Amid calls for police reform, policing the police an internal affair in northern Nevada

On Sunday June 7, 2020, citizens gathered in Reno City Park to protest George Floyd's murder while in Minneapolis police custody and to call for police reform in Nevada - photo: Brian Bahouth/The Ally

Several hundred people peacefully gathered in City Plaza across from Reno City Hall on Sunday afternoon to protest the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody. Speaker after speaker decried police brutality in Reno in the wake of last week’s riot at Reno City Hall.

In northern Nevada, evaluation of police misconduct continues to be an internal affair.

“The police and elected officials have forgotten that they work for us. We are not their subjects,” an unidentified woman yelled into the microphone to raucous applause and cheers.

The perception that the police are members of the public, and that the public are members of the police is a frayed notion in the Truckee Meadows.

“Police brutality is way out of hand,” said an unidentified man into the microphone. “They want to treat everybody like animals, throw them on the ground, excessive force. It needs to stop.”

Police presence at the Black Lives Matter protest in Reno City Plaza on Sunday June 7, 2020 was low-key – photo: Brian Bahouth/The Ally

Last week, a day after an emotional Reno City Council meeting, the Reno Police Department published an updated version of their Use of Force Policies, but oversight of misconduct remains entirely internal.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada has had legal observers on the ground in both Reno and Las Vegas during recent rioting. According to spokesperson Wesley Juhl, police accountability is a challenge, especially in northern Nevada where all investigations of police misconduct take place behind closed doors. Juhl said police accountability took a big step backward during the 2019 legislative session.

“The last session we saw Senate Bill 242 expand rights for police officers, making it harder to challenge unjust actions by police and civil action. So we definitely have a lot of work to do statutorily,” Juhl said.

Senate Bill 242 ensures suspended officers get back pay if exonerated of wrongdoing. The measure limits the right of a superior officer to ask questions, should an officer wish to have a lawyer present. The law also imposes a 1-year statute of limitations on prosecuting an officer for an incident of misconduct.

Hundreds gathered in Reno City Park on Sunday June 7, 2020 to protest of the murder of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody – photo: Brian Bahouth/The Ally

Senate Bill 242 passed the Nevada State Senate by an 18 to 3 margin. The bill passed the Assembly on a unanimous vote.

There are as many as 20 paid lobbyists working in the Nevada State Legislature on behalf of law enforcement workers, both police and administrative.

Juhl said police are a particularly influential lobby in Nevada, and that passing state-level police accountability legislation will have challenges. Juhl said the ACLU and the public need to also work directly with local governments to enact meaningful change.

“We just need to find those opportunities to engage sheriff’s departments locally and get those policies to change. I think that the announcement from the Reno Police Department is really encouraging, that they’re going to draft a new policy that forces officers to intervene when they see excessive force by other officers. I think that’s the kind of stuff where you start to build trust,”

How are complaints and allegations of police misconduct handled in Nevada?

In 1997, Nevada Governor Bob Miller signed Senate Bill 39 into law. The law enables municipalities in Nevada to establish Police Citizen Review Boards.

Since 2000 in Las Vegas, police complaints have been handled through the Clark County Police Review Board, an independent body that receives and investigates complaints of misconduct by peace officers in the performance of their duties.

At the beginning of this year, the Board reportedly had a backlog of cases and unfilled positions, and important to note, the Board does not have the authority to discipline officers but only makes recommendations to police leadership.

Hundreds gathered in Reno City Park on Sunday June 7, 2020 to protest of the murder of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody – photo: Brian Bahouth/The Ally

In Reno, Sparks and Washoe County, all police complaints are handled internally.

In Reno, according to Reno Police Department documents, the Chief of Police directs a complaint to the involved officer’s Division Supervisor or the Internal Affairs Division.

For less severe alleged police abuses like discourtesy or where a citizen is requesting a policy or procedure clarification, the officer’s direct supervisor speaks with the officer and decides any punishment.

For more severe allegations like excessive force, false arrest, improper tactics, racial and ethnic slurs, firearms and shooting policy, improper search and/or entry, or sexual harassment, an investigation is conducted.

Budget data from the City of Reno. Graphic: The Ally

The Reno Police Internal Affairs Division reports directly to the Chief of Police. The Internal Affairs Division is made up of a lieutenant, two detective sergeants, and one professional support staff member. The Reno Police Internal Affairs division publishes an annual report of activity.

In Sparks, a citizen can make a complaint through the Department website or they can call the Patrol Division Watch Commander directly. The Sparks Police Internal Affairs Section is staffed by a “Police Lieutenant,” but no other information is readily available regarding the adjudication process of citizen complaints against police. The results of internal investigations are not published on the Department’s website, though a Sparks PD spokesperson said they are developing those pages.

The Washoe County Sheriff’s Department [WCSD) processes complaints about officer conduct through the Office of Professional Integrity. The Office of Professional Integrity investigators conduct interviews, collect evidence, and review reports to “guarantee fair and equitable investigations are completed in a timely manner.” No results of internal investigations are readily available through the WCSD website.

Body Cameras

Senate Bill 176 became law in 2017 and mandated that law enforcement personal in Nevada wear body cameras and that police departments write and adopt regulations governing their use.

Reno police officers have been wearing body cameras since June of 2018.  Las Vegas Metro officers have worn body cameras since March of 2019.

