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Home > News > Crime News > CITY: Complaints against police officers are “confidential personnel documents”

CITY: Complaints against police officers are “confidential personnel documents”

By Bob Conrad
Reno Police shot rubber bullets and used tear gas and stun grenades to deter rioters in downtown Reno. Image: Ty O'Neil

The Reno Police Department recently denied a public records order placed by This Is Reno after months of stalling and ignoring requirements mandated by Nevada law.

This Is Reno placed an order in July for copies of complaints filed against police officers, but Assistant City Attorney Robert Bony said those complaints, made by citizens, are confidential personnel documents.

He said such complaints are similar to “’personnel files and medical files and similar files’ when the disclosure of such information ‘would constitute clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy…’ The purpose of the exemption is to ‘protect individuals from public disclosure of intimate details of their lives.'”

That means if you have ever filed a complaint against a local law enforcement officer, the responding agency — in this case, the Reno Police Department — considers your complaint confidential. Other citizen complaints to local governments, however, are public records once received by the agency.

The legal observer during the May 30, 2020 riot in downtown Reno, who was shot by law enforcement officers using crowd-control projectiles — twice, in the back — filed a complaint. According to RPD, nobody will ever get to know about the case, or its resolution, if any.

The Reno Police officer who trolled a homeless advocate on Facebook, saying homeless people should be shipped out of state, also faced a citizen complaint. Nobody will get to see the complaint or know whether the officer was held to account. Considering he was seen, weeks later, terrorizing homeless people near Wells Avenue, it appears discipline, if any, was fleeting. He was later given an award for his police work, which RPD promoted on social media.

Updated records laws fail to improve compliance

The Nevada Public Records Act mandates government agencies respond to public records orders within five business days. RPD has repeatedly failed to meet deadlines and continued making new ones, culminating in a two-page response, six months later, from the city attorney’s office refusing to produce the records.

Richard Karpel with the Nevada Press Association said the City of Reno’s records denial is a violation of Nevada’s public records laws.

“RPD’s refusal to share information with the public that qualifies for release under Nevada’s Public Records Act demonstrates how the lack of an enforcement mechanism works to undermine that statute,” he said. “State and local agencies know they can stonewall the public without consequence.”

The Nevada Legislature in 2019 updated its public records statutes, changes that were opposed by the City of Reno and law enforcement agencies around the state. 

Those changes were meant to clarify what agencies could charge for public records and mitigate denials by governments with fines levied by judges for those who violate the public records statutes. RPD at the time was found to be charging excessive fees even Mayor Hillary Schieve said were outrageous.

“The city council and mayor are responsible for oversight and they do not do it.”

Open government advocates say, however, agencies continue to stonewall, including exhausting all legal mechanisms at considerable cost to taxpayers.

The Clark County coroner’s office for years denied the release of public records to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, even after being ordered to release them by a judge. Clark County spent more than $80,000 in taxpayer resources before ultimately losing its case.

“It’s shameful that it took this many court defeats to get Clark County to provide these important public records, but we’re relieved to finally have them in our possession,” Review-Journal Executive Editor Glenn Cook said. “Let this wastefully long dispute stand as a case study for why severe civil penalties should be imposed on agencies that refuse to comply with the Nevada Public Records Act.”

This Is Reno will fight the City and Reno Police for the release of records ordered, in addition to a number of public records orders RPD denied or only provided in part.

“We are confident these public records requests are clear matters of public interest, outweighing any potential privacy or other objections offered to date,” said Stephanie Rice, This Is Reno’s attorney. “In addition, due to RPD’s repeated delays and incongruous responses to my client, we are further confident the violations to NPRA are clearly evident.”

Reactions online to the city’s refusal to provide complaints made against officers were overwhelming critical.

“Pretty crazy when the police themselves … tell the media to go fuck off,” one commenter wrote.

Another person blamed RPD’s recalcitrance on the Reno City Council and Mayor Schieve.

“The city council and mayor are responsible for oversight and they do not do it — they are terrified to make any move that is perceived as anti-police. So [police] can and do act with impunity,” they said.

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