Sparks City Councilmembers Charlene Bybee, Ward 4, and Kristopher Dahir, Ward 5, were among those cleaning up the vandalism that took place on City Hall grounds earlier this week. Overnight on Wednesday morning, Sparks City Hall was smeared with red paint and spray-painted with the phrases “No Justice” and “ACAB.”
The vandalism followed what was at times an emotional Public Comment portion of the Sparks City Council meeting on Monday, during which community members expressed outrage over the killing of Miciah Lee at the hands of Sparks Police in January.
“It’s hard when there is a message people are trying to get across and obviously, there are people who feel that their message is not strong enough yet,” Councilman Dahir said. “[The vandalism] made me sad but in truth, it reminds me of why I do my job. I want to represent the same people who did this.”
Councilwoman Bybee says the City Council wants to have open dialogue with their constituents and community members upset about the Miciah Lee killing, but vandalism won’t accomplish anything.
“Vandalizing City Hall does nothing productive,” Councilwoman Bybee said. “I really believe that people need to come to us with ideas and solutions.”
For Bybee and Dahir, the vandalism overshadows the progress that is already being made in the city of Sparks as it relates to police and community relations. Earlier this week, the Sparks Police Department announced a policy change that mandates the release of body cam footage from officer-involved shootings within 14-days of an incident. The policy change was announced with full support from the Reno, Sparks and Washoe County agencies.
“We knew it was taking too long, as Miciah Lee’s [took] five months,” Bybee said, “We had another incident two years ago that the full report, DA ruling and video were just released, and two years is unacceptable. So that move I think is a really good one to release the body cam footage sooner.”
One thing Bybee wants people to consider, however, is that investigations can be a time-consuming and complicated process. Consequently, measures in the new policy include an extension to a 30-day period to release relevant body cam footage in the event multiple officers or people are involved.
“These are live investigations and people forget that,” Bybee said. “You’ve got to be careful about not compromising the investigation. An investigation into any shooting is not going to be complete in 14 days, but being able to release the body cam and the basic facts of the case in 14 days or 30 days is a huge improvement over what we’ve had.”
Although many of the callers during Monday’s City Council meeting pushed for the release of unredacted and unedited body cam footage, Nevada State law doesn’t allow for that to be possible.
“I know some of the callers were demanding an unredacted video, but the redactions occur because of Nevada State law,” Bybee said. “It’s Nevada statute on protecting people’s identity that are not the victims and not the police. They have to go through and redact some information and that’s all guided by Nevada State law, so Sparks Police doesn’t have an option on what they can release and what they can’t.”
In response to calls from the public to defund the police, both Bybee and Dahir disagree that defunding the police is the appropriate response for Sparks right now.
“I know they’re saying to look at what we’re spending, but we do that every year,” Dahir said. “That’s part of our budgeting process, looking at exactly what’s being spent because we don’t have enough [as it is]. But if anybody’s trying to say we should disband our police force, we’re not going to do that.”
“Defunding the police I absolutely cannot support because honestly, we don’t have enough officers,” Bybee said. “We have seven officers that are out on a shift to cover the whole city of 104,000. So we’re stretched thin on the amount of police considering the growth that we have had [as a city].”
Consequently, Sparks will be hiring additional officers to their police force in the next year.
Additionally, Sparks will be looking at expanding their Mobile Outreach Safety Team (MOST), that can support officers in circumstances that involve people struggling with mental health. MOST was first started by the city of Reno, before later being adopted and implemented in Sparks and Washoe County as well.
“MOST comes in alongside the cops and just really softens everything,” Dahir said. “They teach our police a few things in the sense of giving people some of the care that they need. A lot of times what people are looking for is somebody who can try to understand where they’re coming from, so I would love to see more of [MOST].”
However, Dahir notes that it’s especially important that the appropriate people are dispatched according to the nature of the call. In many cases, that means dispatching both officers and MOST.
