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Reno police requesting millions in federal COVID relief dollars for body cams, Tasers and surveillance software

By Bob Conrad

The Reno City Council is slated to hear today at its regularly scheduled meeting  proposals for $11.5 million for new Tasers, bodycams, dash cams, services and training. It will also consider $34 million for phase two of the new Reno Police public safety center under construction.

The projects are being paid for from federal COVID-19 relief funds and a 10-year “medium term obligation” at a 0% interest rate. That allows the government to repay an initial amount on credit that is backed by the government entity. It can be a note or a bond.

Nearly $200,000 is slated for software called Fusus, which allows police to monitor and retrieve video feeds from private businesses – software that has some civil liberties groups concerned –  and another $172,000 is for the COPLINK software.

“Fusus is a map-based interface that utilizes software and hardware to combine participating private and public video streams into a single feed for both historical and live viewing,” a staff report notes. 

Civil liberties concerns raised

“Use of private companies in this way allows law enforcement to circumvent transparency and civil rights guidelines.”

Business owners can opt in to Fusus to share their surveillance video feeds with police.

“The real-time capability additionally provides remote overwatch capabilities that will enhance officer and community safety and enable a higher and more timely level of service,” RPD Chief Soto wrote in a memo.

Police say the software will improve public safety and efficiency, but the two software services have civil liberties groups concerned.

Public records obtained by the non-profit news outlet The Appeal, which watch dogs police activities, shows local uses of the software are subject to potential abuse.

“ICE HSI agents have virtually unfettered access to COPLINK in Massachusetts. Similarly, ICE’s data-sharing agreements with Arizona’s AZLINK and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department’s IRIS, both COPLINK systems, state explicitly that ICE agents are free to mine their data,” The Appeal reported. “In 2011, for example, Department of Homeland Security users, including ICE personnel, searched AZLINK, an Arizona regional data system that uses COPLINK software, thousands of times over a six-month period.

“These searches can be narrowed down using filters, such as a person’s race, hair color, eye color, complexion, ethnicity, and country of origin. The slide below also shows that users can search for people based on their residence and physical marks on their bodies.”

One civil rights lawsuit was filed earlier this year in Massachusetts after police alleged a connection between a suspect and an innocent person, who was falsely arrested. 

“The suit says, ‘Conroy prepared a police report stating that a connection between Mr. Johnson and,’ Kyle T. ‘existed on the COPLINK database, a tool that integrates various law enforcement databases,’” Madison 365 reported in August.

Fusus raised concerns in Missouri early this month when the Columbia Police Department wanted to purchase a license agreement, also with federal COVID relief dollars.

Beryl Lipton with the Electronic Frontier Foundations, said people have a right to be concerned.

“The adoption of Fusus is another example of a troubling trend in law enforcement: the reliance on private actors and databases to collect, hold, and sell access to very sensitive information on people’s locations and lives,” she told This is Reno. “Use of private companies in this way allows law enforcement to circumvent transparency and civil rights guidelines. These guidelines, like the need to gather a warrant or bounds around appropriate sharing of personal information, exist to protect individuals from government overreach and malfeasance.” 

Lipton said she’s seen instances where police agencies claim they have no information on how Fusus is used “because that information is held by the company and other non-public entities.”

The company, ShotSpotter, which owns the COPLINK software, advocated earlier this month on its website for government agencies to use American Reinvestment Pandemic Assistance Act funds for its services. 

RPD staff said their short staffing in part prompted the requests.

A staff report noted:

“With the 10-year contract, RPD will gain access to virtual reality training as well as enhanced software, to include redaction studio, interview room cameras and technology, automated transcription, unlimited cloud storage, third party video playback, Citizen for communities (a community engagement application), GPS, live viewing and a host of additional features the Reno Police Department does not currently have. A significant improvement to RPD will be the Axon Redaction Assistant. The Records Section receives hundreds of public records each month. Axon Redaction Assistant will be instrumental in reducing processing times for public records requests as it relates to body worn camera footage.”

The Reno Police Department redacts officer faces from body cam videos -- and the backs of officer heads. Reno city attorneys said the Nevada law prohibiting the release of an officer's photograph gives them the right make those redactions. District Court Judge Kathleen Drakulich agreed. Image: RPD body camera screen grab.
The Reno Police Department redacts officer faces from body cam videos — and the backs of officer heads. Reno city attorneys said the Nevada law prohibiting the release of an officer’s photograph gives them the right make those redactions. District Court Judge Kathleen Drakulich agreed. Image: RPD body camera screen grab.

Although RPD officials initially said, after the Nevada legislature mandated body cams, the video cameras would improve officer behavior and increase transparency, This Is Reno is suing the Reno Police Department in two separate cases over its failure to follow public records laws. 

Body cam footage obtained by This Is Reno shows officers self-censoring their videos, turning off audio on their body cams and turning off cameras entirely in certain instances. RPD also redacts officer faces from footage provided to the public, claiming that it would subject officers to shame and ridicule. 

The litigation is challenging RPD’s redactions.

Public safety building needs $34 million

Reno Police Chief Jason Soto provides media with a tour of Reno’s new Public Safety Center, planned for 911 Kuenzli St. in Reno, Nev. Image: Eric Marks / This Is Reno

RPD’s public safety building is now in need of an additional $34 million for construction. The city council last year approved $20 million of the then-estimated $62 million needed.

The project was originally estimated to cost $33 million in 2019 but by 2021 the cost jumped to $62 million.

The approval slated for today’s council meeting is for the second phase of construction at the same cost estimated last year.

“Over a year has passed since the approval of PSC Phase 1 construction contract with Plenium Builders. Since the estimate for PSC Phase 2, the construction industry has been buffeted by unprecedented increases in materials costs, supply-chain bottlenecks, and the cost of labor in a tight labor market,” a city staff report noted.

Phase two is the final phase of construction.

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