. 

Latham, outside of the home, was still on the phone with dispatch when Sparks Police Officer Chad Mowbray “incorrectly identified … Latham as the perpetrator of a crime, then intentionally targeted and shot her” with an AR15, court documents alleged. “The dispatcher also informed the responding officers that the reporting party and the other girl were outside the house and trying to get their mom to put the gun down… At all times while backing up…Latham had her phone in one hand and up to her ear and the other hand raised straight over head.”

Sparks Police shot and killed her mom, too. The story was covered in local media, particularly after local attorneys sued on behalf of Latham. 

“There’s no question police made a mistake,” attorney Rich Salvatore said at the time, according to a report by News 4. “They failed to identify the perpetrator of the crime. The person with the gun.”

After Latham sued — for millions of dollars — the City of Sparks initially wanted the case dismissed. Martini, the City of Sparks and the Sparks Police Department denied any wrongdoing.

Their defense: The County D.A. (then Dick Gammick) ruled the officers’ actions were justifiable and, Sparks’ attorneys argued, the officers who shot Latham were protected under qualified immunity. 

The officers believed they were acting correctly, or “doing their duties reasonably.” Qualified immunity protects law enforcement actions even when erroneous, particularly if officer and public safety is at risk.

“The individually named Defendants are qualifiedly immune from Plaintiff’s claims,” their attorneys wrote. “These Defendants acts [sic] and actions were performed in the exercise of their discretionary functions and duties thereby entitling them to immunity from Plaintiff’s state law claims. [They] acted in good faith.”

The qualified immunity defense by Sparks had, at least in part, an intended effect: It avoided costly, drawn-out litigation. 

Court records show the case was closed very quickly by legal standards. Salvatore filed the suit on Oct. 7, 2015. The City of Sparks requested its dismissal on Oct. 22. By Dec. 17, the case was dismissed.

The Associated Press reported the City of Sparks settled with Latham in 2016 for $400,000 after initially paying her $300,000

Sparks deserves better

Perhaps Martini forgot about Darcie Latham, one of his constituents who “was maimed and suffered from permanent neurological injuries” for the crime of trying to seek help from police. 

Sparks has good leaders on its council, in its employ and among its law enforcement ranks.  

Officers who care about the people they serve will recognize the shortsightedness of Martini’s perspective, especially when espoused in the wake of those decrying perhaps preventable deaths at their hands.

Protesters gathered peacefully near City Plaza June 3. Image: Eric Marks
Protesters gathered peacefully near City Plaza June 3. Image: Eric Marks

“It’s sad for Miciah’s family that this happened and it’s sad for the police officers because they have to live with that,” Sparks City Councilmember Kris Dahir said, as reported in the Sierra Nevada Ally. “The amount of damage that we’re going through is hard on everybody, it’s not good for our community.”

Nothing good comes from the thin, myopic commentary provided by the Sparks mayors—either for law enforcement officers or those facing dire stress in our community. Adequately addressing mental illness needs more than police, a point that has been shared repeatedly by local law enforcement leaders

The Sparks mayors would like to take a hammer to complex issues that require a diverse toolset. Such an entrenched stance is shortsighted and dangerous for everyone.

Fortunately, the grown-ups in Sparks leadership had wiser words.

Here is Councilmember Dahir:

“[The vandalism] made me sad but in truth, it reminds me of why I do my job. I want to represent the same people who did this.”

And here is Councilmember Charlene Bybee:

“Mental health is the number one thing that we as a community need to address. So I agree with the callers on the mental health challenges, and it absolutely is something that, as a community, we need to do better. We need to find better solutions.”

Both councilors exemplify leadership. Their mayoral colleagues should take note.

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