The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Nevada is helping to defend five homeless advocates against charges levied in June by the Reno Police Department.
Five people, who were protesting what they said was the city’s aggressive sweeps of homeless encampments, set up tents across from City Hall and camped for days.
Though they repeatedly told police they were there protesting city leaders’ decisions to sweep camps, police instead treated them as if they were homeless. The advocates were demanding a meeting with the mayor and city leaders in an attempt to stop the sweeps.
“With three broken windows we had the frickin’ National Guard down here. Hillary Schieve can definitely act when she wants to.”
But Reno police officers repeatedly told the group, which for days ranged from about a half dozen to 40 or more, they could not camp at City Plaza and referred the activists to get services at the then newly opened Nevada Cares Campus.
“The notice they issued was the same notice they issue before a sweep,” said Lily Baran, one of those cited in June. (Baran now works for the ACLU of Nevada.) “What’s particularly poetic about the situation is that we’re protesting the sweeps and that we’re going to get swept too.”
The group said their intentions were clear and that RPD’s response was laughable. They are now fighting the misdemeanor citations in court. The ACLU is providing legal support for their case.
Mayor, city manager and police chief issued subpoenas
An ACLU attorney said the group was targeted for activities protected by the First Amendment.
“What we have here is the City of Reno targeting protesters and using municipal code violations to chill free speech,” the ACLU’s Christopher Peterson told This Is Reno. “What people need to keep in mind is that while law enforcement has the authority to enforce the laws, under the Constitution they’re required to enforce them in a way that is not discriminatory.
“What ends up happening is the Reno Police Department issued citations for code violations to these protesters,” he added. “The real problem kicks in when there are people engaging in the exact same conduct around these protesters. They’re not being issued citations, and that’s how we know that the city is engaging in discriminatory enforcement.”
The group subpoenaed Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve, Reno Police Chief Jason Soto and City Manager Doug Thornley. A city spokesperson confirmed to This Is Reno they will appear if called. It’s the same group of city leaders the group was trying to meet with in the first place.
Four Reno Police officers waded into the group of about 60 people at about noon on June 7 where some had been camping for nearly six days. Things got heated as the group chanted, and the officers left after promising to pass on the group’s request to meet with city officials.
“I’m going to give everybody one last opportunity,” a Reno Police officer said. “The park is closed. I need everybody to move to the sidewalk. If you guys failure (sic) to comply with leaving the park, with park hours being closed, we’re going to have to cite you guys in community court for occupying a park after hours.”
Reno sweeps caused concern with other agencies
The Nevada Cares Campus has been close to full since opening.
The city was told its sweeps could be considered illegal under a court ruling that indicated if shelter space was unavailable, it could issue camping citations to those experiencing homelessness.
Public records obtained by This Is Reno show there were concerns expressed behind the scenes with the number of people at the campus just after it opened, most of whom were moved from Reno’s long-standing homeless shelter operated by the Volunteers of America.
“We had our Northern Nevada Continuum of Care Leadership Council meeting yesterday. All the jurisdictions were on as well as RPD. It was confirmed that Our Place is full (as we know),” health worker Rachel Rosensteel wrote in an email on June 2. “It was also confirmed that the Cares Campus is full for couples and women and is only taking men at the moment. They are working on expanding capacity for women and couples.
“I asked the City of Reno and RPD if they would consider holding off on their sweeps until there is adequate shelter space and explained how complicated and detrimental it is to push people from place to place and from one jurisdiction to another,” she added. “Unfortunately, they said no and said they would continue to sweep despite the lack of shelter space available. They said the Edison cleanup is scheduled for today.”
Sparks police sergeant Patrick McNeeley forwarded that email to Washoe County’s Dana Searcy.
“Can you review this email from Rachel Rosensteel,” he wrote. “Is the information accurate. Where (sic) you at this meeting and if so was anyone there who represents the City of Sparks. This caused a lot of concern all the way up to the Chief.”
The Edison sweep occurred anyway, causing advocates to rail on city leaders at a subsequent city council meeting.
They said officials adopted a hostile stance toward those experiencing homelessness.
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor, and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011, where he completed a dissertation on social media, journalism and crisis communications. In addition to managing This Is Reno, he holds a part-time appointment for the Mineral County University of Nevada Extension office.