“[Working with the] homeless is a good example,” Dahir said. “If we only send the police in, it’s almost like sending the wrong tool to do a job. Now that doesn’t mean the police shouldn’t be around, because there’s some unsafe things that do happen and you can’t always send a social worker because it’s not safe at times. So you have to balance that out correctly and there needs to be some authority depending on what’s going on.”
Both Dahir and Bybee want to see greater funding and resources for those in Sparks struggling with mental health. With better resources in place in the community, the circumstances that lead to the tragedy of Miciah Lee’s death could have been prevented.
“Mental health is the number one thing that we as a community need to address,” Bybee said. “So I agree with the callers on the mental health challenges and it absolutely is something that as a community, we need to do better. We need to find better solutions.”
“There is a capacity for mental health [resources] that we’re lacking and it’s hard because we don’t have the funds to do what I think should be done,” Dahir said. “So we are trying to find that answer and it’s hard when the State is talking about decreasing some of those fundings.”
But in terms of generating more mental health resources through taxpayer money, Bybee wants the community to understand that that is something out of the Sparks City Councils’ hands.
“We do not budget or provide mental health and human services,” Bybee said. “That’s Washoe County’s [role], so every taxpayer in the city of Sparks’ taxes go directly to Washoe County for those services.”
In addition to greater mental health resources, Bybee shares her full support of a Citizens Advisory Committee to enhance the relationship between the community and Sparks Police.
“The number one thing I really am in support of and pushing to move forward quickly on is that we do not have a Citizens Advisory Committee for our Sparks Police,” Bybee said. “So we are in the process of putting that together and looking at it with Chief [Peter] Krall to make sure it happens, because that’s important for the community.”
In the meantime, the city of Sparks will continue implementing already established programs to better enhance relations with the community. One such project is the Citizens Police Academy, which has been active in Sparks for the past 15 years, with only a brief hiatus during the Great Recession. The Academy is an opportunity for everyday citizens to experience what police training is like, an opportunity that Dahir has taken advantage of himself.
“I really enjoyed [Citizens Police Academy] because you just get to see behind the scenes and in the heart and mind of a police officer,” Dahir said. “I got to really walk through what they go through, what they see and what they’re looking for.”
The Citizens Police Academy has been so successful, the city of Reno and the Sheriff’s Department took on the program last year, now known as the Regional Citizens Police Academy.
An additional program is The Parent Program, where professional counselors and Sparks Police present training and education resources for parents struggling with their teenagers. Although both programs are temporarily suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the programs will resume once restrictions are lifted by Governor Steve Sisolak.
So as the city continues to move forward in bettering relations between the police and community members, Dahir wants people to understand that the circumstances that lead to Miciah Lee’s death were tragic for everyone involved.
“It’s sad for Miciah’s family that this happened and it’s sad for the police officers because they have to live with that,” Dahir said. “The amount of damage that we’re going through is hard on everybody, it’s not good for our community.”
But Dahir encourages those advocating for police reform to participate in some of Sparks PD’s community outreach programs as a means of generating more open dialogue.
“I appreciate Black Lives Matter when they got up and said, ‘We value all life but we’re hurting right now and we need your help,’” Dahir said. “I agree and we’re here to help, so I encourage people to sign up for those programs. They give you a chance to ask the hard questions.”
As a resident of Sparks for over 50 years, Bybee is confident Sparks will get through this difficult time together.
“I’m optimistic because I know this community,” Bybee said. “What people like most about Sparks is that it still feels like a small town. [The City Council] is accessible, we’re open to dialogue and we’re at the table. We are very open to finding solutions and working together and continuing to have more conversations.”
Bybee just hopes that in the future, those who want to make their voices heard will take the proper avenues of communication with the Council, as opposed to resorting to violence or vandalism.
“I would ask the public to be respectful, to come with ideas and solutions,” Bybee said. “[Vandalism] is never the answer, so let’s have a good conversation.”
Scott King is a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno, pursuing his Master’s degree in Media Innovation. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Scott recently returned from Grenada, where he served for two years as a literacy teacher with the Peace Corps. Support his work in the Ally.