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Police chief balks at hiring social workers as part of proposed budget increase

By Bob Conrad
Reno Police launched an early morning cleanup of a homeless encampment in downtown Reno. Image: Isaac Hoops

Reno Police Chief Jason Soto today balked at hiring social workers to assist police officers. The discussion occurred during a special city council meeting about the city’s projected budget.

City council members raised the issue in response to the request by Soto for 43 new positions. Councilmember Naomi Duerr asked if new community service officer (CSO) positions proposed in the RPD budget could not instead be social workers.

Chief Jason Soto
Reno Police Chief Jason Soto

“No,” Soto replied. The CSOs “handle the real bad guys, if you will. They handle an extraordinary amount of paperwork — up to 20 reports a day that they’re managing. I think it would be crippling to our community for [that change].”

Council member Oscar Delgado also suggested “changing the way we police.” He has pushed for changes to police policy since 2016.Police killings of those experiencing mental health crises have spurred protests against law enforcement locally and nationally. Critics say a better approach is needed to deal with mental health issues in communities.

Soto said more social workers would cost too much and said the city’s Mobile Outreach Safety Team already serves that role.

“Is it enough? Absolutely not,” he said. “It’s a very expensive resource. We recognized the need for social workers a long, long time ago. I’m 100% on board with that. … It really just comes down to dollars and cents.”

Soto said RPD’s proposed budget instead focuses on increasing support staff with 10 new assistant positions, 14 new dispatchers and dispatch supervisors, a lieutenant, eight new police officers and other positions.

He said the new support positions would be used to assist with public records and federal crime reporting requirements.

The 43 proposed positions are budgeted at $4 million. RPD’s budget comprises the largest segment of the city’s budget. It’s about $85 million for 2021 from the city’s general fund.

City Manager Doug Thornley said RPD’s budget will remain mostly flat this year and said the most acute needs will be considered for the budget.

RPD has fewer positions than a decade ago despite notable growth in the city’s population.

City mulls doing its own forensics 

Another topic of discussion was RPD handling its own forensics, rather than using the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office. Soto said the city should consider having its own forensics division, but, for the time being, Reno continues to pay WCSO for its forensics services.

“It’s not free for them to do,” he said, while complimenting the WCSO. “At the same time, I have to look at what is most efficient and the most cost effective for the Reno Police Department.”

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