This Is Reno caught up with Reno Police Department Chief Jason Soto outside of the Washoe County building complex on Monday to speak about policing in the city, including months of civil unrest that has brought out groups ranging from Black Lives Matter to armed, right-wing militia members. He also spoke about the expected police presence at polling locations on Election Day.
Soto said the police department has authorized overtime for police officers to be at polling locations in Reno on Nov. 3.
“Really, what we want to do is make sure that all of our voters feel like they’re in a safe environment, that there’s no intimidation or anything of that manner going on,” he said.
He also said officers have been trained to know what’s allowed at polling locations, and what is not. What is not allowed: electioneering, wearing clothing that advocates for a particular candidate or cause and even things like recording cell phone videos.
“We just ask that everyone be respectful and vote for who you want to vote for—and when you make your decision of who you’re going to vote for, be respectful at the same time,” Soto said.
For the most part, he added, people have been—aside from one instance.
“We’ve had one issue down south at one of the locations,” Soto said. “We were very quick to put a stop to it. And we haven’t had any challenges other than that up to this point. It was just somebody that was acting inappropriate, in terms of advocating for one side or the other. And we asked the gentleman to leave, and he left.”
In regard to recent months of civil unrest, This Is Reno asked Soto if he’d read a recently released report on the rise of armed, far-right militia groups. The report—released by local progressive advocacy groups Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and Indivisible Northern Nevada in conjunction with national nonprofit Political Research Associates—noted the increasing prevalence of these groups and suggests that Nevada laws pertaining to militia activity could be enforced to stop their activities.
Soto said he’d read the report upon being made aware of it, but that militia activity was something of which he’s long been aware.
“Obviously, we understand that everybody has their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech…but we also are very cognizant and understand that we want to just have a safe environment,” he said. “So really what we do and what we’ve always done is we’ll go out and have conversations and just make sure that they’re acting and behaving in a professional capacity. And we haven’t had any issues here locally.”
He also said that as to enforcing laws to curtail militia activity, he believes legislative action would be necessary.
“I mean, our laws are our laws,” Soto said. “And people do have certain rights, and we respect those rights that they have. In terms of laws that don’t make sense or maybe shouldn’t be in place, that’s something we’d need to look at through a legislative measure, in my understanding of it.”
In June, Soto joined other regional law enforcement leaders for a town hall to discuss community policing. Since this spring, local law enforcement was receiving much pushback from the community concerning issues of transparency and use of force, with some people calling for the reallocation of some policing budgets toward other programs. Soto said he believes his department has always strived to instruct its officers to be apolitical and treat every resident of Reno equally.
“That will always be my message to the men and women of the Reno Police Department—and I think, overall, they’ve done a fantastic job of doing that,” Soto said. “We’ve always kept an open dialogue with all of our advocate groups, whether it be the ACLU, the NAACP, people that represent our Latino community.
“I always want to keep those lines of communication open, and I do. I’ve had many conversations with all of those groups. And I think that’s part of it—to have that continued dialogue in terms of challenges they may be facing and things that we can do to be more transparent and really working together as a community.”
Soto added that he hopes the community will continue to persevere during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“I just want to tell our community, hang in there,” he said. “I know COVID has been tough. It’s been tough on all of us in every single profession, and this too shall pass. And your Reno Police Department will be there to keep our community safe. We’ll do so in a professional manner, as we’ve always done. And we just want to thank our community for the outpouring of support.”