Reno-area police respond to Black Lives Matter calls for reform. Here’s what they said

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Local artist Joe C. Rock talks about his BLM themed mural on Reno’s City Hall building on June 19, 2020. Reno Gazette Journal

Local law enforcement leaders are working to expedite investigations into police shootings and are addressing budgetary issues following a public outcry for transparency.

“We need cops,” Reno Police Chief Jason Soto said at a virtual town hall meeting Monday. “We have to have a safe community, we have to.”

Washoe County Sheriff Darin Balaam and Sparks Police Chief Pete Krall also spoke at the town hall meeting on Monday, which addressed how policing practices have changed over the past two years in Northern Nevada.

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In 2018, the Kenny C. Guinn Center for Policy Priorities published a study comparing local police practices with recommendations made in former President Barak Obama’s report on 21st century policing.

The study was done at the behest of Washoe County Board of Trustee Angie Taylor and Reno City Councilman Oscar Delgado, both of whom shared their concerns over police shootings and police brutality with local law enforcement leaders in late 2016.

Taylor, Delgado and Soto met and formed a task force to review local policing strategies.

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On Monday, Taylor and Delgado, both of whom acted as moderators, questioned Balaam, Soto and Krall about the changes implemented within their own agencies.

“This is the first conversation,” Taylor said of the town hall meeting. “This is the first step, it isn’t the last step.”

All three law enforcement leaders agreed the biggest issue is communication. They said community policing is a topic that will continue to be talked about at public forums and other meetings.

WATCH THE TOWN HALL HERE: 

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Push back against calls to defund the police

Earlier this month, dozens of people called on the Reno City Council to consider defunding the police department and pursue reform of use-of-force policies.

The outcry was made in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis.

His death led to civil unrest and protests nationwide. In Reno, a recent peaceful protest ended in a violent riot, involving a group of people who vandalized both the police station and City Hall.

Soto said the Reno Police Department responds to about 250,000 calls a year. He said his department only employees 330 officers—a ratio of about 1.3 to 1.4 per 1,000 residents.

That’s “way below” the standard, he said, adding the staffing deficit stems from the local tax structure.

He said defunding his department isn’t an option.

He said the community needs to look at what responsibilities are given to local law enforcement agencies.

“Sending a man or woman with a gun around their belt to deal with a crisis might not be the best answer that we’re looking for,” Soto said, adding the police department has been tasked to deal with issues outside of law enforcement.

Watch the full discussion here: 

That includes issues dealing with homelessness and with the local mental health crisis.

“We have to have more money, and we have to have more resources,” he said.

Balaam said he’s considering staffing interns from the social work program at the University of Nevada, Reno to help his deputies on patrol and at the jail.

He said he’s sought out services from outside entities to help at the Washoe County Detention Facility.

“We’ve asked law enforcement to put on a lot of hats over the years,” Balaam said, adding some inmates with mental health issues are being held at the jail because there’s nowhere else to put them.

Meanwhile, Krall warned defunding the local police departments could harm programs designed to help citizens in crisis. That includes the Mobile Outreach Safety Team (MOST), created in 2003 by the Reno Police Department.

The program is a collaborative partnership among local agencies that allows licensed clinical social workers to ride along with officers during their patrol shifts.

“The program has continued to expand,” Krall said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have enough workers to be in every car or on every shift.”

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State Sen. Julia Ratti, D-Sparks, also listened in on the virtual town hall meeting. She emphasized the state has allocated a “chunk of money” to the MOST program, with increases in 2017 and again in 2019.

“If those are programs people care about, they should be letting their legislature know,” she said, adding the budget crisis is a topic that will likely be on the agenda at the next upcoming special session.

She said state representatives could also “revisit” the topic of body cameras for further “tweaking.”

Ratti also said the state passed a bill last year to ensure there is more training within law enforcement.

Police shootings and transparency

Several viewers submitted questions concerning the time it takes to investigate police shootings.

Community members and activists have asked for details on the death of 18-year-old Miciah Lee, who was shot and killed by Sparks police officers in early January.

Authorities have said Lee was shot after the officers responded to a call from his mother, who reported her son was suicidal.

The officers chased Lee, who then crashed his car during the pursuit. He reportedly reached for a gun when he was shot and killed.

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Investigators have not released the names of the officers involved nor body camera footage, despite public outcry.

Krall said he didn’t know when the findings will come out and emphasized Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks must first review the report, which is about 1,000 pages or more.

“We do, however, hear the demands of the public with regard to the release of videotapes and things of that nature in general,” Krall said, adding law enforcement leaders are working to improve transparency.

“We hear it, we understand it, it isn’t lost on us,” he said. “We’re working very hard to try to come up with something better.”

Taylor, who relayed the questions submitted online, described the timeframe for shooting investigations as “absolutely unacceptable.”

In Washoe County, it can take as long as 16 months for police shootings to be investigated, reviewed and released to the public.

Soto said his department, which took over the case involving Lee’s death, wants to protect the integrity of the investigation. Still, he agreed two years is a long time.

“I’ve been having these conversations with our community for 20 years now because it’s too long for, not only the families but … for everybody who’s involved in these types of investigations,” Soto said.

He said the investigation into Lee’s death has taken five months, which he described as a “fair amount of time.”

Shooting investigations: Are we too close?

Delgado, who helped Taylor moderate the meeting, emphasized that Northern Nevadans often refer to themselves as a regional family.

He then questioned whether an outside agency should conduct investigations into police shootings.

“It is a question that I’ve been asking myself: Where does the trust start?” Soto said.

Local law enforcement agencies previously investigated their own shootings. He said the protocols have evolved so that the lead investigative agency is not involved in the case.

Still, he said he was not opposed to having an outside agency, such as the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, conduct investigations.

Balaam said he also believes agencies should release some details on the investigations without compromising the case.

He also emphasized law enforcement could do better by releasing some of the video footage captured by an officer’s body or dash camera.

Soto also emphasized law enforcement release statistics on shootings and policing in an annual internal affairs report. The Nevada POST (Peace Officers Standards and Training) also conducts an annual audit approved by the governor.

However, there could be more done to release crime and use-of-force reports regularly online.

“I think we’ve seen a lot of significant change in the past few months with law enforcement in our region,” Soto said.

“I want people, when they’re around a police officer, to feel safe. I don’t want them to feel any other way.” 

Marcella Corona is a breaking news reporter who covers crime and justice in Northern Nevada. Support her work by subscribing to RGJ.com.

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