Each police department has their own rules regarding the use of body camera video. Invariably, once the video is recorded, it is tightly controlled.

An officer must turn on their video camera whenever they are involved in an interaction with a citizen. Discretion is used when operating the cameras in prisons and homeless shelters.

For Wesley Juhl and the ACLU of Nevada, body cameras provide very narrow oversight of police activities. Juhl said the recent riots in Las Vegas are a good, bad example.

“The example that comes to my mind right now is the one where Las Vegas police keep using body cam footage to sort of back up their narrative. Whereas we as the public don’t necessarily have that option. We can request body cam footage under the Public Records Act. So we can only do it for a very specific incident. I wouldn’t be able to for example say, give me all the body cam footage from the Saturday night protests,” Juhl said.

How do population centers similar in size to the Truckee Meadows police the police?

Having an independent third party investigate police misconduct is not a guarantee that police relations with the public will be good. In Minneapolis, there is the independent Office of Police Conduct, a group of two citizens who are appointed by the mayor, and two police officers. They make recommendations to police supervisors regarding punishment of wayward officers; but the Office of Police Conduct did not prevent the societal context needed for the murder of George Floyd and subsequent riots.

Minneapolis’ sister city, St. Paul has one of the more progressive police oversight models in the nation.

St. Paul has a population around 300,000 and a police department with some 600 sworn officers. The independent Police Review Commission has seven members and a staff of one. Two members are St. Paul police officers.

The St. Paul Commission has a civilian coordinator who works for the Police Department and processes public complaints. The Internal Affairs Unit handles the investigations. The Review Commission can only recommend punishment and cannot subpoena witnesses.

The County of Hawaii Police Commission is noted for a particularly powerful civilian board that retains authority to hire and fire the Chief of Police.

The Police Department of the County of Hawaii (the Big Island) has nearly 400 officers that serve a population of some 200,000. The Commission consists of one Commissioner for each of the nine council districts in Hawaii County.

The Mayor appoints Commissioners for confirmation by the County Council. The Commission reviews the annual budget prepared by the Chief of Police and makes budgetary recommendations to the Mayor. The Commission has subpoena power and can employ private investigators to investigate police misconduct, though the Chief of Police holds final disciplinary authority.

Officer-Involved Shootings

At the Black Lives Matter protest in Reno on Sunday an unidentified boy who appeared to be around 10 years old addressed the crowd.

“I just wanted to say that police brutality needs to stop,” the boy said to applause and cheers. “Basically, what’s going on with the police is that we can’t get away with murdering somebody, but they can because the badge hides the murder,” the boy said to raucous applause.

When a Washoe County, Reno, or Sparks police officer is involved in the death of a citizen, a series of mandated  protocols are set in motion.

Since February 3, 2016 there have been 20 Officer-Involved Shooting [OIS] cases. In every case, the Washoe County District Attorney determined that the officer’s actions were warranted under Nevada law.

For instance, according to the Washoe County Officer-Involved Shooting Protocol, because a Sparks police officer shot Sparks resident Miciah Lee in January of this year, the OIS investigation team cannot be from the Sparks Police Department. The Reno Police Department conducted the Miciah Lee investigation.

These armed men would only identify themselves as “concerned citizens.” They were a block away from the Black Lives Matter protest in City Park on Sunday June 7 – photo: Brian Bahouth/The Ally

As with all OIS cases, a forensic investigation team assessed the shooting scene in consultation with the Washoe County District Attorney’s Office. According to the protocol, it is strongly recommended that OIS team members are selected for having significant experience in investigations of homicide or other violent felonies.

The OIS team conducts an interview of the officer. The officer has the constitutional right to not answer questions and have an attorney present during questioning.

Investigators interview witnesses and compile physical and other evidence. The investigating agency then sends the report to the Washoe County District Attorney’s Office.

The District Attorney then evaluates the report to determine if the shooting was justifiable pursuant to the state’s homicide laws, and all other applicable provisions of law.

The Future

Reno Police acted within days of last Saturday’s riot at City Hall to revise their Use of Force Policy, but adding a regional, independent third party to investigate allegations of police misconduct in a 3-jurisdiction region would be a heavier political lift.

On Sunday in City Plaza, an unidentified woman told the crowd that she has a message for her white friends.

“We are asking you to help us take down, break, a racist system that you directly benefit from, so don’t think that hasn’t gone unnoticed.”

For Wesley Juhl and the ACLU of Nevada, recent unrest has elevated police reform to center stage. Juhl said the murder of George Floyd and the use of force in response to protests in Nevada has set a context for real change.

“I hope they’re listening to the community and not the police lobby,” Juhl said of lawmakers at every level of government. “I’m willing to have a certain amount of patience if  lawmakers, policymakers need help. The ACLU of Nevada is here as a resource and we can provide that assistance, but we need to move away from trying to restrict the speech of protesters and start focusing on actual police accountability.”


Brian Bahouth is the editor of the Sierra Nevada Ally. He has been a public media journalist since 1994 and has lived in Reno since 2000. He first came to northern Nevada to be news director at KUNR, Reno Public Radio and has subsequently filed scores of reports for National Public Radio, Nevada Public Radio, Capital Public Radio and KVMR in Nevada City, California. He is co-founder of KNVC community radio in Carson City. Support his work.