Police reform activists urge Nevada lawmakers to adopt new policing policies

Reno police officers advance on protesters after deploying pepper gas and concussion grenades at Reno City Hall on Saturday May 30, 2020 - photo: Brian Bahouth

Ahead of the Special Session of the Nevada Legislature that began yesterday, a coalition of Nevada advocates, lawyers, and organizations have drafted an initial proposal for statewide police reform.

Representing various activist interests and signed by leaders of local chapters of the ACLU, NAACP, and PLAN, the final letter includes aspects of both reform and defunding that expand on Assembly Bill 236 (which reformed sentencing guidelines but fell short in addressing systemic racial issues).

Predicated on the idea that change does not happen overnight, the document urges lawmakers to adopt “minor yet meaningful” reforms that “will demonstrate Nevada’s commitment to change and begin to restore community trust.” 

Reforms include measures such as implementing already-passed racial bias and de-escalation training, weakening police union bargaining contracts, independent oversight of police conduct, total repeal of qualified immunity, and more transparent data collection. 

Simple policy recommendations such as decriminalizing minor traffic infractions and timely release of body cam footage are changes that are already underway, while reforms such as funding “policing alternatives” will require follow-up legislation.

“This is something we’ve been pushing for a while, said Kendra Bertschy, Washoe County deputy public defender and co-author of the letter. “There was just a lot of discussion between different organizations and activists on what our immediate needs are, and how can we have those needs met, while still understanding that we’re in the middle of a pandemic.” 

Concerns about how much can “get done” in a special session originally scheduled to address the COVID-related economic crisis are valid, but not wholly unrelated to the issues already facing black and brown communities – which have been disproportionately affected by the virus, both in terms of who is dying from it and who has access to online resources. 

“There’s all these things happening at once,” says Lonnie Feemster, president of the Reno Sparks NAACP. “The urgency to deal with the financial crisis, combined with the reduction in revenue due to the pandemic, plus the danger of people being hospitalized and dying. There’s also a great disparity in low income communities with a lot of people of color that don’t have computers or don’t have broadband and kids that don’t have internet access. And then decisions are made based on online input. Well, the same digital divide impacts people – so we have a lack of voice and now our voice has been muffled. We need to deal with all these things at the same time, and that’s why I’m concerned.”

The ability to address multiple crises – let alone have nuanced discussions about how issues of race and class are tied to standalone policies and novel pandemics – is a lot to expect from the Legislature, special session or not. Despite this, Feemster believes it is important to present the letter and continue advocating more broadly for his community. Right now he is focusing on the 4 C’s – Covid testing, Census, Civic Engagement, and Civil Rights, in addition to the other 18 primary issues that the NAACP is working on. 

With regard to policing, Feemster emphasizes the need for more diversity in hiring as well as more and better interactions between community members and the police.

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

Defund the Police?

For Edward Coleman – a frequent advocate of “defunding the police” and co-contributor to the letter – any progress necessarily involves reducing contact between the community and the police. 

“[Reform] is kind of a half measure,” says Coleman. “I think [police] budgets should physically be shrank, and I think the number of officers should physically be shrank as well. If all else fails, if we can’t get everything we need, the next best option is to limit the number of times they interact with the public….I’ve really looked at how the system itself can change and how that can be done from the inside. And my conclusion is that it can’t.”

As a former Nevada Department of Agriculture analyst who oversaw the school food program for five years, Coleman holds a very literal reading of what it means to “defund the police.” 

“The primary focus would be looking at fraud, waste, and abuse, and once that’s identified, those items would be removed from current budgets,” says Coleman. “For example, if we found that they had missed a million dollars, then their current budget would be reduced by that amount. And those funds would be moved over to current city projects or current nonprofit organizations, which are providing social services to individuals.”

In an audit-based approach like Coleman’s, identifying “waste, fraud, and abuse” requires knowing more about what the police do – a body of information that should be, but is not, readily available. In a recent virtual Town Hall on Policing in Northern Nevada, the three area police chiefs (Chief Jason Soto, Chief Darin Balaam, and Chief Peter Krall) all agreed with the need for “better communication” and pointed to their annual reports as a gesture of compliance with the Guinn Report – a study that outlines local best practices based on former President Barack Obama’s 21st century policing recommendations. 

What is missing: encounter data that includes demographics and locations (lethal aspects of this data is documented by Fatal Encounters and The Ally’s interactive map of officer-involved shootings), ongoing booking data (The Ally just published a Regional Arrest Tracker to track arrest data by race), and timely, updated information related to internal investigations and excessive use-of-force incidents (the DA recently released the report and body cam footage on Miciah Lee’s death after a six-month wait-time). 

Repeated attempts by The Ally to get more information from Reno Police Chief Soto regarding operations have gone unanswered. 

Most significantly, metrics relating to policy, training, and operations effectiveness are scarce, despite the policies themselves being accessible. The Guinn Report listed this as a key recommendation for all three Reno area forces. This puts concerned citizens and the media in the position of taking the police’s word for it when it comes to meeting accountability standards. 

The Cost of Policing

Last year, the City of Reno Police Department’s budget was roughly $74 million. Sparks PD budget totaled some $31 million. Washoe County Sheriff’s Office was $123 million. Taken together, Clark County Sheriff’s Office and Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department come to $631 million. Put together, the five municipalities add up to almost $900 million tax dollars, which makes it difficult for lawmakers to increase police spending without assessment metrics. 

Reno City Council Member Jenny Brekhus – who is skeptical of more radical definitions of “defunding” – addressed the issue in a recent virtual City Budget Town Hall, expounding on the benefits of auditing and the often conservative-touted zero-based budgeting.

“I have called for every year since 2014 for the police department to be audited, and I carry around the 1999 audit – which cost about $300,000. That got very detailed into Reno police operations. I know two years ago, we did The Guinn Center Community Policing Study, but that was just a very subset of what a true police department audit does. And I think that’s very important.” 

She continues:

“Most budgeting is year-over-year budgeting, where you start at your base and you move up. There’s a theory of zero-based budgeting where you rip down a budget in a department and you look at each function and see how they contribute and if they’re best allocated there, or if there should be other duties reassigned. And I think that Reno needs to start addressing this on a rotating basis to each department to zero-base budget, and I think the police department is the one to start with.”

In a reallocation scenario, public safety duties that aren’t performed by the police would need to be moved elsewhere. In the letter to the legislature, “policing alternatives” identify mental health as one major area to begin with. From a reform mindset, programs like MOST (Mobile Outreach Safety Team) – where social workers accompany police officers on calls relating to mental health – could be expanded. For advocates of defunding, mental health experts might play a more central role, answering calls independent of the police. Parking enforcement, abandoned vehicle follow-ups, and issues around homelessness are other potential sites of outsourcing.

Regardless of whether the legislature debates and changes police accountability measures, the coalition’s efforts will not end with this special session.  

“We want to make sure that we don’t have leaders who just say they want change to happen,” says Kendra Bertschy. “We want leaders to actually start making that change happen right now.”


Josie Glassberg is an art and environment writer and a Midwest transplant. See more of her work at www.josieglassberg.com. Support her work in The Ally.